Seattle Diarist: Quiet Riot

by Keelin McDonell | January 31, 2005

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.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.

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