Mossback: Where have all the conservatives gone?

Politically speaking, Bellevue is starting to look a lot like Seattle: A place of progressive orthodoxy and political correctness. It wasn't always like that.
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Councilmember Tim Burgess

Politically speaking, Bellevue is starting to look a lot like Seattle: A place of progressive orthodoxy and political correctness. It wasn't always like that.

I was recently chatting over coffee in Belltown with Randy Pepple, Republican political consultant and pundit, and the man who ran Rob McKenna's gubernatorial campaign. We were talking about Bellevue and Pepple brought up the upcoming city council races, which in recent times have pitted old- and new-guard candidates against each other, specifically over the contentious issue of light rail and its impact on the city. Pepple worries about the influence of Seattle consultants on the races. He is currently advising old-guard councilman Don Davidson in his re-election effort.

The city of Bellevue has turned pretty blue. Even Republican Rob McKenna did not win his hometown in 2012. As Seattle consultant Christian Sinderman has said, density equals Democrats. Pepple is concerned that Bellevue is on the path to political monoculture. He doesn't want to see Bellevue turn into another Seattle.

By Seattle he means a one-party town, a place where orthodox views and political correctness prevail, where the legislative districts litmus-test candidates in a game-show atmosphere of political "Survivor" as each contestant tries to prove they're more progressive than their rivals.

Electoral dissent in Seattle doesn't come from the right much any more, it comes from the left. The so-called liberal monoculture does have many shades of blue and extends far enough leftward to occasionally include socialist candidates. The debate often seems to be about whether Seattle should be more like New York, Vancouver, BC, or Havana, Cuba.

In the now distant past, Seattle used to have more ideological diversity: Republicans were frequently elected, though the last elected Republican mayor was Dorm Braman, who came to office in 1964, the same year a Seattle Republican named Dan Evans become a popular governor. Pepple observes that the last Republican legislator with a Seattle home address was Bruce Addison, elected to represent West Seattle's 34th District in 1984.

The last serious GOP aspirant to make the mayoral finals was city attorney Doug Jewett, a moderate who lost to Norm Rice in 1989. Even back then, Jewett tried to downplay his Republican background. Not long before, in the 1960s and '70s, Seattle produced a farm-team of notable Republicans who influenced the city, county and state: Bruce Chapman and Ludlow Kramer both served on the city council and both served as Secretary of State, city councilman John Miller went to Congress and former mayoral candidate John Spellman became King County executive, as did city councilman and one-time mayoral candidate Tim Hill. Local races used to frequently feature GOP law-and-order candidates, fiscal conservatives, good-government reformers and Chamber of Commerce loyalists who pledged to bring a business sensibility to City Hall.

Today, most Seattle business execs are Democrats, at least publicly. The only Seattle precinct that went for Mitt Romney was the gated enclave of Broadmoor. Of course, that precinct also supported gay marriage and pot legalization. Republican elephants have nearly vanished from city politics, about as common these days as the mammoths that once wandered the glacial plains of the Puget Sound basin.

If the GOP is gone, the rhetoric against it and the polarization of politics in general, are not. Seattle Democrats are still picking at impurities in voting records. Seattle city council member Tim Burgess gave up his bid for mayor in part because he dreaded the re-vetting of his progressive bone fides in the campaign. When I asked him about this the day he dropped out of the mayor's race, he allowed that the raking over all that would have been "a real drag in the campaign, for sure," a campaign that didn't need any more drags.

Burgess admitted that he had donated to John McCain's campaign in 2000 and had previously supported Rob McKenna for attorney general. In a primary where candidates are jostling leftward on social issues, the King County Democrats endorsement committee became suspicions of Burgess's core convictions. The fact that Burgess had donated more than $10,000 to Barack Obama didn't assuage them. According to Seattle Weekly, a member of the committee, Michael J Maddux, said "When ... looking at the totally of Tim's record, we can't be certain he shares our party values. We were burned with Rodney Tom calling himself a Democrat and then deserting. We don’t want that to happen again."

That's one place where the politics of Seattle and the Eastside come together. Rodney Tom is the Medina-based Bellevue Republican-turned-Democrat state senator who took control of the chamber this year with the backing of Republicans and one fellow Democratic turncoat. The party has read Tom out — he was "excommunicated" in a letter from Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz — though Tom says he still identifies as a Democrat. The truth is, Tom doesn't seem at home in either party.

In any case, his move to create a Republican-based coalition in the senate deposed the presumptive senate majority leader, Ed Murray, who is running for Seattle mayor. Raising the specter of a "Tom" in the midst of the mayor's race was a way of saying Burgess can't be trusted, that he's a Benedict Arnold in waiting, a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). It reminds everyone that electing stealth conservatives has consequences, such as undercutting progressive Seattle advocates like Murray.

Of course, everyone is subjected to PC tests. At a recent Seattle legislative district endorsement session, backing for Murray was opposed by one Democrat who reminded the racially diverse crowd that Murray had been in the state house when the anti-affirmative action initiative I-200 was passed in 1998. The legislature didn't overturn I-200 as they have other Tim Eyman initiatives. It happened on Murray’s watch, she said, implying that the man who fought to get gay marriage passed is really a civil rights impostor.

For the most part, Seattle "conservatives" are liberal Democrats who veer slightly from orthodoxy. Burgess, for example, was sympathetic to education reform and soft on charter schools. Like former city attorney and one-time mayoral candidate Mark Sidran, he backed tougher panhandling laws. Ironically, he might have alienated some of his business supporters by actually moving "leftward" to vote for sick leave and more low-income housing at South Lake Union.

The real problem in Seattle isn't that Burgess was a closet Republican, but that he occasionally tiptoed to the center. Pepple says that the withdrawal of Burgess shows the “demise of ‘moderates’ in Seattle, as he is certainly no conservative by any stretch of the word."

Says Burgess, "Our tendency to run to our ideological corners for sure harms the political process."

Burgess isn’t the only one subjected to the ideological purity test. Mayoral candidate Kate Martin heard grumbles at a recent legislative district meeting in Georgetown after she described herself as a "Socialist on health care," but a "fiscal conservative" on budget matters. Never mind that Mike McGinn has also shown fiscal restraint during tough budget times. Martin might have done better had she said "fiscally responsible." Bruce Harrell is staking out some of the same budget-conscious territory, but he couches his position in more palatable code: "I'm an efficiency guy" who "doesn't like wasting money." Conservative is a dirty word.

Another attack line is to accuse neighborhood-friendly candidates of being NIMBYs, which translates as selfish folk too conservative to embrace maximal density and growth. Former city council member and mayoral candidate Charlie Chong, defeated by Paul Schell in 1997, was the exemplar of this kind of candidate, someone distrustful of City Hall's intentions toward the little guy. Seattle's once vaunted neighborhood movement is now often painted as obstructionist. Developers are cast as the true progressives. Opponents are trying to saddle Peter Steinbrueck with the "Chong" image in the current campaign. 

If Tim Burgess despaired of finding a path to victory on the rightward edge of a left-leaning phalanx of candidates, it is possible for some current and former Republican candidates to get elected locally.

Take the Port of Seattle, which draws votes from across the county. Port Commissioner Bill Bryant is a moderate Republican who occasionally has eyed higher office, but he doesn't talk about his party affiliation much. (Better to emphasize having once backpacked in Tibet.) And commissioner John Creighton recently went before southeast Seattle's liberal, diverse 37th District Democrats and confessed that, though once a liberal Republican, he had seen the light and officially switched parties to become a Democrat in 2008. A member of the audience shouted, "It's never too late!" to great approval. No one expressed Rodney Tom worries there, only the belief in redemption.

In Bellevue, battle lines have been drawn over urban development, an argument over autos and rail. Sound Transit's chief opponent is Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman, Jr., also a power downtown (he recently announced a $1.2 billion expansion of his retail empire). Rail is coming, and the demographic shifts in Bellevue — more density, diversity and youth — are leading to political change more in sync with Seattle's focus on Transit Oriented Development and a greener regional transportation system.

At that same 37th District meeting, Seattle city council member Richard Conlin highlighted the fact that he was the man Sound Transit sent to Bellevue to argue the virtues of light rail. I'm not sure that mattered to the voters of southeast Seattle, but when a liberal Seattle council member brags about being the evangelist for a new Bellevue, can monoculture be far behind?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.