On the morning of October 13, down at the Occupy Seattle protests in Westlake Park, in front of about 200 union members in hard hats and reflective vests, speaker after speaker talked about scoring a victory against the sense that in contemporary America, the wealthy win even when they lose.
The number-one action item mentioned: defeating Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. at the polls this November.
Freeman, 70, whose family owns Bellevue Square mall and much of Bellevue's downtown retail core, has made himself into the premier local example of a wealthy individual who's able to manipulate the political system to his own benefit, everyone else be damned.
For months now, he's been openly merging his conservative ideology with his considerable financial resources in an effort to block something that the majority of voters—both in his own city and in the greater Puget Sound region—have said they want: light rail to Bellevue. His vehicle: a sneaky statewide initiative known as I-1125.
King County Executive Dow Constantine warmed up the crowd at Westlake by talking about how "a small group of powerful people" are increasingly able to "steal" the dream of a society that supports the working class. Later, Lee Newgent, the hulking executive secretary for the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council, reminded the union members that these days there are a lot of working-class people in Bellevue, too.
"How are they getting to Seattle right now?" Newgent asked. "They're taking the bus. How should they be getting to Seattle? They should be taking light rail."
This is exactly the opposite of what Freeman thinks.
He believes people should be getting to and from Bellevue—and his mall—on bigger roads full of more cars and buses. If people can afford helicopters, Freeman wants them coming and going in helicopters, too. Anything but light rail, whose viability he describes as a "fantasy" of the socialistic left. Cars, Freeman believes to his core, are an essential part of what makes America free, prosperous, and strong. "There are some people who want to slow this country down, or do this country harm," he has said. "Picking a fight with the automobile is a pretty good way to do it."
Global warming? Freeman doesn't worry about it, because he doesn't believe global warming is a real problem.
The will of the people? Freeman says voters have repeatedly backed light rail—including in a 2008 vote that showed 56 percent of Bellevue residents wanting light rail to the Eastside—because Sound Transit has been conducting "the largest scale of brainwashing on any topic in the Northwest."
To most, Sound Transit is simply the agency created by state voters in 1996 to bring mass transit to the greater Seattle area. Not to Freeman. To him, Sound Transit is a nemesis, "a 100 percent out-of-control, irresponsible agency" that is spending "a million dollars a month" to put out ideas that are "entirely false"—an agency that needs to be stopped, by whatever means he can muster.
This is typical Freeman. Over the years, he's spent millions of his own dollars fighting Sound Transit specifically, and light rail generally, at every level of state government. He donated to—and personally helped lead—the 1995 and 1996 campaigns against creating light rail in the first place, and then he did the same for the 2008 campaign against extending light rail from Seattle to Bellevue.
When those efforts failed at the polls, he hired lawyers to argue all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court that it's illegal to run light rail across the I-90 floating bridge over Lake Washington, headed toward Bellevue and the Microsoft campus in Redmond. (The high court ruled against him in April, though not definitively, and his lawyers are now trying again.) While that was going on, he donated heavily to certain Bellevue City Council candidates, helping to pack the council over the last two years with a new majority that shares his skepticism about light rail and is in a position to create obstacles for the $2 billion East Link project, currently in negotiations over possible routes but scheduled to be completed in 2023.
More recently, Freeman became a generous patron for initiative peddler Tim Eyman, giving Eyman $1.1 million to run this fall's Initiative 1125. That $1.1 million constitutes about 90 percent of all the money behind the measure, which purports to be about limiting the state's tolling authority, and does contain a lot of language about tolls, but also contains fine print intended to halt light rail to Bellevue. To put it another way: One man, with his millions, is using the initiative process to try to pull a win out of his repeated, and expensive, light-rail losses.
An unusually broad coalition is trying to stop him. In May, a group of 14 "major Eastside and regional employers and landlords" signed a letter urging the heavily Freeman-influenced Bellevue City Council to support the "vital" expansion of light rail to Bellevue and beyond, and end "detrimental" efforts to delay the project. Among the signers: Microsoft, Boeing, Group Health, Bellevue College, T-Mobile, and Puget Sound Energy. (Microsoft has since become the largest donor to the $2.2 million campaign against I-1125.)
Then, earlier this month, the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce came out against Freeman's light-rail-thwarting initiative, citing its "potential negative impact on the Washington State transportation system." The conservative Association of Washington Business has also announced its opposition to the measure, citing concern that I-1125 could disrupt funding for future large-scale highway projects—such as the rebuilding of the 520 floating bridge and the construction of a new bridge across the Columbia River—because those projects are to be partly financed by toll-backed bonds. (Under I-1125, authority for setting tolls would be taken away from an independent state body and given to the state legislature—something no other state does. The state's Office of Financial Management has warned that this would likely spook bond investors, because the legislature is way more unpredictable than an independent body, making toll-backed bonds nonviable as a financing option and leading to the loss of millions in federal transportation funding that's contingent on those bonds working.) Even Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who Freeman has repeatedly donated to in the past, opposes the measure.
"I do not need this Bellevue mall initiative," Newgent, of the Building & Construction Trades Council, told the crowd at the Westlake rally. "Don't just vote 'No.' Vote 'Hell no!'" He described I-1125 as being a Trojan horse for Freeman's personal vision of how people can best drive a car to Bellevue Square, "load it up with packages, and drive it back."
The crowd at Westlake cheered this and waved anti-1125 placards. But other large groups, reached by local pollsters over the phone during the past couple of months, have said repeatedly that they favor I-1125, which—following the classic Eyman strategy—can come across as simply an anti-tolling measure when it's described briefly over the phone or in political advertisements, making it sound very appealing at a time of great economic anxiety and widespread anti-tax and anti-user-fee sentiment. (The measure's official ballot description, which voters will be looking at as they check "Yes" or "No," uses the word "toll" twice and doesn't mention light rail once.) That may be why, in spite of light rail's consistent popularity with voters, a Survey USA poll released on September 23 found voter support for Freeman's measure at 52 percent, and an Elway poll released on September 27 found support at 56 percent. A more recent Elway poll, released on October 24, found support slipping to 43 percent, but also found 21 percent of voters still undecided—more than enough to get the measure to the 50 percent it needs for approval.
Bellevue City Council member Claudia Balducci, once supported by Freeman but ignored by his checkbook ever since she came out strongly in favor of light rail to Bellevue, summed up what Freeman's doing this election season as "sort of a fallback action." She's hardly alone in wishing that Freeman would just yield to the regional consensus already.
But Freeman, for his part, shows no signs of yielding.
The question is: Why? What's so terrible, to his mind, about light rail?
Kemper Freeman Jr. lives near the top of a Bellevue building owned by his family, in a luxury condominium he shares with his wife, Betty. One morning not long ago, he stepped from this condo into the electronic-key-protected elevator that takes him down to the lobby of the adjacent Westin Bellevue, also located in a building owned by his family. From there he strode purposefully over to the adjacent Lincoln Square to grab "a Tully's," in yet another building owned by his family.
All of this was accomplished without stepping outside once; his family's massive properties in central Bellevue are all smartly interconnected. At Lincoln Square, the Tully's barista said Freeman's order before he could: "Matcha green tea latte, skinny, no extra syrup, grande." Latte in hand, Freeman then walked across a skybridge over Bellevue Way (designed and built by his development company, and permitted by the City of Bellevue at his behest). On the other side: his family's mall.
Bellevue Square has been around for more than 60 years, since before Bellevue was even a city, and it has helped make Freeman quite successful, not just in Washington business circles but also in the wider world of mall owners. In 2005, it was estimated to generate gross retail revenue of about $780 million. On the lapel of Freeman's suit: a gold pin set with a small diamond, signifying his past service as Chairman of the International Council of Shopping Centers, an organization for which he's now a trustee.
Through the mall, and then it was just a quick elevator ride up to the offices of Kemper Development Company, located above a Crate & Barrel that leases space from his family. "Hello, Mr. Freeman," said people coming onto the elevator as he stepped off.
We sat down at a conference table in his personal office, and Freeman started complaining about how liberal extremists and light-rail apparatchiks are out to get him. He painted himself as the victim and the underdog, just one sensible warrior from the Eastside trying to take on the aggressive, win-at-all-costs, loose-with-the-facts, money-to-burn behemoth that he says is Sound Transit.
He told me about the brainwashing, about the millions spent each month to pump the public full of facts that are "entirely false." (Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick denies these charges. "If Sound Transit is guilty of just a fraction of the accusations made by Mr. Freeman," Patrick said, "he should be talking to the attorney general, not The Stranger.") And Freeman lamented that as punishment for all his truth telling, Sound Transit has turned him into a villain.
"If you're not on their side," he said, "all kinds of things will happen, and all of them have happened to me." First, people tried to persuade him with passionate arguments, he said. Then they tried to buy him off, but "I said, 'I'm not for sale,'" he told me.
"And then, at the end, the last step is—and this is for any opponent—the last one is to vilify, any way they can."
Outside Freeman's office, Bellevue's busy Northeast Eighth Street was full of cars. Up on a high shelf above his desk, in a prominent spot, was a small statue of Eyman dressed in a Superman-style outfit.
Eyman, Freeman told me, has also been unfairly turned into a villain.
"Here's what's good about Tim Eyman," Freeman told me. "Tim Eyman is the best read of public opinion in the state. It drives everyone else who doesn't agree with him crazy... And I'm not saying he's right or wrong, or anything else, but he's the best read of public opinion. Now, is public opinion right or wrong? You know as well as I do, it's not necessarily right or wrong."
In other words, Eyman's read on public opinion is simply, to Freeman, useful.
Freeman says that he spends "more than 30 percent" of his awake time on the issue of light rail. He described going to scores of light-rail meetings and debating the issue in public "probably at least 300 times in the last 15 years." He added proudly: "I don't recall walking out of a room where I didn't get at the worst a draw, even where the room was 90 percent heading the other way before I got in there... If there's somebody who's spent more time on this topic—and I'm not saying this to brag—I don't know who it is. Including anyone who works at Sound Transit, the DOT, anywhere else."
It could be that Freeman is just another version of that familiar character at public meetings, the self-proclaimed expert who insists he knows better than the voters and their elected officials, hints at dark conspiracies, and has reams of his own studies to prove his case—except in this instance, his money makes it hard to ignore him, and buys him routes of redress even when he's outvoted.
In person, though, Freeman doesn't seem like a crazy crank. He's warm, personable, and clearly a numbers nerd. He enjoys swimming around in light-rail environmental impact statements and ridership projections, and during our interview, he repeatedly dismissed small-bore ideas as accomplishing the equivalent of "rounding errors." He's also passionate about his opinions, and will hold calls and appointments if he's busy making a point—as he did during our interview, which went well over its allotted time even though his secretary kept coming in to tell him that he was expected at another meeting that was already under way. At the same time, he's steady enough to keep a large business going strong.
So other theories must be explored. And as it turns out there's no shortage of them. All tend to begin with the assumption that Freeman believes it's in his financial interest to keep light rail out of Bellevue, either because he genuinely thinks light rail won't add enough commuting capacity (which is how he explains his opposition) or because he secretly fears it will bring a lower-class element to his higher-end shopping center.
Freeman doesn't deny pursuing his own financial interest. However, after an over-two-hour interview and multiple follow-up phone conversations, it was apparent that he is more than just financially motivated.
"I think it is a fantasy of the left that this is somehow good, nationally," he said about light rail. A few years ago, he participated in a roads campaign video in which a narrator grimly invoked "former socialist nations that have failed economically, and their overdependence on public transportation—which narrows, and sometimes even removes, choices." The video then cut to Freeman, sitting in his Bellevue office and praising the car as central to America's identity and continued viability. "The free mobility of this country that is afforded to us because of the automobile is one of the keys to our success," Freeman said. "It allows commerce to work; it allows personal freedom; it allows the public to go where they want, how they want, when they want... I mean, it is part and parcel to the success of this country."
He doesn't say anything about people who can't afford automobiles, but he does issue that warning about "people who want to slow this country down, or do this country harm."
So maybe his stance has a little something to do with ideology, too.
It could also be a sense of destiny and entitlement. Freeman scoffs at this notion, but he's savvy enough—as he said at one point, "I'm a businessman, I've been a politician, I've served in the legislature, I've been a banker, I've been in the media"—to know that he should scoff at this notion.
This election is hardly the first time a Freeman, or even a Kemper Freeman, has tried to bend the world to fit his vision and interests.
Kemper Freeman Sr., who died in 1982 and has been called "the father of Bellevue," got into the mall business after taking a drive around the country in the 1930s and becoming inspired by the Highland Park Shopping Center in Highland, Texas. He came back determined to turn an Eastside strawberry field into what is now Bellevue Square, and did. It opened in 1946.
He also helped get Republican Arthur B. Langlie elected, first as a Seattle city councilman, then as Seattle mayor, and finally as governor of Washington State in 1941.
The Freemans, history shows, like to invest with the long game in mind.
Kemper Freeman Sr.'s father, Miller Freeman, was in some ways an even larger figure in Washington State politics and business. Construction of the first floating bridge across Lake Washington, for example, can be traced to Miller Freeman's desire to break a cross-state transportation monopoly held by railroads in the early part of the last century. (The very same bridge route over Lake Washington that Miller championed to hurt heavy rail is now the one that his grandson, Kemper Freeman Jr., wants to defend against "illegal" use by light rail.)
"My grandfather ran for the legislature in 1913 on the single issue of creating the cross-state highway," Freeman said during our interview. "So one day, the director of engineering for the Department of Transportation in Olympia called my grandfather and said, 'Well, since this was your idea that we have the cross-state highway... where should it go? Where should it go to tidewater?' So my granddad went down to Olympia, and all he had with him was a Standard Oil road map, which is not a fancy thing, and somewhere in my files I've got this map—all he did was take a ruler and a pencil, and he said, 'Elliott Bay is the best deepwater port in the Northwest; Snoqualmie Pass is here,' and he just took a pencil, a map, and a ruler, drew a line from Snoqualmie Pass to Elliott Bay, and said, 'That's where it should go.'"
Freeman continued: "And the engineer said, 'Oh my God, that goes right across Lake Washington—the water's too deep, and that's too long a span for any normal bridge.' My granddad said, 'Listen, you just asked me where it should be. You're the engineer, you figure out how to do it...' And he did it—invented the floating bridge. They invented it in two years, from conception in 1938 to opening in 1940. Without computers or any of the other BS we think is standard today. They created something nobody else has ever done before of that scale."
Though the ability to drive across Lake Washington also helped the mall Miller Freeman's son was developing, Miller's interest was not in malls. He made his money as a publisher of newspapers and trade magazines (just like his own father, Legh Freeman, who'd come west in the mid-1800s on the federally financed transcontinental railroad). Miller Freeman's media properties included the Seattle newspaper the Town Crier, which was less a journalistic than a political venture, launched to advocate for building the Lake Washington Ship Canal over environmentalist opposition. Miller's focus on the ship canal—which, like the first transcontinental railroad and the first floating bridge across Lake Washington, owes its construction to help from the federal government—came about because he believed the fishing industry was central to this region's economic viability. The canal opened in 1917, a few years after the opening of Fishermen's Terminal, whose creation Miller also pushed.
As well known as Miller is for his commercial instincts and his interest in the fishing business, he's also remembered, at least among a small circle of Washington State history buffs, for his obsession with enemies, foreign and domestic. (If that sounds like his grandson, well, they are related.)
According to a family history published in 2007 called Generations, "Miller had long been preoccupied with defending the Northwest coast from enemy attack," and was a militia man in the original sense, helping to create and command the first Washington Naval Militia despite the fact that he "possessed no knowledge of naval protocol or military procedure."
Then World War II came, and with it the Japanese internment effort. David Neiwert, a Seattle journalist who wrote a book on the subject, says Miller Freeman "was probably the foremost agitator in Washington against Japanese immigration from early on, beginning in about 1908, and he remained that way until his death in 1955. He was the founder of the Anti-Japanese League of Washington; he led the fight to pass the state's anti-Japanese Alien Land Laws in 1921; and he was, of course, one of the leading proponents of internment in 1942." (Generations describes Miller Freeman as "wary" of the Japanese but remains silent on the subject of internment.)
Neiwert sees Miller's actions during World War II as racism mixed with economic self-interest. Miller definitely saw the Japanese as economic adversaries, and used a publication he owned, Pacific Fisherman, to warn about Japanese competition for the Alaska salmon fishery. Also, Neiwert notes, "after 1942, with the Japanese removed from their farmlands, [Miller] was free to proceed with his plans to convert the town [of Bellevue] into a lily-white suburb."
The house that Miller and his wife built to raise their sons in, on the east shore of the entrance to Meydenbauer Bay, had views that allowed them to "look eastward to the snowcapped Cascades, southward across the lake to Mount Rainier, and westward to Seattle and the Olympic Mountains and beyond," according to Generations. It was a perch fit for kings (or, to use more current language, fit for "the 1 percent"), and this dovetails with a strong theme in the family history: a steady increase, over hundreds of years, in the Freeman family's proximity to privilege and power.
Generations pretty well encapsulates the arc of influence the Freemans have traveled in America. In 1805, the book recounts, Thomas Jefferson was president and John Hoomes Freeman was living at Jefferson's Monticello estate. John Hoomes's job was overseer; he was managing the president's slaves. In the 1940s, the book notes, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Freeman family home in Bellevue and personally changed the diaper of Kemper Freeman Jr.'s youngest sister. Generations, commissioned by Kemper Freeman Jr. and written by motivational speaker and business consultant Robert Spector, also includes about two dozen pictures of Kemper Freeman Jr. himself, including one of him on a Harley that takes up a two-page spread.
When Kemper Freeman Jr.'s critics try to explain his crusade, they often bring up a much more provocative idea than destiny or entitlement. They reach into this long family history and accuse Freeman Jr. of exhibiting the same mix of paranoia, racism, and economic self-interest ascribed to his grandfather, Miller Freeman.
The prime exhibit in their case: a quote he gave to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005 explaining the difference between his mall and Southcenter Mall in Tukwila.
"When you walk through the [Southcenter] mall," Freeman said, "the way the customer dresses just to shop there—the light blue and pink hair curlers, the shoes that flop, flop, flop along—it's a completely different customer."
The critics' takeaway: He doesn't want the kind of people who ride light rail coming to a mall that he has consciously styled to be upscale.
One instance of this conscious styling: In the 1990s, Freeman successfully maneuvered to keep Gottschalks out because, the family history says, "the retailer's discount merchandise and customer demographic was not a good fit."
When I asked Freeman about the allegation that he doesn't like light rail because of the race or class of customers it might bring to Bellevue, he told me: "That's a Sound Transit–created perception."
He went on: "They vilify me. They just decide, 'Well, he's a developer, he's a white boy, he's a developer from Bellevue, obviously doesn't like minorities, so he must be doing this just to keep minorities out of his shopping center.' That's the story line they present to each other; that's how they explain me to each other."
(In a separate interview, Sound Transit's Geoff Patrick responded: "Sound Transit has made no such claims about Mr. Freeman, nor would it have ever occurred to us to do so.")
Freeman went on: "If any of those guys came to see our center, they'd see that we have twice the number of minorities than in Seattle, and they don't even know that!"
I asked Freeman whether he indeed said the thing about hair curlers and flip-flops. "Okay, that is crazy," he responded, beginning a somewhat disjointed defense. "Okay, that—every shopping center that I know something about, there's 50-some-thousand of them in America, I've been a trustee of the shopping-center industry since 1987, I chaired it '94 to '95 worldwide, I've traveled the world, I've still got a lot to learn, but this is a topic—we've got one of the best ones in America, in terms of productivity—I know something about shopping centers. I think I was being asked, I think she was covering retail, but I think [the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter] asked, 'What is the difference between the markets, Southcenter, Northgate, et cetera?' ... I said, 'Well, I think one of the things you'll see when you come to Bellevue Square is that it's an occasion they look forward to, they're a little more dressed up than they would be at Southcenter or someplace else. And anyways, it kept—and we're talking about—and you can talk to any marketing person, and this is what they talk about all day long! This isn't some weird thing, this is—any shopping center can describe in detail the profile of its shopper like it was one person! It isn't one; it's tens of thousands. So they pressed on and they said, 'You mean, if you go to Southcenter you can see differences?' And I said, 'One thing you won't see around here too often is pink and blue hair curlers in a woman's hair while she's shopping here.' But, I guarantee—and that isn't—is that wrong? It isn't wrong. It's just true!... And for that I was called a racist. Out of context."
So if it's not racism or classism, why, then, does Freeman not want a train full of people to essentially pull up to his Bellevue mall every eight minutes?
For Freeman, it begins in the crystal-ball realm of projections and estimates for future ridership. "Sound Transit," he told me, "has never made good on original estimates of ridership, not even close, not even once."
To make a point—not because he believes them—Freeman offered to momentarily accept Sound Transit's most optimistic crystal-ball projections for increased light-rail trips into and out of Bellevue by 2030. (That's seven years after the line to Bellevue is scheduled to be up and running.) Under those most optimistic projections, Freeman contends, light rail to Bellevue only adds 2,000 more trips a day.
So it's not about the type of people who might come to his mall on light-rail trains, he told me. It's about the number of people who might come to his mall on light-rail trains. According to his crystal ball: Not nearly enough.
"Today Bellevue attracts 350,000 trips," Freeman continued. "In 20 years, we expect it to be 695,000. So we have a problem of finding a way of getting 695,000 people in and out of here in a day." Adding only 2,000 new trips, he said, is thinking way too small, "a rounding error."
Freeman encouraged me to check his numbers with Sound Transit—"I'll stake my life on those numbers," he said—and added that if I did check his numbers, I would be "the first."
So I ran Freeman's numbers by Sound Transit.
It is true that the agency's early projections for ridership on the current light-rail system, known as Link, weren't met. Geoff Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman, blamed the Great Recession, but noted that now, two years after light rail's opening, it's starting to hit its original projected daily ridership of 26,000.
Patrick said Sound Transit predicts expanded light rail to the Eastside will serve about 52,000 riders each weekday by 2030, some 10,000 of them new (in the sense that they aren't already using bus transit). He noted that the agency's forecasting methodologies have been reviewed by both the federal government and the state, and added: "Our intent is to estimate future transit ridership as accurately as we can."
How about Freeman's calculation of only 2,000 new trips to Bellevue a day 20 years from now?
"We don't know exactly where he got his math," Patrick told me, saying that Sound Transit has never projected the exact number of new trips to Bellevue. "But I can comment on his underlying logic."
Patrick is familiar with Freeman's logic because he's heard it many times over the years. Freeman believes that building bigger freeways and increasing bus service will deliver more people to Bellevue than light rail. (Plus: Those helicopters! After a two-year push by Freeman's development company, the Bellevue City Council this spring cleared the way for helicopters to take off and land five times a day from a helipad less than a block from Bellevue Square.) In terms of bus service, Freeman wants what's known as BRT—Bus Rapid Transit—in which express buses operate in their own dedicated lanes. Sound Transit studied the idea of BRT to the Eastside, Patrick said, and found that it would "cost almost as much as light rail and be significantly less effective." ("That's a Sound Transit trick," Freeman counters, claiming the agency skewed its BRT studies to reach its preferred conclusion.)
In addition, Patrick said, the labor, maintenance, and fuel costs for maintaining BRT over time are about four times as high as costs for maintaining light rail. ("A total fabrication," Freeman told me. "A train is more expensive.")
"What Freeman's logic misses," Patrick said, "is that the strategy consistently used by virtually all transit agencies serving metropolitan regions of our size is to build rail transit in the corridors where transit demand is highest."
It's nearly impossible to untangle these competing analyses and crystal-ball projections. But having rail that bypasses the worst congestion, Patrick explained, allows some buses to be taken off the roads, which helps car commuters get where they're going faster. Sort of like the helicopter idea—but carrying a lot more people at a lot less cost to each of them.
Plus, if you keep building bigger freeways and running more cars over them, at a certain point you overwhelm the ability of the street grid in a city like, say, Bellevue, to handle all of those freeway-exiting cars. Plus, light rail is a long-term investment in building mass-transit capacity that will pay dividends for decades to come as our population grows and the demands on our roads increase.
Patrick didn't say this, but the Freeman family history shows that they know something about this kind of investment. Bellevue Square, Freeman Jr. told me, did not become a major source of income for the family until the 1980s, because until then the family was investing everything it could back into the property. That's a patient, 40-year wait for a tangible return on crystal-ball projections that others might have called fantasies—exactly the kind of patience Freeman doesn't show with Sound Transit.
So regardless of which theory about Freeman is on target, there's a thicket of contradiction in his anti-light-rail efforts.
His family wouldn't even be in Washington State, much less making money off people who drive across Lake Washington to shop at Bellevue Square, if it weren't for huge federal investments in transportation—funded by taxpayers. But now he's using anti-tax sentiment in a way that could derail federal investments in new transportation projects.
He calls himself an "environmentalist," but in addition to his global-warming skepticism, he has called for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to help get around the problem of dependence on foreign oil (a problem that's obviously exacerbated by the construction of bigger and bigger freeways to hold more and more cars).
He says his light-rail opposition isn't about race or class, but he has consciously styled his mall to draw a certain demographic.
And then there's the fact that Freeman lives the liberal-utopian, latte-sipping, walk-to-work dream while spending "30 percent" of his waking time fighting the liberal-utopian, latte-sipping "fantasy" of light rail.
All of this gets intensely frustrating to people who have dealt with Freeman over the years. On July 21, appearing on KUOW's Weekday, King County Executive Dow Constantine let slip the exasperation that many civic leaders voice in private about Freeman, calling him a "zealot" for his monomaniacal campaign against light rail and this current ballot initiative.
"He's put a million dollars—given Tim Eyman, of all people, a million dollars to try to run an initiative to kill light rail," Constantine said on the air. "If you shop at Bellevue Square, you are contributing to that campaign."
A few days later, addressing the Bellevue Rotary Club, and with Freeman in the audience, Constantine walked back what had sounded to many like a call for a boycott. People, Constantine said, "should shop at Bellevue Square."
Adding a little more detail to his feelings about his wealthy and opinionated constituent, Constantine told The Stranger on October 4, just over a week before he attended the Westlake rally against Freeman's initiative: "Mr. Freeman has enjoyed great success as a business leader. Where we disagree is on transportation policy, and the use of his considerable wealth to drive a public policy agenda in opposition to public transit. But hey, it's a free country."
This is where Bellevue developer John Su—believer in global warming, builder of green urban housing in downtown Bellevue that's marketed as a way for buyers to ditch their cars—comes down, too.
"He has a unique way," Su said of Freeman. "And he wants to get things done in his way. But in a democracy, sometimes you need to work on an issue to benefit the community, not an individual person's ideologies. I do believe everyone has the right to express their opinions. But when the community has voted for light rail to Bellevue, we all should work as one community to get it—even if we disagree. You shouldn't invest so much energy and money against the decision of the community. I think that's an important part of being one community."
There have been recent signs that Freeman, feeling pressure from all sides, wants to be seen as more of a team player on the Eastside. On October 21, he and Microsoft executive vice president Brad Smith called reporters to Bellevue to announce that no more contributions would be made to I-1125 by either party, and instead Freeman and Microsoft would each donate $1 million toward the construction of a new performing arts center for Bellevue. Despite this public peace making, Freeman told me later in the day that he wasn't giving up on his political strategy. "Oh God no," he said. "The best thing that could happen for transportation is for I-1125 to pass." Smith, speaking on behalf of Microsoft, blogged on October 25 that passing I-1125 would "seriously undermine improvements to our transportation infrastructure" and "unfairly eliminate options for commuters." He added that it would negatively impact "both the quality of life and the economy of our state."
So even though developer Su might want "one community," it's not all "one community" on the Eastside, and it's easy to imagine what Freeman might think of a phrase like that—it sounds a bit socialistic, something you might think up while riding light rail with a bunch of other people, not something suited to the America of car-driving freedom and radical individualism. Anyway, Freeman's not backing down. He believes he's right, he believes his rightness is good for his business, and he has the means and motivation to keep fighting as long as he wants.
As he said to me, in what sounded partly like a declaration and partly like a mission statement: "We're not losing."
This article has been updated since its original publication.