JOHN CARLSON, THE REPUBLICAN candidate for governor, once accused me of being a pedophile.
To be fair, I didn't actually hear him use the word, so it's possible Carlson merely insinuated that I was a pedophile. But one day, a breathless man called me at work to tell me Carlson was talking about me on his drive-time "hot talk" radio show on KVI, and he seemed pretty certain that Carlson had used the "p" word. "I'm listening to John Carlson's show right now, and he's telling people you're a pedophile! He just called you a pedophile!" I turned on the radio just in time to catch John telling his outraged listeners (and really, does KVI have any other kind?) that one of Seattle's most notorious homosexuals was staging a contest called "Win Dan Savage as Your Prom Date."
Oddly enough, not 15 minutes before that listener called and told me to turn on my radio, I had been on the phone with a producer from Carlson's show. The producer wanted to know how old I was, and told me Carlson was putting together a list of influential local people under the age of 30. I confessed to Carlson's producer that, sadly enough, I had just turned 30. Listening to Carlson on the radio that afternoon, I discovered the real reason he wanted to know my age. "What does it say about our society," he asked his listeners, "when homosexual transvestites in their 30s can announce their intentions to date teenage boys in newspapers?"
Five years later, I'm still a little angry about John Carlson calling me a pedophile on KVI. So it might surprise you to know that I may vote for Carlson this November.
Let's face facts, shall we? Gary Locke sucks. We've had three major crises come to a head in the last four years--salmon, transportation, and tax revolts--and you wouldn't know it from observing Governor Locke in action, or I should say from observing Locke's inaction.
Try to remember the times Locke made news in the last four years. Having difficulty? Let me refresh your memory: When he married Mona; when he got Mona pregnant; when Mona gave birth; when Gary and Mona went to China; when he got Mona pregnant again; when Mona gave birth again. Oh, and who can forget the time brave li'l Gary chased a bat around the governor's mansion with a broom?
Locke has chosen a bizarre model for his first term: the British monarchy. Think about it: weddings, pregnancies, births, foreign visits, problems at the palace, going out on a limb to promote safe causes (we've all seen Locke smiling from billboards to promote literacy and car seats). The kinds of stories written about Locke are the kinds of stories typically written about the Windsors, not American politicians. Locke behaves as if he, like the queen of England, is a constitutional monarch, barred from taking a public stand on anything controversial or--God forbid!--political. Lord knows he speaks like the queen, with his numbing use of the royal "we." ("We're very concerned about salmon." "We're developing a position on that.") Locke is all puff, no politics, and only now and then does he pull himself away from his primary duty--which appears to be the production of heirs--to take his pathetic, too-little-too-late stands on issues that are tearing the state apart, from affirmative action to Tim Eyman's I-695.
Locke is useless--but you don't have to take my word for it. Here's what a few members of Locke's own political party (in case his party affiliation has slipped your mind, Locke's a Democrat) had to say about their governor.
"Gary Locke has presided over the dismantling of the state of Washington," said one legislator, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "I-200, I-695, all these other initiatives--he's watched the collapse of state government, and he has done very little to stop it."
"Locke's an end-game player," observed another Dem. "He's a thinker; he mulls things over forever and ever.... But sometimes a governor needs to act quickly. And it surprises me that he was not more informed about the transportation crisis. He was the executive of King County for four years, and that's where the biggest crisis is."
"He's a high-potential, underachieving governor," said another.
"Gary has more political capital than any governor in a very long time," observed yet another legislator. "But he's very hesitant to use it."
None of these Democrats want to see Carlson elected (they described Carlson as a "blowhard," "in way over his head," and "suffering from a talk-show mentality"), but at least one was grateful Carlson was running. "Take his idea on the eight-lane bridge on 520," said the legislator. "Never mind that it will wipe out existing neighborhoods, and never mind that the road it feeds is already at full capacity and feeding more cars onto it isn't going to solve anything. But in talking about this issue, Carlson said that maybe we should be charging people for using HOV lanes. Congestion pricing is something we should look at, and it's not something you typically hear Republicans advocate.
"At least Carlson is throwing ideas out there, which is not something that can be said for Gary Locke."
John Carlson's campaign office is hidden away on the third floor of a Police Woman vintage office building in Bellevue, about two blocks from a Hooters. Boxes of T-shirts are everywhere; yard signs are stacked in corners; empty pizza cartons litter the place; and glassy-eyed true believers work away on ratty secondhand office furniture. If you've seen War Room or Primary Colors or any film about a political campaign, you've been to this office. A "Reagan-Bush in '84" poster hangs on one wall, a map of the state on another. And blown-up photocopies of a canceled check from someone named Gary Locke (no relation to Governor Locke) hang in almost every cubicle.
Waiting for Carlson, I pass the time reading his bio, which I downloaded off his website (www.johncarlson.org) earlier in the week. "John Carlson was born in 1959 and grew up in West Seattle," it reads. "He attended the University of Washington, from which he graduated with honors in 1981." While at the University of Washington, Carlson founded a conservative newspaper, The Washington Spectator. Carlson ran for the state legislature in 1984 and lost by a slim margin. In 1985, he founded the Washington Institute Foundation, "a free market research center in Seattle, and served as its president until 1994. The Institute has been called 'the finest state-based think-tank in the country' by William Bennett." (That seems like pretty faint praise to me--after all, how many state-based conservative think tanks are there, anyway?) Carlson has been a commentator on KIRO TV, a newspaper columnist, and a talk-show host.
When Carlson arrives for our interview, he shakes my hand and thanks me for coming all the way to Bellevue to see him. Carlson's private office is as neat as a pin, in contrast to the rest of the Carlson campaign headquarters. As he settles in at his desk, there's no sign that he's at all uncomfortable with being interviewed by a known pedophile. I ask him to give me three good reasons why the gay-loving, tree-hugging abortion fans who read The Stranger should consider voting for him.
"Here are the reasons a left-winger should like me," says Carlson, leaning back in his chair. "Access is first. When I'm governor, anyone who wants to talk to me will get a hearing. That was actually one of the hallmarks when I was doing radio. And I'll always be honest with people. I'll never say something to you and then turn around and do something else. My style is to tell people where I stand."
Carlson concedes that a promise of "access" isn't going to win over "doctrinaire leftists," but he believes that moderate Democrats who lean left "want a governor who's willing to challenge the status quo every once in a while."
Challenging the status quo is what Carlson's best known for, and, in Seattle, loathed for. He's successfully lead three statewide conservative initiative campaigns: "Three Strikes, You're Out," approved by voters in 1993; "Hard Time for Hard Crime," approved by voters in 1996; and I-200, the anti-affirmative-action initiative, approved by voters in 1998. It is no overstatement to say that Carlson has had a greater impact on Washington state than Gary Locke. And as unpopular as these three initiatives might have been in Seattle, all three passed by wide margins statewide.
"So John Carlson is running for governor," wrote The Seattle Times in an unsigned editorial earlier this year. Carlson once wrote for The Seattle Times, and it would seem that Mindy Cameron is somewhat peeved that being fired from the paper didn't destroy Carlson's career. "Carlson is a talk-radio host, a newspaper columnist and policy entrepreneur," the editorial says. "But governor? He's never been elected to anything. He's a talker, not a doer, an opportunist without portfolio.... Carlson for governor? Surely, this state's Republican party can do better than that."
But Carlson does have a record and a constituency, even if he's never held elective office. The man did pass three statewide initiatives, after all, and now he's running for governor. That's doing something. The Dems in this state wish Carlson were merely a talker.
After I-200 passed, Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr., who supports Carlson, was quoted in The Seattle Times. "The initiatives he's sponsored broke all conventional wisdom and were overwhelmingly supported by the public," said Freeman. "He has a very good read on what the average person wishes government would do." And as much as it may distress the Times, Gary Locke, and other Democrats and assorted lefties, Freeman's read is pretty accurate.
Carlson believes there are two kinds of people in politics: people who want to be something and people who want to do something. "Gary wants to be governor," Carlson explains, "but there's nothing he wants to do with that office. I want to do things, which is why I want that office."
As Carlson sees it, there are too many things that Locke isn't doing. "Look at the issues: property taxes, education, transportation and traffic. There are five initiatives on the ballot dealing with these issues this year, because people don't feel like there's any sign of leadership from the top. You've got people rolling up their sleeves and trying to make law because it's not coming out of Olympia."
In contrast, there's a lot Carlson wants to do. He wants to spend billions of dollars on road and bridge construction, for instance. He voted for I-695, and supports both of Tim Eyman's new budget-busting initiatives. He also wants to phase out the state portion of the property tax in Washington, which is 17 percent of the total, while at the same time pay math and science teachers more (because they're in greater demand) and reduce class sizes. But where's all the money supposed to come from? Carlson says he would tap "several revenue streams," reform the Department of Transportation, and dedicate the sales tax on new cars and car parts to increasing bond capacity, money that he would spend on new road construction.
Asked if, unlike Gary Locke, there are any issues he would be willing to expend his political capital on, Carlson leans back in his chair and considers the question. Would he cross his support base?
"That's a good one," Carlson says, laughing. "I'm trying to think of an issue where I would cross my base. You know, a lot of people think I define the base." Carlson pauses, and makes a show of looking thoughtful. "If I believed that something was right, I would fight for it. Period." But can he name an issue, just one, on which he would take a stand unpopular with Republicans? Carlson points to his opposition to Sound Transit's light-rail plan.
But is that crossing his base? All the politicos who have staked their careers on light rail are Democrats--Ron Sims, Paul Schell, Greg Nickels. If light rail goes down, it's not going to hurt any Republicans. "That's true," Carlson concedes. "But it's not going to help us, either, is it? Democrats will be elected to their offices, not Republicans. But I think the Seattle light-rail system is a really dumb idea," says Carlson, "and I support I-53, the monorail prop. Light rail has a lot of business support, and as a business-oriented Republican, it would be easier for me to look the other way and say, 'Hey, go ahead and build it.'"
Strangely enough, immediately after he was unable to name a single issue on which he would cross his base (light rail doesn't cut it, John; even business support for light rail is drying up), Carlson proceeds to cross his base on two important social issues: homosexuality and abortion.
When Carlson was the editor of The Washington Spectator, a UW student paper funded by conservative activists, his paper described homosexuality as "a willfully perverted way of life." On his radio show and in his newspaper columns, Carlson's opposition to gay and lesbian civil rights was ferocious, even if he did treat gay and lesbian callers and guests with respect. From job protection to domestic-partner benefits, from AIDS education to "promoting homosexuality" in the schools, Carlson was opposed. But this August, Carlson attended the annual meeting of the Washington state chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian group, where he spoke of tolerance and invoked the Republicans' shopworn cliché, the "big tent."
So does Carlson still think gays lead a willfully perverted way of life?
"My views on homosexuality have mellowed over time," Carlson explains. "I think that when you first form your views on homosexuality, it's easy to be judgmental. Over time, you become more accepting of people's differences."
Carlson thinks his party is mellowing, too. "If you look at where our party was four years ago, and eight years ago--I mean, [the Republican National Convention in] '92 was a real zoo. But I'm trying to make conservatism friendly again. I'm trying to update it, catch conservatism up with the times, and make it more hospitable to the notion of tolerance." Carlson believes that sexual orientation is becoming a non-issue. "When [the openly gay Republican Congressman from Arizona] Jim Kolbe was addressing the Republican National Convention this year, he was up there because he was the appropriate person to speak to the convention about trade, not because he was gay."
Of course, while Kolbe spoke, the delegation from Texas stood and prayed for Kolbe, and ignored his speech. "Those delegates from Texas should be ashamed of themselves for sitting in judgment of him like that," Carlson says.
Amazingly, and unprompted, Carlson goes on.
"Those delegates were the equivalent of the Pharisee in the parable who goes into the temple and sits at the front while a beggar sits praying quietly at the back. The Pharisee prays loudly, thanking God that he's not like that beggar, but it's the beggar who leaves with his sins forgiven, not the Pharisee. Like the Pharisee, what [the Texas delegates] were doing wasn't moral. I thought it was cruel and mean, frankly."
John Carlson comparing anti-gay Christians to the despised Pharisees whom Jesus Christ made the subject of his "hot-talk" parables? I'd say Carlson is crossing the anti-gay nuts in his base, the Craswell crazies.
A gay politico in Seattle told me that support for Locke is so weak among gays and lesbians that if Carlson came out for the safe schools bill or domestic-partner benefits, he could "cause a stampede," winning over gay and lesbian voters. This gay politico, like the state legislators quoted above, did not want to be identified. They all expect Locke to win in November, and they don't want to burn their bridges.
"But if it's Carlson, who knows?" the politico continued. "We might get a Nixon-in-China moment out of Carlson on gay rights." (Only Richard Nixon could restore diplomatic relations with communist China, because no one could accuse the red-baiting Nixon of being a pinko.) "Locke won't move on gay rights, because he doesn't want to be accused of being too far to the left. Maybe Carlson could move, since no one can accuse him of being on the left. Remember, in Nevada, it was a Republican governor who signed the gay and lesbian civil rights law two years ago, which was passed by a Republican legislature."
Gary Locke has done less for gay rights than former Governor Booth Gardner did 16 years ago. From his attempts to slash AIDS spending to his failure to designate the gay rights bill as Governor's Request Legislation (a seal of approval the bill received 12 years in a row before Locke took office), Locke's first term set back the clock for gays and lesbians. While Carlson's painfully slow "mellowing" on the issue of homosexuality represents progress for a Republican, Locke's positions on gay issues represent regression for a Democrat.
So what's Carlson's position on the safe schools bill (which would require training for teachers and school administrators on malicious harassment)? Or on domestic-partner benefits?
"I think schools should teach tolerance," says Carlson, "but I don't think they should endorse gay lifestyles." Unfortunately for Carlson, it's hard to do one without doing the other; teaching someone to tolerate gays and lesbians pretty much requires that you endorse, at the very least, the rights of gays and lesbians to be gays and lesbians. As for domestic-partner benefits, Carlson opposed Locke's recent move to provide those benefits to gay and lesbian state employees. The decision was made by the Public Employees Benefits Board after a waffling Locke gave his reluctant go-ahead.
"I think that giving that kind of clout to unelected bureaucrats, as Locke did, or allowing a commission to make that kind of decision, creates the kind of anger that provokes initiatives," says Carlson. "That was a decision that needed to be made by the people's elected representatives."
And if the people's elected representatives passed a domestic-partner benefits bill while he was governor?
"I'd veto it. Marital benefits should be restricted to married couples."
What about the right to adopt children, which gay and lesbian couples can currently do in Washington?
"I wouldn't change that law."
So Carlson endorses tolerance, but opposes domestic-partner benefits. He supports the right of gay and lesbian couples in Washington to adopt children, which isn't a "marital benefit," but he doesn't think we should be given the "marital right" to file a joint tax return. Call off the stampede.
Carlson has "mellowed" on abortion rights, too, in a way that might similarly perplex his base. Carlson isn't shy about telling people that he's a pro-life Catholic, so you might be surprised to find this statement on his website: "Washington is a pro-choice state."
"I recognize the obvious," explains Carlson. "The courts have been very clear about the limits on states, and the people of Washington have been even clearer than the courts. Washington is pro-choice. If I'm elected, nothing about abortion will change in Washington state."
"I would sign a parental-notification bill, and I would have signed a partial-birth abortion ban, but the Supreme Court just ruled on that, and it's off the table."
No promise to end abortion in Washington state--not even a hollow promise? Another base crossed.
Now that Carlson's crossed his base on two issues, I'm going to cross mine on one. In fact, I promised Carlson I would admit this in the paper: I voted for I-200, his anti-affirmative-action initiative. The Stranger called Carlson a "white racist cracker" when he was running the initiative, so he was a little shocked when I told him I voted for it. But I didn't vote for I-200 because I'm necessarily opposed to affirmative action. Indeed, unlike Carlson, I support affirmative action in theory and for many years supported race-based affirmative action in practice. But race-based affirmative action had become political poison, thanks in large part to right-wing commentators like Carlson--you know, talkers, not doers, those "opportunists without portfolio."
Politics is the art of the possible, and race-based affirmative action just wasn't politically possible anymore, not in Washington state, and voters proved it by passing I-200 by a huge margin. I voted for I-200 because I believed that once the politically toxic race-based system was yanked away, it would create a vacuum and lefties would seize the momentum for instituting a new system: class-based affirmative action. That didn't happen, unfortunately. But had the lefties running the "No on 200" campaign been a little more creative and a lot less doctrinaire, they could have used the media interest stirred up during and immediately after the I-200 campaign to argue for a class-based model that voters would have supported (there was a bill floating in the legislature at the time that would have established just such a system). Not only would class-based affirmative action help the very people race-based affirmative action was designed to assist--economically marginalized African Americans--it would also help enough poor whites to immunize the program against the charge (and occasional reality) of reverse racism.
Class-based affirmative action was a smart idea, and I supported it. Still do. So does Carlson, or so he tells me during our interview--provided there are no quotas, and it really is a color-blind system.
Of course, I can't see into Carlson's heart--to borrow George W. Bush's phrase--so I'm not sure that creating a color-blind society was his goal, or if he was playing to his largely white constituency, or, hell, if he just wanted to make trouble by challenging the status quo.
The Sheraton's Grand Ballroom is a sea of white faces. Over 900 people have turned out at seven in the morning for a Carlson fundraiser. Talk-show host and creepily effeminate straight guy Michael Medved is the host, and Pete Wilson, the former governor of California, is the featured speaker. I spot two black faces, one belonging to an old friend.
"I'm here under duress," my black Republican friend tells me, after informing me that I can quote him if--can you guess?--I don't use his name. "I'm opposed to his position on affirmative action, but I do think he'd make a better governor than Locke," he says. My anonymous black friend supports class-based affirmative action, and when I tell him Carlson does, too, his eyes narrow. "That's certainly a change from what I've heard."
Trova Hutchins, one of Carlson's campaign workers, spots me taking notes and tells me I have to leave. "This fundraiser is closed to the media," she tells me, frowning. I tell her that Carlson knows I'm there, and she hurries away to check my story. After speaking with Carlson, I assume, Hutchins comes back--all smiles now--and tells me I can stay. She even offers to find me a seat and get me breakfast.
Medved drones on, making lame jokes about open mics, Republicans in Fremont, and a debate between Mona Locke and Lisa Carlson (a "Mona-Lisa" debate, get it?), but Medved doesn't mention abortion, homosexuality, or the family. Medved's introduction of Wilson is too long and too glowing for a man whose ill-timed immigrant-bashing (just as whites slipped below 50 percent of the population in California) resulted in huge Democratic gains in that state.
Wilson makes some self-deprecating cracks before he begins heaping praise on Carlson. He talks up Carlson's commitment to education, emphasizing Carlson's support for teaching old math and phonics, which gets a huge hand. I'm about to fall asleep when Wilson says, "...and John Carlson is interested in protecting the most vulnerable members of our society." The Most Vulnerable Members of Our Society (MVMOS), as Republicans usually see them, are our endangered fetuses, so I sit up, and start taking notes. Maybe there's a reason this fundraiser is closed to the media, I think to myself. Could it be that Wilson is about to launch into an anti-abortion stump speech? A speech the Carlson camp doesn't want the media to report on?
But Wilson's MVMOS aren't the right's fetishized fetuses, but kids failed by their state social workers and abused women like Linda Davis. Wilson doesn't say a word about abortion, but complains instead about the miserable record of the Department of Social and Health Services under Locke's watch. To my crushing disappointment, it dawns on me that what I'm hearing at this off-the-record, open-those-checkbooks, closed-to-the-media fundraiser doesn't differ in the slightest from the on-the-record interview Carlson gave me the previous morning.
Back in Carlson's office, at the end of our first interview, I get around to asking him about the day he called me a pedophile on his radio show.
"I must have meant that in a funny context," Carlson says. I give him the benefit of the doubt since, after all, nothing's more amusing than pedophilia. Were there other things Carlson said on his show that he didn't mean? How much did he play to his conservative audience? "Sure, it's talk radio. It's entertainment, and sometimes you'll say something to provoke a reaction and get a good discussion going, or to raise a question: 'Hey, what do you think of this, folks?'"
Carlson knows he's playing to a wider audience now. Four years ago, Ellen Craswell, the Republican candidate for governor, ran a campaign that entertained right-wing kooks. It also scared the shit out of Washington state voters, and Carlson knows that sounding like Craswell--or too much like his old radio show--isn't going to win him the election. Carlson can read election results, and the voters have made it clear that they support abortion rights, and that they're tired of the Republican party's gay-bashing rhetoric (even if they're not ready to support full civil rights for gay and lesbian people).
But if the majority of the voters in this state wanted abortion banned, Carlson would probably have handed Gary Locke a fetus during their first debate, and not a cell phone. And if the majority of Washington voters wanted homosexuals put to death--Craswell's position in 1996--Governor Craswell would be looking at a second term and Carlson would probably be out there pushing anti-gay initiatives ("Hard Time for Hair Dressers?" "Three Dykes, You're Out?"), not explaining to a "notorious homosexual" that he's turned mellow.
A friend who heard Carlson interviewed on KUOW couldn't believe that he was trying to pass himself off as a moderate. Don't people remember Carlson's radio show? Don't they remember his newspaper columns? Carlson's newfound moderation, she insisted, has to be an act. But what if Carlson's past positions on social issues were the act, and his "newfound" moderation reflects how he really feels? Or always felt? Or maybe "there's no there there," a charge once leveled at Bill Clinton, and Carlson is simply an opportunist who will take any position that's politically popular--and when the tide turns against abortion or gays and lesbians, so will Carlson.
I'm not sure which scenario I believe; they're all plausible. But I do know this: Carlson's evolution on social issues represents real progress for the Republican party in Washington state, regardless of his motives. And as I don't believe that the tide will turn against abortion rights or gays and lesbians at any point in the foreseeable future, I doubt that Carlson will ever have a chance to return to his un-mellow, social-Neanderthal roots.
So who to vote for? Faced with a choice between a do-nothing Democrat who's devoid of ideas and a say-anything Republican who's full of ideas (some good, some bad), I can't say for sure which of our gubernatorial candidates is going to get this pedophile's vote.