Quiet Riot

By

Last week, after 2.8 million votes, three recounts, four lawsuits,
and innumerable accusations of fraud and corruption, Christine
Gregoire was sworn in as governor of Washington State. The
inauguration in Olympia, the state's mythically named capital, took
place on the kind of sodden, blustery day that passes for winter in
the Pacific Northwest. It wasn't so different, in fact, from the
day before the ceremony, when protesters filled the narrow road
leading to the Capitol and shouts of "Revote!" swelled through the
old logging and fishing enclave. Both days began with drizzle and a
fine haze; both ended with the setting aside of bygones,
handshakes, and, in some cases, hugs. It was all very cordial, all
very Washingtonian.Governor Gregoire is, like her two-term predecessor, Gary Locke, a
Democrat. She defeated Republican Dino Rossi. These are the basics
of her election. Everything else is numerical chaos. The first vote
tally, following much shuffling and stamp-licking--Washingtonians
vote overwhelmingly by mail--on November 17, 2004, had Rossi ahead
by 261 votes. Republicans rejoiced. This tiny margin, however,
triggered an automatic machine recount and new, albeit similar,
results: It was now Rossi, 1,372,484; Gregoire, 1,372,442. The GOP
let out a contented sigh. State Democrats then marshaled their
resources (namely, the leftovers of John Kerry's coffers and the
e-mail lists of Howard Dean) to exploit an obscure law stipulating
that a candidate could demand a third, manual recount if he or she
financed it. Gregoire finally came out on top by ten votes. After
King County, a liberal pocket on Puget Sound that includes Seattle,
discovered several hundred erroneously discarded ballots, her
margin of victory crept up to 129 votes, or about 0.00005 percent.
Rossi and Co. were not unprepared; they immediately dredged up
evidence of all sorts of irregularities, from untrained poll
workers to ballots cast by felons and corpses. The phrase "stolen
election" soon ricocheted from the northern border town of
Bellingham to the far-eastern outpost of Spokane.

But such animosity is unusual in the Evergreen State. When I was
growing up in Seattle, the great pride of my civics and state
history teachers was Washington's grand tradition of
bipartisanship, which is to say, its grand tradition of
nonpartisanship. In races for several high-profile offices--
including mayor of Seattle--candidates don't even declare their
party affiliation, and political differences in the region tend to
be understood as matters of degree rather than dogma. A frontier
ethos, perhaps diluted in recent years by an influx of fresh blood,
still provides a powerful moral compass. And Washingtonians,
fiercely secular (apart from Oregon, we're the least churchgoing
state in the union), distrust affiliations of all kinds. They are
designations of exclusion rather than inclusion, and, as a virtue,
cooperation trumps certitude any day of the week. It's the basis of
a refrain I often heard from one neighborhood activist when I was
young: "We believe in people, not parties." And we never accuse
people of theft without solid proof.

The rancorous showdown of the gubernatorial race, then, assaulted
local politesse as much as it disrupted regional politics. Visiting
Seattle toward the end of December, I found surprisingly little
vitriol directed at the candidates. Harsh epithets and
eye-rolling--rare displays of hostility in our mild community of
crisp sea air and software companies--were mostly reserved for the
two political parties. The feeling seemed to be that the Democrats
and Republicans were playing out a symbolic struggle for national
power and credibility in our state. And, unlike, say, Florida or
Ohio, Washington was not relishing its moment in the electoral
spotlight.

During her lengthy inaugural address, Gregoire grasped for phrases
that captured the Washingtonian sense of political dignity--she
wanted to show she was an independent but not a maverick,
conciliatory but not condescending. She settled on something of a
paradox: "I believe the voters have given all of us a mandate." It
took a moment for the line to sink in. Sporting orange ribbons on
their lapels (the borrowed protest regalia of the presidential race
in Ukraine), a few Republican members of the state Congress simply
squirmed in their seats. Democrats eventually got to their feet to
clap thunderously, if uncomprehendingly, at the sentiment.

Like their state legislators, Washingtonians have shown themselves
adept at balancing skepticism and civility. A recent poll by
Seattle station king-tv indicates that 53 percent of Washingtonians
believe Rossi won the election; a modest 36 percent think Gregoire
was the rightful victor. These are broad- minded figures in a state
whose electorate is still, despite its distaste for party politics,
solidly Democratic. They also testify to the region's deep concerns
about fairness and objectivity. Clearly, many of those polled voted
for Gregoire but consider her a usurper. At the same time, Rossi
voters have peaceably accepted Gregoire as their governor. Whatever
cantankerous battles raged over the past few months have now been
politely tucked away for 2008.

In what may seem like another surprising twist for this dependably
blue state, the hero of the whole affair turned out to be a
Republican. Sam Reed, Washington's white-haired, avuncular
secretary of state, bucked intense party pressure and certified
Gregoire as governor-elect. Squawks about Reed's disloyalty rose up
from party fringes. And elements of the state GOP berated Reed for
hiring independent attorneys to handle challenges, a seemingly
proper move considering Gregoire had been attorney general for the
past twelve years. But mostly, Reed garnered respect. His aw-shucks
mannerisms at press conferences undercut some of the bluster
emanating from the candidates' camps. And he had a knack for
turning simple Washingtonian sentiments--"Anytime something is this
close ... you are going to see some of the warts in the
system"--into big, bipartisan applause lines.

The danger of straying from party lines, as Washingtonians so often
do, is, of course, political incoherence. But, thankfully, the
tendency of Democrats and Republicans here is not to wander off to
the side but to meet in the middle. Even when passions in
Washington state run high, there are rarely any hard feelings.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.