In October, the Seattle Medium newspaper, owned by a company that bills itself as "the largest African-American owned and operated communications company in the Pacific Northwest," issued its political endorsements. The paper backed, as might be expected, a slew of liberal Democrats, including John Kerry, Patty Murray, Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott, and Deborah Senn. But in the race for governor, it bucked convention, throwing its support behind conservative Republican Dino Rossi.

In retrospect, the endorsement signaled a serious problem for the campaign of Democrat Christine Gregoire, one which could cost her the election: In concentrating her efforts on white rural and suburban swing voters--who voted in droves for Rossi anyway--she lost a significant chunk of the black vote (as well as some Seattle left-liberal voters), and so far appears to be losing a state that John Kerry carried handily by more than 200,000 votes.

In the painfully close gubernatorial election, where Rossi currently leads by a 42-vote margin as the state prepares for a second recount, the defection of some African-American voters appears to have been the result of a strategic miscalculation--taking the base essentially for granted--and a specific, and perhaps decisive, campaign blunder that alienated many African Americans. After a Seattle Times report that Gregoire had joined an all-white sorority in the 1960s, the campaign initially chose not to offer even a qualified apology, but instead angered black leaders by spinning the story as a badge of Gregoire's civil rights credentials.

The Gregoire campaign says its internal precinct-level analysis of the Seattle vote shows Gregoire did well overall with minorities, and that she spent a great deal of time and effort tending to the Seattle base, though she got far more press coverage when campaigning outside the Puget Sound region. Gregoire did very well on Capitol Hill and in other inner-ring Seattle neighborhoods, says Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the state Dems. "The African-American precincts were some of our best precincts in the state," adds Gregoire spokesman Morton Brilliant. "Our drop-off was in the suburbs."

But there is other evidence, beyond the Medium's endorsement, that appears to contradict the Dem claim. A statewide poll just before the election showed Rossi winning a whopping 41 percent of the black vote. While that number is almost certainly too high (the same poll overstated Rossi's overall support, projecting him to win by six points), CBS-reported exit polling indicates that Rossi may well have won as much as a third of the black vote (in comparison, George Bush took only 12 percent of the black vote nationally). And in King County alone, 502 voters wrote in the name of Gregoire's primary opponent, African American King County Executive Ron Sims, the Seattle Times reported.

Those numbers don't surprise Seattle NAACP head Carl Mack. "We feel the Democratic Party sometimes takes us for granted, and that's what she did," Mack contends. "I've looked in the eyes of some black folks who told me they never voted Republican in their lives but said they were going to vote for Rossi," Mack says. "The black vote was her Ohio."

While much of the media focus has been on Rossi's wins in the traditionally Democratic suburbs of Pierce and Snohomish Counties, Gregoire underperformed, relative to the Kerry vote, in the liberal Democratic bastion of Seattle, where the campaign's handling of the sorority flap did not pass unnoticed among progressive white voters as well. In a city where John Kerry took nearly 82 percent of the vote, Gregoire garnered only about 75 percent of the vote, according to data compiled by conservative Sound Politics blogger Stefan Sharkansky.

The broader problem may have been the Gregoire campaign's "Ritzville strategy" of attempting to woo rural conservative voters, visiting small towns such as the Adams County seat while assuming the support of liberal and minority communities and subcultures in urban areas. Gregoire did do better in rural areas than other Democratic campaigns, but only marginally. She lost Adams County by 1,957 votes; liberal Deborah Senn lost there by 2,018 votes.

The turning point appears to have been the Gregoire campaign's bungled handling of the August Seattle Times story that explored Gregoire's potentially explosive decision in the mid-1960s to pledge an all-white sorority at the University of Washington that maintained an unwritten policy of excluding blacks, Jews, and other minorities, a policy she reluctantly enforced as chapter president. Actually, the Times piece was generally positive, stressing Gregoire's efforts to work within the system, after graduation, to change the national sorority's discriminatory policy.

The issue might have died there, except that the Gregoire campaign then chose to spin the story as a celebration of Gregoire's civil rights credentials, while implicitly disparaging those who confronted such policies more directly. In an e-mail message to Gregoire supporters, campaign manager Tim Zenk wrote that the Times article "reveals how Chris stood up to the racist policies of a national organization while still a young woman. When others quit or were satisfied to simply make a statement, Chris went toe-to-toe with a Southern sorority."

Mack and other black leaders in Seattle were enraged by the characterization, and called a widely publicized press conference where they vented their displeasure--comparing Gregoire unfavorably to Trent Lott--and blasted her for refusing to apologize. They were further angered, Mack says, when Gregoire responded by lashing out at Sims, accusing him, incorrectly, of planting the Times story and engineering the press conference.

Mack says the sorority story resonated in the black community in part because Gregoire was not well known there. Rev. Dr. Leslie Braxton, senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, was quoted in the Medium in August: "I've never seen Christine Gregoire do as much as even show up or speak to our community." And Mack says Gregoire's office had previously battled with black leaders over the attempted closure of Branch Villa, an African-American nursing home. Gregoire did not attend several gubernatorial debates sponsored by African-American groups, while Rossi did.

"Sims showed up. Rossi showed up. She didn't," Mack says. "If we couldn't get access to her while she was running for office, then we wouldn't get in when she's a Democratic governor. The black community looked at those issues."

Gregoire supporters say the campaign reached out, meeting privately with African-American leaders in the wake of the sorority flap, but Mack rebuffed the campaign's overture. Mack denies being contacted by the campaign.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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