The Disgruntled Professor
Why Al Runte's Long-Shot Campaign to Be Mayor Makes Sense—to Al Runte and Dissident Seattle
I. A Most Unusual Document
In the fall of 1998, more than 10 years after his career as a professional academic failed amid criticism of his intellect, and seven years before he decided he should be the mayor of Seattle, historian Alfred Runte sat down to type a rather strange letter.
It was a letter of application for a job at the University of Washington, the same institution that, in 1986, had pushed Runte from his post as an assistant professor by denying him tenure, lamenting his "lack of intellectual growth." That experience would have been embarrassing for any academic, and it was particularly distressing for Runte. He had arrived at the UW at the age of 33, by his own account a promising trailblazer in the field of environmental history, but rather than speeding his upward momentum, Runte's seven years at the UW derailed it, sending him off to wander alone in the world of independent academics, tarred by the failure to achieve tenure.
At 51, inside the large basement study of his Wedgwood home, not far from the campus he had been previously forced to leave, Runte typed out the letter of application—which was really a letter of reapplication, since the open assistant professor position was essentially the job he'd lost. "I am still here," Runte wrote, "and still available, if the university can ever muster the resolve to recognize what going first truly means."
Runte was rejected, once again, by the UW, and over the course of the next year he became convinced the cause was age discrimination, and not his letter or his qualifications. He filed a lawsuit against the university, and as part of that lawsuit, his letter was sent off for examination by one of Runte's peers, University of Wisconsin Professor William Cronon, educated at Yale and Oxford, recipient of awards with names like Guggenheim and MacArthur and Rhodes. Cronon, a prominent environmental historian who considered Runte a friend at the time, nevertheless described his friend's letter as "a most unusual document."
In his written reply to lawyers for the UW, recently obtained by The Stranger, Cronon also described Runte's application letter (and his entire age-discrimination lawsuit) as yet another example of the current long-shot mayoral candidate's tendency to "be his own worst enemy"—unable to admit error or let go of anger, confrontational and abrasive in professional relationships. It was part of a problem, Cronon wrote, "that has bedeviled his professional career."
Cronon did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but his written appraisal of Runte is striking when considered in the context of Runte's current campaign to unseat Mayor Greg Nickels. With 22 percent of voters in the September primary picking Runte to run the city, it seems that the same impish intransigence Cronon identified in 2001 as hobbling Runte's candidacy for university employment is now, ironically, propelling Runte's underdog candidacy for mayor.
II. A Socratic Candidate
Runte's campaign is based on the assumption that, at a time when a certain segment of the city feels rankled by Nickels's strong-arm political tactics, many voters will be ready to rally around a stubborn challenger with a loud, articulate mouth and a proven track record of taking on authority figures. (Another piece of Runte's track record of stubbornness: When his age-discrimination lawsuit against the UW was dismissed in 2001, he appealed. When his appeal, too, was rejected, Runte filed another lawsuit against the UW, this time alleging a secret effort to deny him tenure that involved the sabotaging of his tenure file by the former chair of the UW history department. When that lawsuit was dismissed last year, Runte appealed—an appeal that is still pending.)
That Runte's major battles with authority figures have so far ended in failure only makes his current campaign all the more quixotic, and perhaps therefore all the more appealing to the sizable minority of Seattle voters who want to tilt at the windmill of the Nickels machine. In a sign of how palpable this appeal has become, informed observers now believe Runte may garner as much as 40 percent of the vote in the head-to-head general election in November. If he does that well, he will have emerged, through a string of upward failures, as a prominent civic figure well-positioned to run for, and quite possibly win, a city council seat. And if he wins a city council seat, he won't be the first American politician to have transformed the experience of professional failure into a formula for success as a public servant. Witness the career trajectory of President George W. Bush.
In the meantime, Runte is ready with a snappy answer for anyone who might question his political pedigree or his intellectual achievement.
Asked about his near total lack of political experience, Runte, using the Socratic method on himself, asked: "What is political experience?" Then he answered: "In a democracy, political experience is the process of being a citizen."
Asked about the criticism of his personality and academic accomplishment by professor Cronon, Runte dismissively replied: "That's his ego talking."
Which is what many people, not always unkindly, say about Runte's run for mayor.
III. Fault Zones
Last week, at a candidate forum held in a classroom at the Miller Community Center on Capitol Hill, Runte opened his remarks, as he often does, with a statement about how good it makes him feel to be lecturing again. "It's nice to see a more seminar-like atmosphere," he said of the cozy environs at Miller. Later, at the Mt. Baker Community Club, he said that the timekeepers telling him to curtail his remarks brought back fond memories of the bells that used to go off at the UW.
He still has a professorial tone and look about him—his suits never crisp, his tie sometimes a bit too long, and his face seemingly most comfortable in the unimpressed scowl of an academic. In fact, the corners of Runte's mouth have such a propensity to turn downward that even his smile comes in the shape of a frown; one knows it mainly by its contrast with the deeper frown he usually wears. He is almost exactly as tall as Nickels, and his paunch is almost exactly the same size as the mayor's. But there the similarities between the two men's appearances end. Runte tends to clasp his hands behind his back while listening, like a professor; Nickels tends to clasp his hands in front of his belly while listening, like a politician. Runte has a deeper voice. Nickels has better posture and more hair (and it always appears to be much better cared for than Runte's limp reddish arrangement).
The most striking difference, though, is in their presentations. Runte speaks in sound bites that range from the glib ("Time for city hall to listen to you") to the occasionally funny, as when he draws laughs by criticizing the proposed Lake Union Streetcar as "the streetcar named Desire of Paul Allen." Nickels has his sound bites too, but he fills them out with statistics, costs, and thoughts about funding sources, while Runte links his sound bites together with platitudes and generalities, and relishes the traditional challenger role of promising everything the incumbent might, for good economic reasons, deny. Runte says he wants more police than Nickels, more parks, even more trolleys—though when he said that at a candidate forum last week, shortly after getting laughs for his "streetcar named Desire" line, a fed-up Nickels pointed out that Runte was sounding rather John Kerryish.
"Al, you can't actually be against the streetcar in your last answer and for the streetcar in this answer," Nickels said.
And at another forum, Gene Harris, a Capitol Hill resident, said Runte's lack of financial specifics and vagueness about his plans had tripped her alarms. "He didn't give no solutions for the questions that were addressed to him," she told me.
Runte also sometimes gets important facts wrong at the forums, as when he criticized the Nickels administration, during the Miller forum, for having only one police patrol car on duty in Seattle's north precinct at night. In fact, a recent city council study of north precinct staffing indicates there are around 23 officers out in cars on any given evening shift. The study doesn't say how many cars the officers share between them, but surely all 23 couldn't fit into one.
As far as his campaign platform goes, Runte is casting himself as an advocate of neighborhoods that feel their power has waned under Nickels. He is therefore against, to pick the most prominent example, construction of a parking garage at the Woodland Park Zoo, something Nickels supports despite strong neighborhood opposition. He is also for the monorail. "I love trains," he told one of the forums.
But the issue that seems to get Runte most excited on the campaign trail is the question of what to do with the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. Nickels supports replacing it with a tunnel, but Runte, fearful of the roadway's proximity to the Seattle Fault, opposes the idea. "Here's where the mayor and I are light-years apart," he said to a forum. "If we're going to prepare for earthquakes, let's not build tunnels right over fault zones." He says this at almost every chance he gets. His proposal is instead to rebuild or retrofit the existing viaduct, preserving a view he praises as the common man's entitlement and providing an opportunity, he says, to run light rail over the viaduct (an idea that sometimes draws quizzical looks). Asked at a forum why his proposal, which essentially involves keeping an elevated double-decker freeway on top of a fault zone, was better than the Nickels proposal to dig a tunnel on top of a fault zone, Runte answered, "At least you're above ground."
His list of endorsements is not long. The Seattle High School Young Democrats were early supporters of his candidacy, and the Democrats of Seattle's 36th District (Ballard, Magnolia, Queen Anne, Interbay, and Phinney Ridge) recently endorsed him. But the vote in the 36th seemed more out of anger at Nickels and the fate of the monorail than in wholehearted support of Runte. And most Seattle high schoolers don't vote.
Runte's confidence, however, is typically unflagging. He believes he will be a great politician, though his only real experience in political dealings, his campaign for tenure at the UW, showed he was not a masterful manipulator of politics there. He also believes he is the smartest man for the job (and made a point of mentioning to me that Nickels dropped out of college), although he never mentions that he himself was pushed out of the UW for "lack of intellectual growth." (Runte also made a point of finding out where I went to college, and when it impressed him he began speaking to me of "people like us," as opposed to people like Nickels. In college, Runte said, "You learn to respect and deal with smart people. He never had that experience.")
Oddly, Runte believes he is a populist, with his rhetoric about the viaduct being the people's roadway and his frequent paeans to working-class Seattle. In his heart, however, he seems to be an elitist. Whenever I pressed him for details about his agenda, his answer was always the same: a philosopher-king sort of vision of bringing in panels of smart people whenever there is a big civic problem, and then listening to them like one would listen to experts at an academic conference; something that, in Runte's mind, Nickels is presumably unable to do, since he never learned to respect and deal with smart people in college.
IV. A Love of Parks
Alfred Runte was born in 1947 in Binghamton, New York, a former industrial town that is now home to a large state university. His father, Paul, was a German soldier who came to America after World War I seeking work. His mother, Erika, was a farmer's daughter whose family had been driven off its land by the Great Depression. When he was 11, Al's father, whom he said drank heavily to forget the trauma of the war, died of a heart attack. The next year, in part for a change of scenery and in part to see the area where her father had homesteaded, Erika Runte piled Al and his older brother August into a station wagon and headed out west. They spent six weeks during the summer touring national parks—Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Crater Lake, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. It was Runte's first major tri p out of Binghamton and, he said, "It made an indelible impression on me."
He put himself through college at the state university in Binghamton, where he majored in history. When a broken ankle kept him out of the Vietnam War, Runte went on to graduate school at a state university in Illinois, where he did his master's thesis on the study of national parks. (Then, as now, when something made an indelible impression on him, he did not let it go.)
He received a PhD in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1976, and three years later was hired as an assistant professor of environmental studies at Baylor University in Texas. That same year his well-regarded book, National Parks: The American Experience, was published. It got him the notice of the more prestigious UW, which hired him away from Baylor in 1980.
V. A Lack of Intellectual Growth
Runte's confidence as an orator and good sense of humor made him quite popular among UW students. His wife, Christine, now the registrar at the Museum of Flight, first met Runte when she was one of those students, taking his class on Pacific Northwest history while working toward her master's degree in museum studies. She recalls him as "an excellent teacher. He's very... I don't know if the word is really 'entertaining,' but he's just one of those natural-born teachers. He makes people think." The two were married in 1984, the same year Runte was denied tenure for the first time.
The denial was the beginning of an ordeal that, Christine Runte told me, was quite trying. "We were both just so shocked about the whole thing," she said. In 1985, Runte was again denied tenure. While he may have been popular with students, and many members of the history department faculty, his supervisor, then history department Chair Wilton B. Fowler, had written a strongly negative recommendation to the college council, the ultimate arbiter of tenure matters.
"I have not observed Al Runte to be very teachable or very interested in widening his interests or developing new ones," Fowler wrote. "His involvement in community history (e.g., historical preservation) suffers from a high degree of amateurishness coupled with an unwarranted confidence in his own opinion."
The other major criticism of Runte was that he was coasting on the success of his book National Parks, which was being updated for a second edition, rather than working on a new book. At the behest of then UW President William Gerberding, who worried a mistake might have been made in twice denying Runte tenure, given the number of angry letters Gerberding was receiving about the decisions, the college council considered Runte's candidacy a third and final time in 1986. It did not change its opinion. Runte, the council said, had shown "lack of intellectual growth in the publication record" during his years as an assistant professor.
Runte would ultimately come to blame Fowler, rather than himself, for his failure to achieve tenure, casting Fowler as his academic nemesis and claiming Fowler falsified records in an effort to "substantially understate my qualifications" to the college council. But it took him almost 20 years to formally make these claims in a lawsuit against the UW. By then, a judge ruled, the statute of limitations on Runte's charges of fraud and breach of contract had long since expired.
Runte never did find full-time work in academia again, and now identifies himself as a "consulting environmental historian." When he's not campaigning he gives speeches, advises companies interested in his expertise, and is currently a consultant to an upcoming series on national parks that Ken Burns is producing for PBS. His book, National Parks, remains his signature accomplishment; it has now been in print for 26 years. "That's scholarship," he says. "The world says that Alfred Runte's scholarship is significant and lasting and I don't need to defend it."
VI. One of These Days
Runte says he decided to run for mayor in July when, listening to a radio show, he heard that the local political establishment perceived Nickels to be invincibly popular, and that because of this challengers were being scared out of the mayor's race. Runte thought: "C'mon, that's nonsense."
And, as his candidacy has proven, the myth of an invincible Nickels was nonsense, a chimera of power created by a political machine that has rarely shied away from projecting its prowess, be it real or, in this case, somewhat illusory. If a failed professor running in part on his "abiding, total commitment to parks" can be realistically expected to get 40 percent of the vote in November, imagine how well a more credible challenger could have done.
Last week a candidate forum at TOPS Elementary School provided an illustration of the free ride Nickels has been given by the lack of a serious challenger. In a break from the normal format, both mayoral candidates were allowed to ask each other one question, and Runte went first, asking the mayor: "What comes after the monorail?"
Nickels, without missing a beat, responded: "You bet, and one of these days we're going to get you, Al, to talk about that, too." The whole room laughed at Runte, who had been typically vague with his proposals that evening. Then the mayor spoke competently about light rail, the streetcar, perhaps installing rapid transit lanes for buses on Aurora Avenue, and finally, when it was his turn to ask Runte a question, he said: "Al, you can be at ease."
The whole room chuckled again. The format allowed Nickels to forgo asking Runte a question if he wished, and instead do a closing statement. In taking advantage of that option Nickels made the former assistant professor seem like an irrelevant annoyance on the way to his certain reelection. Runte scowled. And Nickels went on to confidently close the forum with a litany of the "great" gains Seattle has made under his tenure.