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Grant Cogswell for City Council

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Charles Peterson
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Charles Peterson
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Charles Peterson
PHIL CAMPBELL
Bad idea for a good candidate.

"Give me a Z! Give me an I! Give me an O!...," she cries, eventually spelling out "Zioncheck." The clubgoers, most of whom have probably never done a cheer in their lives, stomp and clap along, wondering who the hell this Zioncheck is and why they're standing in a rock club hollering his name. Then, before a noisy avant-rock set from the cool Seattle band Automaton, the crowd is walloped by a 35-minute poem about Zioncheck. The poem, a cross between an elegant Walt Whitman epic, a beat Patti Smith rant, and an incisive Ralph Nader speech, is spoken from memory by its author, Grant Cogswell.

"Surely we would have lost you sometime, too much of the century shadowing you called for your death as it did its own. ...Marion Zioncheck for President of Death!...," Cogswell beams from the stage.

Welcome to the world of Grant Cogswell, who believed it was important for everyone to know that this night in early December 2000 was the 100th birthday of his hero, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle named Marion Zioncheck. Cogswell discovered Zioncheck as a teenager, while reading and re-reading a breathless four-page passage in Murray Morgan's famous history of Seattle, Skid Road. The radical pro-labor, anti-military Zioncheck was elected to Congress in 1932, at the age of 32, and reelected in 1934.

"He was Seattle's great radical figure of the '30s," says Cogswell. "He ran a recall election for a mayor trying to sell off City Light, and won. As student body president at the University of Washington, he fought the jock fraternities and secured the funds for the HUB building [the current Student Union], which were going to go for the new football stadium. But when he went to Washington, D.C., he found his attempts to represent ordinary people stymied. His inability to change the political establishment drove him very colorfully crazy. Eventually he killed himself by jumping from the fifth floor of downtown Seattle's Arctic Building, on August 6, 1936."

Obviously, there's a theme embodied in Zioncheck's story that resonates with Cogswell. Cogswell's hero was a martyr for populist impulses thwarted by the entrenched status quo--which brings us squarely to Cogswell's own 2001 run for Seattle City Council. Cogswell's campaign is a clear reaction to the city's recent abandonment of the populist monorail initiative, co-authored by Cogswell in 1997.

In a stroke of fate that would change Seattle's political landscape forever, Cogswell met cab driver/ monorail advocate Dick Falkenbury at Bumbershoot in 1994. At the time, Falkenbury was collecting signatures for an early, failed monorail initiative, I-39. The two men teamed up for a second try in '97.

In addition to co-writing the new effort, Cogswell ran the initiative's signature-gathering campaign, inventing the now-pervasive "Automatic Petitioner," posting blank signature sheets on plywood sign boards around the city. The pair's victorious grassroots campaign was immortalized in a front-page New York Times story featuring a photo of Falkenbury and Cogswell, who had successfully commanded Seattle to build a monorail system.

To celebrate the victory, Cogswell went to the Lucky Devil tattoo parlor on 12th Avenue East and got a five-inch black tattoo of the Seattle city seal on his left shoulder. When I first met Cogswell in the summer of 1999, it took him less than five minutes to pridefully bust out his Chief Sealth tattoo.

To Cogswell's chagrin, the city ignored the monorail initiative, eventually pulling the plug on the project at a now infamous July 31, 2000 city council meeting. "They give us what we vote against, like baseball stadiums, and kill what we vote for, like the monorail," Cogswell says. Cogswell gave a stirring speech at the meeting, and Falkenbury stood out in the hallway afterward warning reporters in no uncertain terms that city council members would be targeted and replaced because of the shameful vote.

Today, Cogswell--who has traded in his rock T-shirts and baseball caps for sharp blue suits--is running against city council incumbent Richard McIver, chair of the council's Transportation Committee. At one community meeting after another, as Cogswell and McIver stand side by side making their campaign speeches, Cogswell delivers the same focused pitch: "My name is Grant Cogswell. I'm running against Richard McIver because he's the transportation chair. I co-authored the monorail initiative. Council Member Richard McIver voted to kill it."

Cogswell's pitch pits the $80 million-per-mile elevated monorail against Sound Transit's $150 million-per-mile, street- level light rail project. Cogswell proposes abandoning light rail and using Sound Transit's taxing authority to build the monorail region-wide. McIver is on Sound Transit's board and voted to support the latest 14-mile light rail line, which barely resembles what voters approved in 1996--going nowhere north of downtown and generating about 85,000 less boardings per day than originally promised.

And while Cogswell's been accused of running a single-issue campaign, he eloquently spins his monorail rap into one of the most convincing stump speeches on the campaign trail this season. First, Cogswell connects public transit to the environment and fighting sprawl: "By taking cars off the road we'll encourage denser--rather than sprawling--development," he says. "This means less roads and less dirty runoff into our streams, Lake Washington, and the Puget Sound." (Note to the Washington Conservation Voters: You guys lost a lot of credibility by not endorsing an environmental salmon zealot like Cogswell. His literature is identical to yours. What's up with that?)

Second, Cogswell smartly plays his transportation rap as a social justice issue. "I think we need a larger strategy for preserving the affordability of this town," Cogswell recently told a group of neighbors gathered at the Miller Park Community Center. "I think building public transit is the best thing you can do to keep people who can't afford a car living and working in this city."

Cogswell is wise to turn the monorail issue into a social- and economic-justice pitch. Despite McIver's creepy association with the conservative wing of the city council, progressive voters--who may be sympathetic to Cogswell's decidedly Green transportation pitch--are wary of voting against McIver, as he is the only black member of the city council.

"I don't think McIver has been one of my favorite council members," said 48-year-old neighborhood activist Carolyn Stevens, after McIver and Cogswell squared off at Miller Park. "He's a remnant of the downtown Pageler-Drago crew. But he's the only voice for African Americans."

At the meeting, Stevens asked Cogswell point blank why he was running against the council's only African American vote. Cogswell responded: "I honor Mr. McIver's experience as a black American, and I think he's good at pointing out racial dynamics. But he's not there when the rubber meets the road." By way of example, Cogswell points to McIver's support of redevelopment plans at the Rainier Vista low-income housing project--a plan that threatened to displace scores of low-income residents. Then, without skipping a beat, Cogswell obsessively comes back to transportation. "Light rail is trashing the minority communities in Rainier Valley. So, as transportation chair, McIver has the power to do more than anybody else on the council to affect those issues. And he's doing nothing. He's sitting on his hands."

Grant Cogswell, who looks like a manly version of M*A*S*H*'s Radar O'Reilly, fell in love with Seattle as a teenager, when he spent summers with his grandmother and her husband on Mercer Island. "I was in love with taking the bus into town and walking around Capitol Hill and the U District," says Cogswell, now 33. "I can remember the day I first came down this street [15th Avenue East], when I was 14 years old."

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Europe (where his father was an aerospace contractor), Cogswell went to school on U.S. military bases and spent his summers in Seattle with his grandmother. After high school, he started college in L.A., where his father was living. When his father died of cancer, Cogswell went east to live with high school pals in Virginia. After working some crap jobs, Cogswell studied creative writing at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1993. His grandmother died that same year, and Grant immediately moved to Seattle. "My grandma and I were the last surviving members of our family," Cogswell says about his move. "She left me what she had. I had a little spending money. I was writing a novel, and really, after a life of moving all the time, I was really, finally at home."

Cogswell inherited a modest trust, worth about $300,000, and used some of the money as a down payment on a house in Rainier Valley. According to his filings at the Public Disclosure Commission, he gets about $10,000 a year from the trust, and will get the remaining amount, about $170,000, when he turns 35.

Cogswell quickly became active in local politics, running an initiative campaign against the new baseball stadium, collecting 75,000 signatures in two months. The State Supreme Court ruled against the initiative, but it was on this campaign that Cogswell met progressive city council candidate Nick Licata. Cogswell became a key organizer in Licata's winning campaign in '97. Around the same time, of course, Cogswell won a spot in Seattle history, running the successful monorail campaign.

In 1999, Cogswell sold his house and bought a condo in Capitol Hill on 16th Avenue East (Before his grueling campaign against McIver, you could always find Cogswell hunkered down over Proust at Victrola coffee shop on 15th.)

Cogswell started freelancing for The Stranger in 1999, when he was also working as a cab driver. He and I met through Nick Licata and subsequently hit it off over long, uncharted conversations about stuff like American history, girl trouble, Alice Cooper, and Cogswell's civic schemes. Cogswell doesn't drink (he used to drink too much), so we'd do the Pike/Pine bar hop together while I got drunk, and he tried to keep me focused on his latest project, like his idea to have the city officially rename the Pike/Pine corridor the "Cobain District," or his plan to reopen the underground streets in Pioneer Square.

As news editor, I tried Cogswell out writing news stories, but I found him a bit too preachy and manic for the newsroom. In short, he was a chore to edit, so I sent him over to the arts section.

Cogswell may blush when he reads this, but his campaign is yet another chapter in the story of his own inevitable rise as a bona fide Seattle folk hero. Cogswell is like no other candidate that's run for office in recent memory. Thanks to his role in the monorail campaign, he represents a legitimate populist movement.

"The monorail is one of the great political stories in this city's history," Falkenbury says. "It was clear that the monorail wasn't going to happen just talking to politicians. So we took it to the people, and with no money, we won."

However, with light rail moving forward, Falkenbury is nervous. He points out that at the last minute, in city after city, monorail plans always seem to lose in the final round. "Some final vote always kills it," Falkenbury says.

That could all be about to change. "Give me a C! Give me an O! Give me a G!...."



Cogswell's (Squeaky) Cogs
Campaign Stunt Ends with Apology
by Amy Baranski

An attempt to pull a frat-type prank backfired on Grant Cogswell's campaign last week. Phil Campbell, a former reporter for The Stranger and current campaign manager for Cogswell, admits he got a little cocky when he tried to pull off what he thought amounted to a good media stunt.

At Campbell's direction, on Wednesday, October 10 a volunteer from the Cogswell campaign snuck into Seattle Weekly news editor George Howland Jr.'s office and plastered 25 Cogswell campaign posters on the office walls. Campbell then sent out a press release boasting about their "Guerrilla Campaign." The reason for the stunt: Campbell felt the Weekly's enthusiasm for Cogswell was tepid (the Weekly characterized Cogswell as a "protest vote"), and his candidate deserved more honest support from the paper.

In a high-school campaign this prank might have seemed funny, but since Cogswell isn't running for student body president, the stunt is amateurish at best. Topping it off with a press release is downright weird.

Ultimately, given the Weekly's consistent backing of Cogswell, the prank is a little puzzling. In the Weekly's October 4 "Campaign Cocktail" column, Howland had noted Cogswell's rising stock--giving Cogswell wider exposure.

"I'm a little puzzled myself," Cogswell says. "[The prank] didn't come out of my head. But I think it was meant as a collegial, good-natured joke over the Weekly's kind of dismissive endorsement."

Campbell felt embarrassed about the whole ordeal, and turned in his letter of resignation to Cogswell, who immediately rejected it.

"I think it was a poor joke and kind of misguided. But I'm not going to accept his resignation," Cogswell says.

Howland wouldn't talk to The Stranger about this stupid affair, but he did tell Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden that the prank disturbed him. Godden made fun of the escapade in her October 15 column, titled "Bid for Backing Backfires."

"I've never known a candidate's volunteer that would go in and plaster a news editor's office," Godden told The Stranger.

Campbell drove down to the Weekly office and formally apologized to Howland on Thursday, October 11. Howland has since e-mailed a thank-you note to Campbell. Weekly editor Audrey Van Buskirk would not comment on rumors that Campbell's postering accomplice was a Weekly employee, who may lose his job.

 

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