As the presidential campaign picked at scabs of the Vietnam War, our gubernatorial race reopened the wounds of the struggle for civil rights. Reliving of the 1960s began with a Seattle Times story on Monday, Aug. 23, about Attorney General and leading Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Christine Gregoire and her membership in Kappa Delta, then an all-white, all-Christian sorority at the University of Washington. The relevance of Gregoire's actions 38 years ago seemed a bit tenuous. She was 19, and segregation was the norm within many American institutions, including UW's Greek Row. But when the newspaper decided to explore the issue, the attorney general embraced it.
Gregoire argued that her decision to join the sorority, despite the fact she disagreed with its racist, anti-Semitic rules, actually showed leadership because she decided to fight for change from within. Twice after graduating, Gregoire traveled to Kappa Delta's national congresses, where she argued unsuccessfully to have the rules changed. Her postgraduate protest, however, does not cast terrific light on her action, or inaction, while she was a student. Gregoire joined Kappa Delta in 1966. At the time, the nation was in the midst of an intense civil rights struggle that changed the country, penetrating the minds of all but the most stubbornly racist. Moreover, even the genteel world of segregated sororities was being shaken as individual students, university administrators and dissident chapters challenged exclusionary practices around the country. In comparison, Gregoire was not exactly a civil-rights pioneer.
Gregoire became president of her UW house in 1968. That year, other UW sororities broke the color line. An African-American student, Linda Burton, and several Asian-American students were accepted into what had previously been all-white UW sorority houses. That was also a year of scandal. Prominent adult friends of another black student, Paula Moore, wrote university officials and politicians to claim Moore had suffered discrimination when she received no invitations to join a sorority. Gregoire says she doesn't remember the notoriety of either Burton or Moore, despite the fact there was coverage of their contrasting fates in the Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the University of Washington Daily, as well as an investigation by the UW faculty of Moore's experience.
Following the flap, four civil rights leaders, including Seattle NAACP president Carl Mack, called a press conference and blasted Gregoire for not doing more in the struggle for civil rights during her time in college. They thought today she should apologize for joining the sorority, not claim it as an act of leadership. While some of their rhetoric was over the top -- they compared Gregoire to Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who praised segregation as recently as 2002 -- their anger seemed to be justified by the attorney general's spin.
Will all of this second-guessing of a 19-year-old in 1966 be on top of their minds when Democratic voters choose their nominee on Sept. 14? Not unless some stunning revelation surfaces in the meantime. There are plenty of present-day issues that might affect the primary outcome, though leadership is certainly one of them. It's clear to many voters that we need the state's next governor forcefully and effectively to confront our economic doldrums, our education system's malaise, our transportation gridlock and the growing ranks of the uninsured.
While the leading Republican nominee, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, is facing only nominal opposition, the race between Gregoire and Sims is heated. While Gregoire is ahead in key endorsements and fundraising, Sims has created a buzz with his advocacy of a much-needed state income tax. Although Gregoire leads in most polls, the Sims campaign has an intriguing theory of victory in the primary based on a low-turnout election dominated by the urban liberal Democrats of Seattle and Tacoma.
The two Democratic candidates are a study in contrast when it comes to leadership style, too. Voters can't complain this time about indistinguishable choices.
Ron Sims leads like the ordained Baptist minister that he is. He addresses the state as a preacher would his congregation. Sims, who was raised in Spokane and graduated from Lewis and Clark High School, decides what is the right way forward and then exhorts his flock to follow. It doesn't matter to him if his congregation is a bit tentative. He believes he has the moral authority to point out the correct path and convince the unwilling, the wayward, and the confused to walk along it behind him.
Sims' campaign for governor is a perfect example of this. He has analyzed the state's major problems and decided that there is one underlying issue that connects them all: an inadequate and unfair revenue system. He proposes eliminating two of the chief taxes paid to the state -- the sales tax, which Sims argues is regressive, and the business and occupation tax, which he believes discourages job growth by taxing businesses' gross revenues regardless of profitability. Sims also wants to exempt the first $100,000 of property from taxation. To replace those revenues, Sims wants to enact a progressive personal income tax of between 4 percent and 10 percent. He claims that taxes for most households will go down under this plan -- thus neatly addressing the state's ongoing tax revolt by creating a fairer system -- while the state's revenue will actually increase. This would make it possible to address some of our problems such as education funding.
Sims' proposal faces high hurdles to become law. An income tax would require a constitutional amendment approved by a two-thirds vote in both the state House and the state Senate, as well as a majority of a popular vote. Over the past 30 years, a couple of the state's most popular governors, Republican Dan Evans and Democrat Booth Gardner, tried to enact an income tax and failed.
Sims is not interested in hearing that it can't be done. "Leaders inspire us to be greater than we are," he says. "This country was built on people's belief that we could be more than was possible -- making the impossible possible."
Christine Gregoire leads as though she were the state's chief lawyer - which, in reality, she is. She spends a lot of time listening to her client -- in this case, the people of Washington. Next, she creates goals that respond to her clients' needs. Finally, she assembles the interest groups that have a stake in the outcome and negotiates a settlement that is in her client's best interest.
Gregoire's campaign for governor began with listening. (She graduated from Gonzaga's School of Law and lived in Spokane for a while.) She has toured the state and identified the key issues she thinks are on voters' minds: the economy, education and health care. Next, she issued white papers that describe the problems we face and suggest steps to address them, though they are short on specifics in key areas. In education, for instance, she calls for better salaries for teachers, but she doesn't spell out how to pay for them. That's consistent with her leadership approach. She doesn't want to be too specific before negotiating begins. In order to keep her options open, she prefers to set a goal and work toward it without being locked into one way of achieving it. Gregoire, however, doesn't think comparing her leadership style to a lawyer's is accurate. She argues that lawyers don't agree with their clients but still have to represent their interests -- and that's not analogous to the task facing a governor.
"You are right that I did spend four months going out and listening to people," she says. "They are disconnected from government. Then I set a vision. I set a goal: Let's try to get people to the table. I am determined to accomplish the goal." Sounds just like a lawyer.
George Howland is the political editor of Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared. Philip Dawdy and Emily Page contributed to this story.