Postman on Politics
Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.
February 1, 2008 7:21 AM
Posted by David Postman
ABERDEEN -- I’ve got a record of making people mad when I visit Grays Harbor County. In 1997, some economic development types were ticked off about a story I wrote that detailed rising numbers for alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence. They also didn’t like that I interviewed a young man named “Lucky,” who with his missing arm and difficulty finding a job didn’t seem to fit his name but seemed to sum up the state of the county.
The Daily World came to my defense, saying in an editorial that I shouldn’t be criticized for pointing out some difficult truths about the community. But I couldn’t always depend on help from my fellow ink-stained wretches.
In 2006 I was here to cover a visit by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I interviewed a woman at a nearby thrift store and called downtown “threadbare.” That brought me a good-natured reprimand in a column by editor and publisher John Hughes.
So when I arrived in Grays Harbor County this time I decided I’d check in first with Hughes to get some solid local background. (Besides, he’s the type of journalist who would have gotten a call from a source reporting on my whereabouts after I stopped to do my first interview so I might as well make an appearance.)
Hughes has been at the paper since 1966. He co-edited a Grays Harbor history book, lived through 64 years of it himself and has an odd mix of the civic enthusiasm of the Chamber of Commerce and an investigative reporter’s bent to poke through phony promotion of misguided pride.
He told me that, of course, he was only joking when he dinged me for my description of Grays Harbor. But there’s a spot not too deep down where Hughes doesn’t like to see his hometown slighted.
“In the wake of the sad and untimely demise of Kurt Cobain, whether it was Rolling Stone or The New York Times, everyone came to town and trotted out every adjective in Roget’s Thesaurus to sum up threadbare, gritty Aberdeen. So it got a little old.”
Hughes doesn’t dispute that downtown is a bit worn. But he said, “like a lot of cities from sea to shining sea, it’s been malled.” He hopes it’s on the rebound with important downtown historic restoration work taking place and an influx of some new residents priced out of the real estate market back home in Olympia, Seattle, Portland or somewhere in California.
The politics of the Harbor have always fascinated me. It is an old-fashioned, blue-collar, Democratic town. Growing up in what was just becoming widely known as Silicon Valley, I didn’t know places like this. There was no resource extraction going on in the Bay Area. There was some agriculture still, factories in the East Bay and an industrial waterfront in San Francisco. But there was nothing like this place that in so many ways still survives as it long has -- on resource extraction and a variety of ideas and sometimes ill-fated dreams to carry it through the next inevitable downturn.
Grays Harbor voted for John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 in about the same percentage as the statewide totals. Bill Clinton was a big winner, too, in 1996 and 1992. In ’92, independent Ross Perot got more votes here than Republican Bob Dole.
Hughes told me it’s been almost exactly 50 years since a Republican won a county commission seat. And that guy switched to the Democratic Party a year after taking office.
How far back would we have to look to find a Republican presidential candidate who won the county vote?
“I think that would be Herbert Hoover,” Hughes said. “The Great Depression radicalized Grays Harbor overnight.”
The port and mills here were a hotbed of activity for the labor movement, including the Industrial Workers of the World and later the longshoremen and International Woodworkers of America. Longshore union leader Harry Bridges would shut down the port here and those down the West Coast for weeks at a time.
“I call it the revenge of the proletariat.”
And the vengeance lives on. Republicans have a hard time getting elected from Washington's coast. The successful politicians are conservative Democrats. They are among some of the most respected and most unpredictable legislators in Olympia: House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler and Sen. Jim Hargrove. There are others coming up, too, including Sen. Brian Hatfield and Rep. Brian Blake. They support gun rights, aren’t keen on too much environmental regulation, speak plainly and candidly and in some cases oppose abortion.
They may sound like Republicans to a Puget Sound ear. But Hughes sees them as political descendants of the forces that shaped the Harbor.
“This is Scoop Jackson, Warren Magnuson country. Just as my late mother kept, almost literally, a shrine to Henry Jackson, if you go to the Polish Club today you’ll see a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, probably with a candle under it.”
Hughes’ office is filled with posters and memorabilia that make up his own tributes to FDR and Jackson. There’s a bust of FDR behind the desk along with a clock that has the dial in a ship’s wheel being tended by the president with the legend: “FDR The Man of the Hour.”
There’s a political dichotomy here that must frustrate Republicans. While Democrats win on Election Day, some in the party and its backers get blamed for even what the mild-mannered John Hughes says was the worst modern-day economic disaster in the region: federal protection of the Spotted Owl.
“The loss of those family-wage jobs, the virtual closure of the Olympic National Forest to any kind of cutting, it just decimated Grays Harbor. You would not see in the ‘70s or ‘80s or pre-spotted owl the kind of -- how shall I say this? -- the kind of dysfunction that set in here with the free and reduced lunches, the meth. It’s desultory. It’s not good.”Republicans often campaign by saying Democrats want to lock up land and restrict gun rights. So why do Democrats like Al Gore still prevail here?
“It may be habit,” Hughes concedes. Local Democrats help keep the party in favor, he says, with what they’ve described as their “country mice vs. city mice” battles with urban Democrats.
“Locally there has never been a dichotomy. They have decried that leftist slant.”
Hughes said he used to get so angry writing about environmentalists and urban friends of the owl that he worried he sounded demagogic “when I’d vent about Volvo-driving people who had already fouled their own nest. (This made me glad I left my Volvo at home and drove out in a rented car.)
Hughes describes himself as a Dan Evans Republican and a Chris Gregoire Democrat. He likes Gregoire a lot and hopes she works harder here in her re-election than she did in 2004, where she barely beat Republican Dino Rossi in the county.
Hughes says he thinks he reflects the politics of the county. If so, it’s hard to pin down by party identification.
“The most impressive new politician I’ve seen since the day I met Chris Gregoire is Rob McKenna. He’s extraordinarily bright, sincere.”
Gregoire may not have campaigned hard enough four years ago. But Hughes says her close vote in such strong Democratic territory points to a potential problem for Democrats this year: Hillary Clinton. He says there is enough chauvinism and even misogyny here to turn long-time Democratic voters away from a female candidate.
That would be particularly true if Clinton was running against John McCain, who Hughes said has a lot that Harborites would find attractive. Hughes finds that personally disturbing.
“In a race between John McCain and Hillary Clinton I would not call it as a traditional slam dunk for Hillary. For better or worse, she has the baggage of being female.”
And what about a race with Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee? How would voters here react to an African-American at the top of the ticket?
Hughes said he doesn’t think there are racial overtones in politics here and an Obama/McCain contest, for example, would be tough to call.
Grays Harbor will be a place to watch come November to see if voters here finally turn away from the New Deal.
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