Paul Hess grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment. He left that church a long time ago, but when he gets into politics in Seattle, he said he gets that same feeling: It’s rigid and not inclusive. He’s viewed as a political “neanderthal” — that’s because Hess is a Republican in notoriously liberal Seattle.
Seattle is No. 16 on a list of the 25 most liberal cities in America, according to The Bay Area Center for Voting Research: 80 percent of Seattleites vote Democrat. Only two areas — Broadmoor and Madison Park — have gone Republican in recent presidential elections, and even they overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in 2008.
Hess lives in Kenmore and represents the 46th District for the Republican party. The district encompasses most of Northeast Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Kenmore.
He has been conservative since he was a senior at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. He’s a lawyer who gets along with people, he said, but when it comes to politics, he’s “troubled by and highly amused by the situation in Seattle.” With a City Council of eight Democrats and one Socialist, Seattle needs a moderate or “god forbid, a conservative” voice, Hess said.
“Democrats think they own the place,” he said. “We don’t think we do; we have to earn it.”
Republicans used to win elections in Seattle, but that is a distant memory for most. An unbalanced system leads to group-think and sloppiness, Hess said.
“We ought to have a Republican governor just to clean the cobwebs out and get some new people and ideas,” he said.
Queen Anne’s Glenn Avery is another active Seattle Republican. (Full disclosure: Avery is a former columnist for Pacific Publishing Co., which owns this paper.) He’s chairperson of the 36th District Republicans, which includes Downtown Seattle, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Ballard and some of Green Lake. The 36th District is more conservative than other parts of town, especially fiscally, Avery said.
Politics in Seattle as a Republican can be fun, Avery said, “as long as you don’t expect huge change over night.”
Republicans in hiding
There are pockets of Republicans, but not enough to make a difference. Many hide their conservative viewpoints for fear of being scorned or shamed. Hess even finds closet fiscal conservatives among Seattle’s LGBT community who continue to vote liberal because they “view the Republican party as not in sync with their civil rights.”
Like Hess, Avery sees the closet Republicans when he doorbells in his district — it’s the best-kept secret in town, he said.
“One thing you always find, when you knock on the door and tell them you’re Republican, they say, ‘You must be the only other one in the city,’” he said. “But the person down the street said the same thing.”
Avery thinks the demographic is beginning to change. Even though Seattle’s tech community continues to have a stronghold of liberals, there’s new enthusiasm for conservative politics there, he said.
Maple Leaf’s Sabrina Hill represents the 46th District for the Democrats. Hill has been involved with the party since about 2007, but she’s been a Democrat her whole life. It’s much easier to be a liberal here than places she previously lived like Georgia and Iowa, she said. Like many, Hill doesn’t run into many Republicans, so she was shocked to see they had a booth during the Lake City Pioneer Days.
It’s not all great being on the dominant side, though: Hill said it’s more difficult to get a consensus among the Democrats who have different interests.
“It’s hard to get something done quickly,” she said. “Everyone thinks the same, then things don’t have a chance to move forward or hear new arguments.”
There’s a big concern about not hurting feelings among Democrats in Seattle, which Hill thinks is more of a Seattle thing than a Democrat thing. Still, she doesn’t see many people switching political sides in the future, saying, “I don’t see us becoming more conservative.”
Challenges in a liberal city
Getting people to engage can be difficult, Hess said: Here, people don’t wear their politics on their sleeve because they don’t do that with other aspects of their life, like with their religious beliefs.
“[Debate] is hard to do here when the other side thinks they’re going to automatically win,” he said. “It’s hard to get your message out.”
It’s also difficult for Republicans to get qualified candidates to run in Seattle, Avery said, because they feel the effort is futile.
But they need candidates to influence things like spending. Hess sees the need for that Republican direction in transportation, utility rates, social programs and education.
“Democrats generally are saying, ‘Just give us the money,’” he said. “The beast needs the money.”
Avery worries about pension liabilities, transit, public safety and the proposed metropolitan park districts. Problem areas in Seattle could be fixed with responsible budgeting and more attention to maintenance and infrastructure, he said.
There is also a true Cascade divide, with the rest of Washington state leaning much more conservative. “I’m not sure Seattle is viewed terribly well by the rest of the state,” Hess said. “Our numbers tend to cancel out the votes from the rest of [Washington].”
Avery sees a potential for influence with renewed interest among young people on college campuses.
The College Republicans at the University of Washington (UW) club — whose tagline is “Your conservative voice in liberal Seattle”— has a roster of approximately 300, with about 35 strong members. The club is equally split between men and women and has a range of ages. It does lack membership among students of color, Harris acknowledged, saying it’s something they’re working to improve.
Like the Seattle Republicans, some students in this club are more fiscally than socially conservative. Last year, some members voted for legalizing gay marriage in Washington, said Shannon Harris, president of the College Republicans at the UW.
Harris, originally from Snohomish, Wash., is studying political science and history. She comes from a family of conservatives and has always considered herself to be one, too.
Being a young Republican like Harris is an uphill battle in Seattle, she said. This is especially true when it comes to elections, which can get disappointing. It also makes it more exciting when they do win an election.
“It gives us a little bit of an underdog mentality,” Harris said.
The College Republicans club has a banner hanging in UW’s Red Square that says, “You’re not alone!”
“We’re not an endangered species that doesn’t exist,” Harris said. “People shouldn’t be ashamed to say they’re Republican.”
Part of that perceived shame may come from the perception of who Republicans are. A lot of people only see older, white men representing the party, Harris said — that’s one thing the “future of the party is definitely changing.”
They want to get the message out that Republicans include young people, women, people of color and of different religious backgrounds.
“We’re here; we’re continuing to grow,” she said. “The time is now for us to do what we can to change the face of the party, so old stereotypes can be put to rest.”
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