Here are some things we know about Washington State Representative Matt Shea:
• He's a Republican from Spokane Valley.
• He believes "there is no difference between Planned Parenthood and what Dr. Josef Mengele did in Germany in the 1940s."
• He recently made up quotes from the Founding Fathers in a pro-gun bill he introduced in Olympia.
• In North Idaho, he urged people to stock up on ammo for the "inevitable collapse."
• He worries FEMA shelters could be "used for something other than emergency relocation in the event of a natural disaster [like internment camps] because of centralized federal control."
• He's a lawyer.
That last one is apparently the only thing SeaTac Mayor Rick Forschler thought was relevant when Forschler invited Shea to the small town south of Seattle this week to try to talk the city council there out of accepting federal money to build a park.
"I just knew he was an attorney looking into this," Forschler told me ahead of a Tuesday night meeting about the federal grant. Shea believes accepting the money would make the city vulnerable to lawsuits. Forschler claimed he didn't know about Shea's reputation. "My impression is just that he's a very credible person."
SeaTac was the first city in the nation to pass a $15 minimum wage. Shea is among the farthest right Republicans in the state legislature. How did this happen?
In last fall's SeaTac's city council elections, voters ousted several sitting council members, instead favoring a newly conservative city government. In part, that turnover fed off the idea that politics in town had been too influenced by outsiders after $15.
John Wyble, a Seattle political consultant who worked with two candidates who lost races for SeaTac city council last year, also blames low voter turnout. Fewer than half of the city's residents are registered to vote and only about a third of those registered actually voted in last year's SeaTac City Council races. "When only 4,000 people vote out of 28,000 citizens," Wyble says, "there is a lot of work to do."
So, the few who turned in their ballots voted for change and now the mayor is Forschler, who believes "special interests, union bosses, and government elites are using our city as a test case to push their agenda" and who invited Shea to town.
At issue was a $332,000 federal grant the SeaTac City Council was considering accepting in order to pay for a two-acre park. The money was coming as a Community Development Block Grant, a type of grant that cities all over the country get and that has, in recent years, built a soccer field and a skate park in SeaTac. This is classic boring local government stuff: feds give city money, city builds park, kids play in park.
The problem for Matt Shea has to do with the rules that come along with those grants. Cities getting CDBG dollars have to show that they are broadly working to "affirmatively further fair housing." For a park like this, that means showing that the project will help people in low-income communities live in a better environment. Recently, HUD made some changes to the way cities have to demonstrate that and that change is what Shea claims he's so worked up about. He says the new rule will make cities susceptible to new lawsuits. He promises this has nothing to do with his anti-federal-government stances or his fears about Agenda 21, a non-binding UN sustainability plan that some Tea Party Republicans believe is an international conspiracy to implant bike lanes. (Stranger environmental reporter Sydney Brownstone, who was at Tuesday's meeting with me, asked Shea whether Agenda 21 factored into this and he said his concerns about CDBG were about "specific liability.")
Yet, Shea had no evidence of cities like SeaTac being sued for accepting $300,000 in federal money to build a park for poor people. He cited cases that were largely inapplicable. He also ignored the fact that King County accepts CDBG dollars on behalf of smaller cities like SeaTac (meaning the county would be on the hook for any fuckups) and the new rule doesn't take effect here until 2019. The park project will likely be done by then.
At one point, Shea tried to scare the city council about how the rule could create new protected classes of people the city would obligated to help.
"Let's say there's some disgruntled citizens inside or outside your city who believe that there should be a pea patch through part of the park," Shea told the council. "You literally can create a protected class with pea-patch protected people, literally... If that happens, that is a point of litigation."
At this point, members of the crowd actually laughed at Shea. "It may seem humorous," Shea said, showing no capacity for laughter, "but literally that is a point of litigation... That's irrefutable."
SeaTac's assistant city attorney, Julia Yoon, didn't buy anything Shea had to say: "I believe the benefit of accepting the grant outweighs the risk."
Neither did some members of the city council.
"There is a great deal of difference between Spokane Valley, Washington, and SeaTac, Washington, sir," Council Member Kathryn Campbell told Shea. "I looked up Spokane Valley, where it's 90.9 percent Caucasian. We have 45 percent of the households in this city who do not speak English at home. We have a high number of low-income people here as well as... lots of people who are pedestrians, not car drivers... These may not be things of which you are aware."
Council Member Tony Anderson went after Shea even more directly, which he later apologized for doing.
"Golly, when I saw your name on the list I went ahead and Googled it and what did I find but that you're making up quotes on legislation—Founding Fathers quotes, that you're making those up—and then I look a little further and it doesn't get any better," Anderson told Shea, visibly annoyed.
"Your anti-government bias is really clear," Anderson continued later. "Everything on the internet says you're an anti-government guy... Obviously, since you went down to the Bundys, down to where a bunch of armed extremists were fighting against the U.S. government, and affiliated closely with those guys—and then they come out with these racist remarks about saying that African Americans were more happy as slaves—a lot of what you say I can't take as true or applicable in our case."
When the time came for a vote, all of the other council members, including some who had seemed supportive of Shea's claims, voted yes. That means the city will accept the money and build the park. "Wow," Forschler said, and voted no.