When you first meet Alex Zimerman, he’s all laughs and good cheer and gives scant clue as to the depths of his fury—this tightly wound Lake City man with a bizarre penchant for calling Seattle City Council members, often at earsplitting volume, “gangsters,” “Nazis,” “crooks,” “criminals,” and his default fulmination: “You’re all a bunch of fucking idiots.” Once, addressing Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, he roared, “Heil Fuhrer Bagshaw!” while brandishing his arm in a Nazi salute.
Zimerman looks as if he were plucked from the pages of a John le Carré novel, a veritable secret agent. He’s tall, with a crisp crop of thinning silvery hair, and cloaks his bearish frame in a weathered black peacoat. His Russian accent is thick, his brown-eyed gaze attentive. At 68, he looks fit as a fiddle. After our initial meeting last week in front of Barnes & Noble at Northgate, Zimerman, entering the bookstore, offers a wide smile and cracks loudly, “So, you want to destroy me more?” Heads turn.
As perhaps you’ve heard, Zimerman has done little to endear himself at public meetings. He’s a professional rabble-rouser, a boisterous badger, the proverbial yellow jacket at the family picnic. His repeated disruptive behavior, which has included him shouting “dirty motherfuckers,” has deeply alienated the City Council, the members of which, understandably, have grown weary of Zimerman’s high-decibel dyspeptic disposition. The man needs a time out, they say. Over the past two years, Zimerman has been ordered to steer clear of council chambers on three separate occasions, for periods ranging from 14 to 28 days.
It was Zimerman and his foul-mouthed comrade in barbs, Sam Bellomio, both members of the fringe activist group Stand Up America—Zimerman serves as president—who prompted the council in November 2013 (not long after Bellomio, a 33-year-old civil engineer, referred to Councilmember Tim Burgess as “a dick”) to “forbid outbursts and other disorderly conduct” from addressing the council and allow the chair of the meeting to eject anyone for breaking the rules.
“I’ve gone 600 times to council meetings since 2010, but I did not start the harsh language until the last year or two because no one listened before,” explains Zimerman. “We decided we needed to be more of a pain in the ass.”
Are they listening now, Alex?
He offers no reply.
At a meeting in February 2013, Zimerman foreshadowed his lengthy reign of reckless rhetoric during a council committee discussion considering an ordinance that would govern the Seattle Police Department’s use of drones. Bellowed Zimerman: “You’re more dangerous than Nazi. You’re more dangerous than Communist; more dangerous than Gestapo; more dangerous that KGB.”
Even one of the council’s most liberal members, Nick Licata, while concerned that the exclusion order may have violated Zimerman’s free-speech rights, believes he’s gone way over the line by continually “disrupting other speakers” outside the official public comment period.
Zimerman (born Avrum Tsimerman) is the son of a German Jew, whose father, he says, was killed fighting Hitler’s Army on the Russian front during World War II. He was raised in Russia, attended a college in Moscow, and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, during the era of Gorbachev and glasnost.
“My whole life, I have fought against totalitarian regimes. Every day, I fight against fascism,” he says. “My dream was to come to this country because it is a free country.”
In 1989, Zimerman arrived in Seattle with his aged and chronically ill mother Leya Rekhter, whom he cared for until she died in 2008. Today he lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Lake City—“a small and dirty place,” he calls it—for which he pays $1,000 per month. In the beginning, Zimerman knew nary a word of English, stepping off the plane with a mere $200 in his pocket. He tried to squeeze out a living as a business consultant and later an independent caregiver. “I was not too successful at either one, to be honest with you,” he confides. His main source of income now is a monthly $134 Social Security check.
In 2013, Zimerman, never married and childless, ran afoul of the law and was convicted on four counts of first-degree theft following a jury trial and sentenced to 960 hours of community service for stealing state Medicaid benefits meant to assist the elderly. For six months after his mother’s death, Zimerman received $9,000 for care he claimed to have provided her. It is not something he cares to discuss, and he steers the conversation to try to explain his unruliness and why, late last year, he filed candidacy papers to run against Tim Burgess for the at-large Position 8 seat.
“Burgess, for me, is the number-one fascist in this group [the full council]. He represents this group controlled by the power elite,” Zimerman says.
Zimerman knows he cannot win, and has no intention of spending a dime (even if he had one) on a campaign. His game is to gain entry to candidate forums and expound on what he call his “philosophy of life.”
It is, of course, easy to dismiss Zimerman as a crazy old coot, but amid all his belittling (and bewildering) bluster, he is able to muster a coherent rationale for returning America (and Seattle) to a pure town-hall democracy. Hear him out for a moment:
“Elections were a fiction in the Soviet Union and they are a fiction here. It is the elite that bankroll these elections. This is what I try and tell the council. I try and tell them they are being controlled. They are collaborating with the powerful who tell them what to do.”
Zimerman goes on. “We need to restore freedom of speech. What I want is an open Bertha [Landes] room in City Hall every Sunday for citizens and public officials to come and speak their mind. We must talk and talk together. This will neutralize the money. It will bring us back to the real America.”
I ask him whether his Jeffersonian message is getting through to anyone, masked as it is by his frequent temper pyrotechnics. “Probably not,” he replies with a gale of laughter. “People know I am an asshole. I cannot help that.”