A bipartisan mayor who's fond of prayer

Dave Edler of Yakima is an unusual politician in a bastion of conservatism.
Crosscut archive image.

Dave Edler with his wife, Susie. (Yakima Foursquare Church)

Dave Edler of Yakima is an unusual politician in a bastion of conservatism.

The former Seattle Mariners third baseman is a Republican and evangelical Christian minister who has spoken out for legalized immigration and for tax increases to improve public services.

Dave Edler is known for bipartisanship, has urged a conservative Republican to step down from the City Council for dirty campaigning, and has publicly praised a Democrat running for an open state house seat. And recently, he criticized city staff for trying to force porn businesses to move out.

Yet he's so well-liked and popular that even conservative Republican firebrands on the City Council who completely disagree with him on issues like immigration speak about him with marked respect and admiration.

The good-looking, charismatic Edler parlayed his athletic fame, eloquence, and youth coaching triumphs into becoming the head pastor at one of Yakima's largest evangelical churches and the mayor of his home town. His widely praised leadership style blends Alcoholics Anonymous, pop culture, sayings from his legendary baseball coach Bobo Brayton, and lessons from the life of Jesus.

While he often speaks of the importance of faith and prayer, he shuns moral condemnation and generally avoids mixing church and state. He often makes jokes at his own expense, and frequently brings up his own youthful struggles with addiction and with his alcoholic father.

"We start to look for love in all the wrong places," he said in a recent sermon on addiction delivered to an audience of 400 at the Yakima Foursquare Church. "I can sing you Mickey Gilley's song because I danced to it."

Now, having helped Yakima achieve success in crime reduction and economic development, Edler, 51, stands poised to move on to a bigger political stage, observers say. His pro-business stands, combined with his willingness to consider new taxes, belief in the role of government, and support for legalizing undocumented workers give him bipartisan appeal.

On illegal immigration, a hot-button issue in Yakima, Edler says simply: "Building walls and deporting people — that's insanity to me. People have always come to this nation wanting opportunity."

"I think he has the potential for higher office and would have no problem getting elected," says Yakima County Democratic Party chairman Paul George, who served with Edler on the city council. "I would hope he'd run as a Democrat."

Edler, who has aspired to be a U.S. senator since his youth, recently passed up a chance to run for an open state House seat, which many observers believe he could have won handily. He praises both general election candidates, Democrat Vickie Ybarra, the Yakima School Board president, and Republican Norm Johnson, a City Council member, although he has endorsed Johnson.

He notes, however, that he would like to see more Hispanics like Ybarra elected to office in Yakima. Edler explained his decision to pass on the open seat by saying he's enjoying his pastoral and City Council work, and the time wasn't right. He and his Hispanic foster son, the associate pastor at his church, are busy launching a new branch of the church, set to open in October. But Edler says he'll consider such political opportunities in the future.

"He's a true natural leader, and I think he has aspirations to serve at a higher level," says fellow City Council member Neil McClure, also moderate Republican.

If and when he attains higher office, Edler promises to eschew partisan politics and build broad coalitions, as he has done in Yakima during more than four years on the City Council, the last two as mayor. He believes the U.S. political system is "broken" due to excessive partisanship, and that is blocking the nation from solving "the huge issues of our time."

"If anyone could change partisan politics, it would be Dave," McClure says. "He has great presence and is a real calming influence. His strength is standing back and saying, 'Where do we want to go and how do we get there?'"

Wild and headstrong

Edler entered politics in his mid-40s, after playing pro baseball, counseling young people, and leading a large evangelical church. He had a stellar career in American Legion and high school baseball, including pitching his team to the 1975 American Legion World Series championship.

Entering Washington State University (WSU) in 1975, he pitched and played both infield and outfield, helping the Cougars win the Northern Division championship all four years he played. In his second year, he helped the team advance to the College World Series. In his fourth year, he led the Pac-10 in hitting.

But Edler's years as a Cougar — and later as a Mariner — were marked by heavy drinking and drug use. He got chewed out many times by Cougar Coach Brayton for his wild and headstrong ways. Once, Brayton caught his young star using marijuana, but Edler told the coach that his father didn't mind.

"We'll see," Brayton said, and phoned Edler's father in Yakima. That resulted in "the fastest trip a guy ever took to Pullman from Yakima," Brayton recently recalled with a laugh. Brayton retired in 1994 after 33 years as the Cougar coach.

In his studies, Edler was less successful. He drifted from hotel management to general business to general studies. He admits that "much of my college experience was partying" and that he was "the leader of the wrong crowd."

Brayton says he was surprised and pleased that Edler went into the ministry and then politics, but that "the potential was always there." He recalls young Edler pitching a playoff game against Arizona State, on a 116-degree scorcher of a day, to determine who would go to the College World Series. Edler threw a complete game, losing a 4-3 heartbreaker. "Dave was a tough competitor, a real tough kid," he says.

For his part, Edler has fond memories of Brayton, who recently came to Yakima to be honored with a Bobo Brayton Day proclamation.

Edler remembers Brayton throwing a fungo bat high in the air and bellowing at him because he defied Brayton's rule against pitchers throwing batting practice. Brayton charged up to him and continued yelling, spraying spit all over the front of Edler's uniform. "I looked down to see how wet I was, and he started laughing," Edler recalls. "He wiped me off and said, 'Quit throwing in the cage.'"

He also remembers watching the coach's face light up when a team member did something good. "I get the greatest joy out of seeing others succeed, and that's Bobo's molding," he says.

Conquered addictions

Edler left WSU 19 credits short of graduation when he was drafted by the new Seattle Mariners franchise in 1978. After an impressive stint in the Mariners' minor league system, the Mariners brought him up in 1980. He played on and off for four years, mostly at third base, with periodic trips back to the minors.

What started him on the road to recovery from his addictions was a born-again Christian experience he had while riding a bus with his minor league teammates in 1979. He started a "baseball chapel" to provide Christian services for himself and his teammates while they were on the road. But he continued to struggle with drinking and drugs, particularly during the off season.

Finally, in 1984, after playing four years on and off for the Mariners, Edler broke free of his addictions. "It was a roller coaster," he recalls. But "the hand of God responded to the cries of my heart."

He also left pro ball, angry about not landing a permanent spot on the Mariners' roster. "They tried to make me a utility player," he says. "I became a widget. It's isn't much fun being a piece of meat."

Edler, who married his brother's friend Susie in 1983, was determined to be a success at something else. Returning to Yakima, he first worked for his father's truck repair firm in Yakima. But he grew impatient because his father, Del, insisted that he start at the lowest rung. His relationship with his father had always been difficult.

On the other hand, he conquered his addictions with the support of his wife and the people around him. "Almost in an instant, I felt free of it," he says. "I haven't had an issue with those urges and temptations since 1984."

Because of his faith experience, he began volunteering with Young Life, a nondenominational Christian youth program, coaching American Legion and high school baseball. He later became Young Life's area director. His skill at working with young people led to his being offered the assistant pastorship at the Foursquare Church in 1994 even though he lacked seminary training.

His Young Life work yielded unexpected personal blessings. During those years, Edler and his wife, who have three children of their own, took in four teenage boys he was working with who lacked family support. "There was some chaos in their life and I invited them into my home with my wife's agreement," he says.

Edler gets teary when talking about those four young men. Three have become ministers, with two working for Edler at Foursquare. The fourth was troubled beyond the Edlers' ability to help. "I don't know where he is now, but I pray for him almost every day," Edler says.

Cesar Dominguez, who as a high schooler didn't want to live with his mother and whose biological father was never part of his life, stayed with the Edlers during his junior and senior years in the late 1980s. Now he's the assistant pastor at Foursquare, with children of his own. He considers Edler his "father figure," and his children consider him their grandfather.

Not long ago, when his wife Lisa was diagnosed with cervical cancer, the first people Dominguez called were the Edlers. They came over immediately, prayed with Dominguez and his wife, drove them to Seattle for a medical appointment, and got them a hotel room. "That's a picture of his heart," Dominguez says.

Pro-tax, pro-prayer

As a City Council member since 2003 and as mayor since 2006, Edler has focused on building coalitions. He's proudest of making the city and county governments work together more effectively, helping reduce crime rates through a citizen committee he headed, speeding redevelopment through more state and private business investment, and improving the public image of Yakima, which long was seen as hotbed of crime and drugs.

Part of his job has been to overcome strong local resistance to higher taxes, even for popular services such as firefighters and road repair. He's had limited success so far.

He has supported a $20 annual auto license fee, which would raise $500,000 a year for street improvements, but hasn't been able to gain a City Council majority for it. He's also supported a $3 to 4 per month homeowner's levy to raise $1.3 million to pay for more firefighters and better paramedic training. But the council recently voted against placing the levy on the November ballot.

"I'm trying to position us to say we truly are responsible for making sure our streets and infrastructure are healthy," Edler says. "But we live in a community that absolutely despises the idea of taxes being raised." Micah Cawley, a strong anti-tax voice on the Council, says Edler is "a very honest man and great to work with, and cares a lot about Yakima. [But] I think people should have a say when taxes are proposed to be raised."

Mayor Edler has disappointed some Christian conservative activists who complain that he doesn't talk publicly about issues like abortion. But Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita, who sometimes attends Edler's church, rejects that criticism.

"Dave's Christianity is an important part of who he is as a political leader," Leita says. "But it would be a misuse of his mayor's position to take advocacy positions on issues like abortion [because] he has to reach out to both believers and non-believers."

Edler also elicits occasional criticism from the opposite direction — that he talks too much about God. Even some supporters chided him for his recent National Day of Prayer speech in which he credited prayer for a variety of positive developments in Yakima.

In his rousing, funny, and controversial May 1 speech, he credited prayer for reducing fights and graffiti in the schools; driving down crime; bringing about passage of a new state law stiffening penalties for eluding police; boosting agricultural crop prices; and winning $5 million in state funding for Yakima's downtown development project, including redevelopment of the historic Capitol Theater complex.

"I pray I want something to happen, and He will make it happen," Edler said in the speech. "Let's give a praise offering to the Lord for wonderfully affecting our community in such a positive way."

But other Yakima leaders note that the downtown redevelopment money was the result of a deal with Gov. Chris Gregoire in exchange for the Yakima legislative delegation's support for a gas tax.

"Prayer wasn't the reason," former Mayor Paul George says. "The governor delivered the money, and the delegation delivered the votes, simple as that."

Edler responds with a characteristically disarming combination of faith and reason. "If there is a God, and he is able to move mountains," he says, "why not have a conversation with him while you're trying to move those mountains, then acknowledge him when the mountains get moved?"

Some of his admirers aren't sure Edler would thrive in the highly partisan environment of state or national politics. The mayor himself recognizes that it would be a challenge for him.

"I don't like to play the partisan game," he says. On the other hand, he feels the country needs elected officials willing to fight through the partisan logjam. "Our political system is in a lot of ways starting to be a true hindrance to our ability to care for our community."

If he doesn't run for higher office, there's another job Edler has his eye on — one that's fraught with even more peril. "My dream job would be managing the Mariners," he says. "I won't sit by my phone waiting for the Mariners to call. But that would be a fun thing to do."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors