As the presidential campaigns picked at scabs of the Vietnam War, our gubernatorial race reopened the wounds of the struggle for civil rights. Reliving the 1960s began with a Seattle Times story on Monday, Aug. 23, about Attorney General and leading Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Christine Gregoire and her membership in Kappa Delta, then an all-white, all-Christian sorority at the University of Washington. The relevance of Gregoire's actions 38 years ago seemed a bit tenuous. She was 19, and segregation was the norm within many American institutions, including UW's Greek Row. But when the newspaper decided to explore the issue, the attorney general embraced it.
Gregoire argued that her decision to join the sorority, despite the fact she disagreed with its racist, anti-Semitic rules, actually showed leadership because she decided to fight for change from within. Twice after graduating, Gregoire traveled to Kappa Delta's national congresses, where she argued unsuccessfully to have the rules changed. Her postgraduate protest, however, does not shed light on her action, or inaction, while she was a student. Gregoire joined Kappa Delta in 1966. At the time, the nation was in the midst of an intense civil rights struggle that changed the country, penetrating the minds of all but the most stubbornly racist. Moreover, even the genteel world of segregated sororities was being shaken as individual students, university administrators, and dissident chapters challenged exclusionary practices around the country. In comparison, Gregoire was not exactly a civil-rights pioneer.
Gregoire became president of her UW house in 1968. That year, other UW sororities broke the color line. An African-American student, Linda Burton, and several Asian-American students were accepted into what had previously been all-white houses. That was also a year of scandal. Prominent adult friends of another black student, Paula Moore, wrote university officials and politicians to claim Moore had suffered discrimination when she received no invitations to join a sorority. Gregoire says she doesn't remember the notoriety of either Burton or Moore, despite the fact there was coverage of their contrasting fates in the Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the University of Washington Daily,as well as an investigation by the UW faculty of Moore's experience. It's a kind of memory lapse all too common in politics.
The day after the Times story last week recounted Gregoire's decision to join the sorority, four civil rights leaders, including local NAACP president Carl Mack, called a press conference and blasted Gregoire for not doing more in the struggle for civil rights during her time in college. They thought she should apologize for joining the sorority, not claim it as an act of leadership. While some of their rhetoric was over the top — they compared Gregoire to Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who praised segregation as recently as 2002 — their anger was justified by the attorney general's spin.
The next day, Wednesday, Aug. 24, at the state Labor Council's convention, Gregoire hit back, accusing King County Executive Ron Sims, her primary opponent for the Democratic nomination and the state's leading African-American politician, of somehow being involved in the effort to label her a racist. The Sims campaign steadfastly denied any involvement in the original Times story, the civil rights leaders' press conference, or any whispers among Democratic insiders about Gregoire and her sorority record.
But the Sims campaign's claim of clean hands seemed dubious when Seattle Weekly received a phone call this week from a young man claiming to be an amateur researcher who had become interested in the subject of Gregoire and Kappa Delta after the recent Times article. He e-mailed a detailed summary of what could pass as top-rate opposition research. If this wasn't the work of the Sims campaign, it was that of a very serious and possibly professional supporter. It documented the controversial past of Gregoire's national sorority and the UW investigation of possible discrimination in 1968. Asked for documents supporting the e-mail, the caller agreed to meet on the street. He handed off a packet of material copied from the dusty files of the University of Washington archives. Before I could ask his identity, he literally fled, running down the street. The documents, which were offered to other media as well, outline the broad university inquiry into Greek policies, which was inconclusive, but contain nothing that would contradict Gregoire's recollection of her experience as a Kappa Delta leader.
Will all of this second-guessing of a 19-year-old in 1966 be top of mind when Democratic voters choose their nominee on Sept. 14? Not unless some stunning revelation surfaces in the meantime. There are plenty of present-day issues to affect the primary outcome, though leadership is certainly one of them. After nearly eight years of scant direction from Gov. Gary Locke, it's clear we need the state's next governor to forcefully and effectively confront our economic doldrums, our education system's malaise, our transportation gridlock, or the growing ranks of the uninsured.
While the leading Republican nominee, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, is facing only nominal opposition, the race between Gregoire and Sims is obviously heated. While Gregoire is ahead in key endorsements and fund-raising, Sims has created a buzz with his advocacy of a much-needed state income tax. Although Gregoire leads in most polls, the Sims campaign has an intriguing theory of victory in the primary based on a low-turnout election dominated by the urban liberal Democrats of Seattle and Tacoma.
The two Democratic candidates are a study in contrast when it comes to leadership style, too. Voters cannot complain of indistinguishable choices.
Ron Sims: A minister leads his flock — to the promised land of an income tax?
Ron Sims leads like the ordained Baptist minister that he is. He addresses the state as a preacher would his congregation. He decides what is the right way forward and then exhorts his flock to follow. It doesn't matter to him if his congregation is a bit tentative. He believes he has the moral authority to point out the correct path and convince the unwilling, the wayward, and the confused to walk along it behind him.
Sims' campaign for governor is a perfect example of this. He has analyzed the state's major problems and decided that there is one underlying issue that connects them all: an inadequate and unfair revenue system. He proposes eliminating two of the chief taxes paid to the state — the sales tax, which Sims argues is regressive, and the business and occupation tax, which he believes discourages job growth by taxing businesses' gross revenues regardless of profitability. Sims also wants to exempt the first $100,000 of property from taxation. To replace those revenues, Sims wants to enact a progressive personal income tax of between 4 percent and 10 percent. He claims that taxes for most households will go down under this plan — thus neatly addressing the state's ongoing tax revolt by creating a fairer system — while the state's revenue will actually increase — making it possible to address some of our problems, such as education funding.
Sims' proposal faces high hurdles to become law. An income tax would require a constitutional amendment approved by a two-thirds vote in both the state House and the state Senate, as well as a majority of a popular vote. Over the past 30 years, a couple of the state's most popular governors, Republican Dan Evans and Democrat Booth Gardner, tried to enact an income tax and failed.
Sims is not interested in hearing that it can't be done. "Leaders inspire us to be greater than we are," he says. "This country was built on people's belief that we could be more than was possible — making the impossible possible."
Christine Gregoire leads as though she was the state's chief lawyer, and she is. She spends a lot of time listening to her client — in this case, the people of Washington. Next, she creates goals that respond to her clients' needs. Finally, she assembles the interest groups that have a stake in the outcome and negotiates a settlement that is in her client's best interest.
Gregoire's campaign for governor began with listening. She toured the state and identified the key issues she thinks are on voters' minds: the economy, education, and health care. Next, she issued white papers that describe the problems we face and suggest steps to address them, though they are short on specifics in key areas. In education, for instance, she calls for better salaries for teachers, but she doesn't spell out how to pay for them. That's consistent with her leadership approach. She doesn't want to be too specific before negotiating begins. She prefers to set a goal and work toward it without being locked into one way of achieving it — to keep her options open. Her decision to join Kappa Delta seems consistent with that, though one could make too much of the example.
Gregoire, however, doesn't think comparing her leadership style to a lawyer's is accurate. She argues that lawyers don't agree with their clients but still have to represent their interests — and that's not analogous to the task facing a governor.
"You are right that I did spend four months going out and listening to people," she says. "They are disconnected from government. Then I set a vision; I set a goal: Let's try to get people to the table. I am determined to accomplish the goal." Sounds like a lawyer to me.
With reporting by Philip Dawdy and Emily Page.