Tim Burgess, the former head of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, has been seen as a strong liberal challenger to city council incumbent David Della, who has disappointed many progressives in his first term on the council. Among other things, Della refused to take the City Light committee after a campaign focused on incumbent Heidi Wills's failure of leadership on that very committee; he was a staunch supporter of a larger new Alaskan Way Viaduct; and he routinely votes for tax giveaways to companies like Paul Allen's Vulcan. (Burgess has raised $164,000 to Della's $184,000.)
Burgess, however, has a client in his past that won't sit well in progressive Seattle. Burgess's ad firm provided media planning, copywriting, media buying, and other consulting services to Concerned Women for America (CWA), a fundamentalist Christian group that's best known for fighting against equal rights for gays and lesbians. Gay former council member, Tina Podlodowski, who has endorsed Burgess, says CWA is "not a group I could ever support. Clearly, he made a big mistake." Among other things, CWA advocated against making emergency contraception available over the counter, arguing that access to it would encourage promiscuity; has said that legalizing gay marriage would destroy the fabric of society; actively opposes the Equal Rights Amendment; and believes that "politicians who do not use the Bible to guide their public and private lives do not belong in office."
The firm Burgess cofounded, now called Merkle/Domain, services non-profits. According to Burgess, the firm represented CWA for eight or nine years. "We generally did not have an ideological screen on clients. We've served all kinds of groups, [including] some others that I don't always agree with," Burgess says. According to the Washington Secretary of State's corporation listing service, Burgess's clients did not include any liberal equivalent of CWA. They did include the African Wildlife Foundation, Mercy Corps, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Burgess says that although he does not agree with CWA's political views, he was fully aware of those views when he took them on as a client. "From the very beginning, I rationalized it in my mind [by saying], okay, this is a nonprofit organization that deserves to communicate its message just like anybody else." After some of his employees complained, "we allowed our employees to opt out of working on their projects, which I personally took advantage of. I stopped working on their projects." Burgess also says he pressed his partner at the firm, Richard Perry, to drop CWA as a client, which they finally did in 2004. "I can't change history," Burgess says. Perry, contacted in London on Tuesday, confirmed Burgess's account of the decision to initially keep CWA, adding: "I told people not to use the agency as a place to talk about their particular ideology or philosophy. We had all different kinds of people there, we had gay and lesbian employees, so for me it was just strictly a business decision."
No one would dispute the fact that Burgess's firm had every right to take on any client that would pay them. But by allowing his firm to help CWA produce media and ad campaigns in the critical year of 2004, Burgess profited from the promotion of a radical right-wing agenda that, if implemented, would cause profound harm to gays, lesbians, young people, and women. In 2003, according to its 990 form with the IRS, CWA spent nearly $8 million on outreach efforts, including $328,479 to Burgess's Domain Group. The money, according to the IRS form, paid for outreach and direct mail to the group's constituents.
Burgess's client list when he owned the Domain Group included numerous other faith-based organizations. Among them were the Christian Management Association, which aims to "validate and advocate the legitimacy of a Christian worldview in management practices within our culture"; Food for the Hungry Inc., which received grant money from the Bush administration to promote its "life-saving message of abstinence" in Africa, where AIDS continues to ravage the population (and where condoms would accomplish much more than unrealistic anti-sex messaging); and the Bible League, which seeks Christian converts in places like China, Africa, and the Middle East.
Burgess has also been haunted by an op-ed piece he wrote for the Seattle Times in January 2005 in response to Bush's reelection. In it, Burgess, a Democrat, argued that Democrats need to reach out to so-called "values voters" by recognizing and respecting their core beliefs. What has concerned some is the following paragraph: "We don't like abortion. We value the sacredness of marriage between a woman and a man. We recognize that not everyone agrees with us and we know the law isn't a good mechanism to resolve these issues, but moral persuasion is."
"The sacredness of marriage between a woman and a man," or some variation thereof, has long been standard code for opposition to gay marriage. Burgess says that's not exactly what he meant. "The code language is 'the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.' What I meant was that in the context of the church environment, people of faith view marriage as between a woman and a man. Does that mean that in civil law we have to see it that way? No."
On the campaign trail, Burgess has repeatedly said he supports marriage equality and abortion rights. He has received endorsements from many progressive groups and individuals, including the 34th and 46th District Democrats, Podlodowski and gay state Representative Joe McDermott. Podlodowski says she believes Burgess when he says he supports marriage equality and other progressive values. She says she and Burgess "had two rather lengthy discussions on [the gay marriage] issue because it's obviously something that means a lot to me. Having had those conversations, I've satisfied myself... that Tim has good, progressive values," Podlodowski says. And the gay and lesbian candidate ratings group SEAMEC gave him a rating of 3—"meets expectations"—despite his representation of CWA.