A couple racist mailers hit Tacoma-area mailboxes last week. KIRO reported on the more obvious and egregious one, which supports Republican State Senator Steve O'Ban in his race against Democratic challenger T'wina Nobles in Washington's 28th Legislative District.
Former Public Disclosure Commission executive director Evelyn Fielding Lopez flagged the mailer, pictured above, as racist and anti-Black, noting that Nobles's skin appears to be darkened.
On Twitter, Sen. O'Ban didn't explicitly condemn the flyer as racist, but rather broadly denounced "campaign pieces which alter the opponents photo," and called on the "persons responsible to not use similar tactics."
A political action committee linked to Senate Republicans distributed the mailer, according to KIRO.
But it wouldn't be Washington politics if there wasn't a Democrat slobbering all over his dog whistle, too. Here's a mailer circulating in Washington's 29th district, paid for by Democratic Rep. Steve Kirby, a ten-term incumbent running against Washington State Department of Ecology special assistant Sharlett Mena, who is a first-generation Mexican-American.
Rep. Kirby's mailer accuses Mena of moving from Seattle to Tacoma to run for office—a charge that isn't technically true and that Mena disputes—and includes a dictionary.com definition of the word "carpetbagger," in case the reader wanted to assign a specific term to Mena's actions.
But Kirby's mailer offers dictionary.com's secondary definition of the word. The word's primary definition is rooted in the racist history of the country, and dictionary.com preserves its racist framing: "a Northerner who went to the South after the Civil War and became active in Republican politics, especially so as to profiteer from the unsettled social and political conditions of the area during Reconstruction."
In a 1988 letter to the editor in the New York Times, Columbia University historian Eric Foner points out the term "carpetbagger" was "developed by white supremacist opponents of Reconstruction."
"A Northerner, whatever his origins or character, who joined the Democratic Party and believed in white supremacy was a gentleman; one who joined the Republicans and defended the rights of blacks was a carpetbagger," Foner explained.
Meanwhile, the language on the front of the mailer—"he's one of us"—suggests that being "one of us" requires "being born & raised here," a xenophobic resonance that reinforces the racist undertones of Kirby's "carpetbagger" accusation.
Over the phone, Mena said her "heart sank" when friends showed her Kirby's mailer. "I think that mailer alienates a lot of people in the district, including many in the military community who have come and gone. Fifteen percent of our population is foreign-born, and our district is increasingly younger and increasingly more diverse," she said.
"Sounds like Steve grew up here his whole life, but I didn’t have the privilege of growing up in the same place or even in the same house," Mena added.
Mena said she grew up in Tri-Cities, went to college at Washington State University, and then bounced back and forth between D.C. and Seattle until landing a job at the WA Department of Ecology in the fall of 2018. She moved to the 29th District from D.C. to start that job in January of 2019, but remained registered to vote in Seattle while she was away.
She claims she was drawn to the area because friends lived nearby and "because it’s one of the most diverse communities in the west side," not because she wanted to run for office.
That decision, she said, was prompted by what she saw as a "lack of leadership" from Kirby on issues she and others in the district care about. "There's no shortage of talent here, but not everyone is willing to take on the uphill battle of fighting the incumbent," she added.
During his long tenure in office, Kirby voted against the gay marriage bill, introduced legislation to remove consumer protections against predatory payday lenders, voted in committee to water down just-cause protections, earned a C rating from the NRA, and he's been "gumming up the works [on progressive reforms] behind the scenes," Mena said.
As for the mailer, Mena said Kirby either "willfully" included racist and xenophobic rhetoric "or didn't understand the implications." Regardless, "either one makes him unfit for office," she said.
Kirby accepts this criticism of the mailer and now feels bad about using the language. Over the phone, he said he hadn't learned about the racist underpinnings of the word "carpetbagger" when he was taught the term in history class "50 years ago." When someone explained that history to him shortly after his mailer came out, he agreed that using the word in a mailer was "unacceptable."
"I have expunged that word from my vocabulary for good because that is now the right thing to do. Would have been something really good to know right before the mailer went to print. I feel bad about it," he said.
He said he didn't originally want to include "carpetbagger" in the mailer in the first place, but when he did he ended up including the definition because he feared the people of his district might not know what the word meant.
He added that he "regrets" using the phrase "because he's one of us," because, "taken out of context—and I did not look at the phrase out of context—I agree that those words say something that I don't mean them to say." He hoped that the surrounding language would make his meaning clear—that his lifetime of living in the district has given him insights into the minds of the local voters—but he recognizes that opponents could use that language against him. "In politics that's fair, whether I like it or not. I know better now and I will do better," he added.
Kirby also argued his work on payday lending reform, which he said included helping State Senator Sharon Nelson pass her bill limiting the size of short-term loans to $700 or 30% of one's income, "nearly put the industry out of business."
He defended his vote against the gay marriage bill as simply carrying out the will of voters in his district, which was confirmed, he pointed out, when a majority of his district ended up voting to reject the referendum in 2012. (The measure lost by less than a point in Pierce County.) He said he would have voted for the bill if it came to the floor today, but at the time he "didn't see any point in being the 56th vote on a bill that only needed 50 votes to pass."