THE CANDIDATE ARRIVES on his 1997 Harley Dyna Wide Glide, accompanied by two rasty-ass bikers on gigantic Harley Fatboys. At 40, John Carlson, the GOP's candidate for governor, is boyish-looking in a Harley leather baseball jacket, small oval shades, and Darth Vader helmet—from which protrudes his Nixonian nose. As for his posse on the Fatboys, they have long dirty hair, tattoos, and earrings; they wear leather chaps. None of them looks like a Republican, but they all are.
The occasion is the kick-off party for Carlson's 17th campaign tour of Eastern Washington. Some in the crowd of bikers and assorted townsfolk have been waiting for Carlson at the Brick, a biker bar in Roslyn, a little mining town just east of Snoqualmie Pass. But many in the crowd don't know who the hell Carlson is. They don't know this is the hot-talker from KVI radio who killed affirmative action by spearheading the passage of Initiative 200; they don't know he was the force behind other conservative initiatives such as Three Strikes and Hard Time for Armed Crime. Carlson doesn't bother really introducing himself. Instead he says, "This is a Republican campaign for governor," sounding like he doesn't quite believe it himself.
His recent ride over the pass in the rain gives him an entr饠into the Beer-Nuts and Budweiser world of the Brick. "Great thing about riding in the rain," he announces: "The beer tastes better." It's the right thing to say and everybody heads in for a schooner.
Since the mines have been closed for decades, Roslyn lives by enticing tourists from the highway. Known as the location where the offbeat 1980s TV series Northern Exposure was filmed, the town gets a lot of tourists who simply want to walk where Rob Morrow walked. The Brick is the oldest operating bar in the state. "We're known as biker-friendly," says owner Larry Najar.
A water-fed spittoon runs the length of the bar, gurgling along disconcertingly under the bar stools. The fancy hardwood back-bar came around Cape Horn and the high-ceilinged rooms are filled with shuffleboard and pool tables, walls crowded with pool trophies and stuffed elk parts. Budweiser neons light up the meat shoot sign-up sheets while the Mariners play a soundless seventh inning on the multiple TVs.
The candidate gets up on a table with a pint in his hand in front of the gathering of tavern habitu鳬 bikers, and local Republicans. Because Carlson is running late, the crowd has drunk a little more than they had intended, and interrupts him a little too loudly with questions not quite on the subject.
"What about the bullshit helmet law?" somebody yells.
"I'm against it—the one who rides should decide." Carlson says, endearing himself immediately to the bikers, the unregistered beer drinkers, and the odd libertarian who might have wandered in.
For the older folks, he adds smoothly, "As your governor, I'll always wear a helmet—besides, my wife'd kill me if I didn't."
Carlson lays out the talking points he'll repeat over and over on this trip: no breaching of the Snake River dams; removal of all nets from rivers and compensation to fishers for lost income. He wants benchmarks for the recovery of salmon: "How can we claim success without recognized goals that tell us the salmon are no longer endangered?" he asks. He wants privatization of many state government services, including ferries and education. He'd like people in their 40s and 50s to take a training course and be able to teach in public schools. He takes credit for the lowered crime rate because of his Three Strikes initiative and says he'd add meth labs as a strike. He wants to give power to the Legislature to strike down any rule or regulation made by bureaucrats if it doesn't follow the intent of the law.
Carlson thumps the populist tub over and over against faintness of leadership and lack of vital signs from Governor Gary Locke and the government in Olympia. He calls his campaign "an insurgency" and promises that if he can't get his ideas through the Legislature, he'll legislate by initiatives in campaigns run from the governor's office.
"What about marijuana?" someone asks. "I'm afraid I'm a downer on that," he says.
"I'm a downer on that one too."
It's exactly the right thing to say. They love his ass.
JOHN CARLSON is no moderate, but he plays one on TV. Where Senator Slade Gorton is eligible for the conservative adjective, the noun fits Carlson, though you'd never guess it by the issues he sticks to in this campaign.
His TV persona wasn't always so mellow. On Sunday nights for years, in one of local TV news' last gasps of relevance, Carlson debated southpaw historian Walt Crowley in a point/counterpoint setting on KIRO TV. In these weekly dustups, Carlson voiced opinions and embraced an "ethic cleansing" that he now avoids in order to keep a moderate face in this campaign.
The KIRO transcripts reveal Carlson's deeply held conservatism, which recent interviews indicate hasn't changed much. "Creationism," Carlson intoned in 1986, "should be taught equal to evolution in schools."
Today, he says he still believes this, though he's redefined the terms. "We should be open-minded," he says, "to science-based creationism [as opposed to Biblical creationism] that life first appeared in more complex forms than was previously thought. I don't think the adherence to evolution should become as close-minded to scientific inquiry as the fundamentalists were during the Scopes trial." The irony is, of course, the Scopes trial was in 1925 and fundamentalists still try to push creationism into school curriculum every legislative session.
In the old days, Carlson opposed sanctions against South African apartheid with the rationale that it was about "jobs"—the argument that's always trotted out to justify such things as cutting ancient forests or continuing the slave trade.
But he's changed his mind a little these days. "I've thought about that for some time," he claims. "My belief was that sanctions were imposing the heaviest burdens on black workers and it was rising black prosperity that was fueling the drive to end apartheid. But I now believe that the sanctions, for all intents and purposes, worked. Would lifting the sanctions have speeded the decline? I don't know—because clearly the sanctions did have a bite."
He opposed publicly subsidized spaying and neutering of pets but not of "serious" rapists, for whom he advocated castration. He says today: "It's not part of my anticrime agenda. But do I believe it's cruel and unusual punishment? No, and it's certainly not as traumatic as enduring the ordeal of rape."
In 1986 Carlson said, "Today's homosexual activists seem obsessed with telling us what they do behind closed doors and demanding not just tolerance but acceptance of homosexuality on a moral level with heterosexual conduct." He advocated quarantining AIDS patients and opposed gays in the military and the clergy. He closed his Seafirst Bank account when the financial institution stopped donating to the Boy Scouts because of the Scouts' intolerance of gays and lesbians.
Though he's softened his rhetoric, and won the support of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, Carlson opposes domestic partnerships and states: "Marriage benefits should be reserved for married couples."
Gay adoption? In 1988, Carlson said, "What kind of family would you want your child brought up in if they were orphaned? A homosexual household?"
He hasn't changed his mind about that either. "It's legal now," he says, "and my own policy belief is that children in a family with a mom and dad is in the state's and the people's best interest, but I would not challenge the law."
On KIRO, Carlson called homosexuality "abnormal," but he now puts it this way: "Do I think that's it's biologically outside the norm? Sure, but I also think it's a nonissue when it comes to hiring or the way you treat people."
Though he's a Catholic and prolife, he says, "Not only have the courts spoken on abortion, but so have the people. It's been on the ballot at least three times in 30 years. This is a prochoice state. A lot of prolife people are irritated that legislators who they elect, instead of fighting crime and working on the environment, are squabbling over the issue of abortion." Carlson supports parental notification and opposes so-called "partial birth abortions."
In his years on KIRO or talk radio KVI, he railed against the Children's Initiative, condoms, Nerf balls, and rail transit. He advocated bringing back orphanages and placing warning labels on child molesters, and said things like, "If you raise the minimum wage to $4.24 per hour, you will get more unemployment."
Or: "Gun control isn't an idea, it's a fantasy."
Or: "Building low-income housing will attract vagrants."
He decried hate crime laws as redundant, called rap "musical pornography," and supported a juvenile curfew.
But that was then. Now he's a politician, not a commentator, and that's a distinction Carlson understands very well.
THE MORNING AFTER the kick-off party at the Brick, Carlson's caravan heads down the two-lane straight line of Highway 17 to Moses Lake. The landscape is what geologists call fractured desert scab lands—patches of sagebrush, irrigated greenbelts, fields full of rocks, and vast tracts of what could be one very large catbox.
This is Harold Hochstatter country. Hochstatter is the funny old right-wing state senator from Moses Lake who ran against Carlson for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Hochstatter is a hard-core social conservative, the kind who dominates Washington's GOP grassroots.
For the last 20 years Hochstatter and his ultraconservative friends have held the party hostage to their harsh moralistic views, litmus-testing candidates on their adherence to God's plan and purity on such issues as school prayer and abortion. They stopped up the Legislature with goofy stuff like the English as the Official Language bill. ("If English was good enough for Jesus," a GOP legislator said famously in 1995, "it's good enough for our kids."). To the Democrats' delight, they nominated weird unelectables such as Ellen Craswell for governor in 1996 and Linda Smith for US Senate in 1998. They drove the party heaven-bent into oblivion.
But this year is different. Republicans desperately want to win and Carlson leads the charge. Ultraconservatives have given in to expedience, joined the Buchanan Brigades, or gone back to their stump ranches to thump their Bibles.
Hochstatter never really tried to defeat Carlson. There comes a time in every campaign when a candidate must tell the voters why he's better than his opponent, and Hochstatter never did that. Though they agree on most issues, Carlson is smart enough to be softer-edged, which Hochstatter could have spun as soft.
Hochstatter could have painted his opponent as a "liberal" because Carlson successfully wooed the gay Republicans and lost the support of Human Life International due to his stance on legal abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or harm to the mother. In fact, other conservatives criticized Hochstatter for not attacking his opponent. Carlson flattered and patronized Harold on the stump, while Hochstatter did a lame "me too" to John's anti-Locke speeches and ended up with only seven percent in the primary.
Moses Lake Representative Gary Chandler, Carlson's choice for Director of Ecology, supported Carlson early, even though Hochstatter is his hometown colleague. "I just tell people: Hell, the things Harold stands for, John does too, and [Carlson] has a chance of winning."
CARLSON RODE HIS BIKE every mile for five days through the rain and the 40-degree weather, past rolling brown wheat and striped lentil fields and vast acreages of peas and soy; to fair-sized crowds at a college president's garden party, storefront Republican headquarters, county fairs, and coffee shops in towns like Ellensburg, Cheney, Pomeroy, Walla Walla, and Wenatchee. He was greeted like a long lost son.
As he traveled he heard a constant refrain: We've been forgotten on this side of the mountains. "What I hear is that people aren't being listened to," Carlson says. "It's a misimpression that East and West think different. The Cascade Curtain has moved further and further west, and includes places like Burien, Everett, and Enumclaw."
For example, in response to last year's placement of several types of salmon on the endangered species list, some environmentalists are pushing for the removal of dams on the lower Snake River. Eastern Washington is up in arms over the idea. Drysiders claim dam removal would stop river traffic that hauls farm products and impact the production of electricity, raising costs for users on both sides of the mountains. Dam removal is a tailor-made issue for Republicans; even George W. mentioned it in the national debates.
Breaching the dams is so radical and politically controversial, it will probably never come to pass. But when the Seattle City Council passed a ridiculous and meaningless resolution last month in favor of the breaching, the arrogance and buttinsky-ism resounded favorably in Republican campaigns statewide, especially in those of Carlson and Senator Gorton. Carlson says Locke has been wishy-washy on the dams issue. In fact the governor came out early against the breaching and has taken his lumps from environmentalists on the subject. The facts don't stop Carlson from making an effective attack, however.
Running against the "Space Needle sphere of influence," as a Spokane politico recently put it, is expected on the east side. It's always been us vs. them, coast against interior, for as long as we've been one big muddy state.
Though we Seattleites can be obnoxious (as with the City Council resolution), it's not fair to blame all of the rural woes on us. The care and feeding of endless miles of Eastern Washington roads costs a lot more than the west side's ferries. Drysiders love to hate us, but we pay more for their roads than they do.
Eastern Washington makes up less than a quarter of the state's population. Republicans hope to offset Democratic votes in the west side's urban areas by pulling huge majorities east of the mountains and coupling them with Puget Sound suburban votes. Senator Gorton, who pioneered this strategy, plays the anti-Seattle card without compunction; Carlson prefers to run against the government in Olympia, which is safer to spin as the enemy. Carlson even goes so far as to wager he'll pull 40 percent of Seattle's vote this year.
Carlson's positions on the issues should translate into big majorities in Eastern Washington. As former state Senator Janet Hayner put it when she introduced Carlson in Walla Walla, "He's from Seattle, but he thinks like us."
Carlson's main problem is that too few people have heard of him on the dryside. That's why he's on his Harley day after day, introducing himself.
WHILE CARLSON IS running against Olympia in Eastern Washington, what makes him even more of a formidable candidate statewide is his ability to state his case in an out-of-the-box way that attracts and intrigues people who wouldn't otherwise agree with him.
Appearing on KUOW public radio, Carlson explained his salmon recovery ideas. They are standard Republican boilerplate: no government takings, harvest reform over habitat recovery, nets out of the water. However, the response of Seattle public radio listeners, a dependably progressive lot, who phoned in to say how surprised they were to find themselves agreeing with Carlson was notable. He's so reasonable and unthreatening, he disarms those who expect him to sound like one of those hard-ass Republicans who want to take away your birthday.
Carlson's greatest political strength is his ability to sell his conservative populism. If it weren't for his successes in passing initiatives, he could be dismissed as the simplistic lightweight Locke paints him to be. But simplicity in communicating works in a campaign and Locke's handlers probably wish their man were as skilled as Carlson.
Gary Locke, as an incumbent in good times, is doing the smart thing: defending the status quo. It's a natural role for Locke, since there's never been much of the vision thing coming from him anyway. Despite Locke's stodgy political style and passivity, he's still popular.
But Locke's lackluster 54 percent in the primary puts Carlson within striking distance. Democrats privately worry that Carlson can dazzle voters and affix the blame on Locke for the sins of state government.
Win or lose in November, Carlson will be a Republican political player in the future of our state. The GOP is delighted to have someone who can put a sentence together, have no shit on his boots, and still be acceptable to the conservative base—and right now, there's no one else like that coming up in the party. If Carlson loses this race, and the odds are against him, he'll be perfectly positioned for a Senate run in 2002.