Elder statesmen of Washington weigh in on current politics

Nov 9, 2022, 1:19 PM | Updated: 1:59 pm
Former King County Executive Ron Sims (Left), ex-Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (Middle), and former three-term Governor Dan Evans (Right), discuss the current state of politics in 2022. (File images)
(File images)

As yesterday’s election was underway, KIRO Newsradio checked in with three ‘elder statesmen’ of Evergreen State politics for some perspective and for the long view of democracy in America, circa Nov. 8.

Politics – and democracy – go way back in the Northwest. Historians point to the gathering at Champoeg – now part of Oregon – back in 1843, where settlers created their own provisional government before the U.S. had officially taken over what had been Indigenous land since time immemorial. And then there’s the Cowlitz Convention, when settlers north of the Columbia River gathered in 1851 to begin the effort to split off what would become Washington from what was then Oregon Territory.

To be clear, none of the three politicians who gathered for a group phone call on Election Day 2022 go back quite that far.

Taking part in the conversation was three-term Republican Governor Dan Evans, who also served in the U.S. Senate, and who is nearing 100 years old; three-term Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, a Democrat who’s in his 80s; and three-term Democratic King County Executive Ron Sims – who also served as Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and who is now in his 70s.

What KIRO Newsradio was looking to find out was some historical perspective and some answers as to whether or not democracy was truly on the ballot, or if it was hanging in the balance.

All three men – Evans, Royer, Sims – it’s fair to say, rejected this notion while acknowledging that the country does face its share of political challenges.

What about the recent violence, such as the January 6, 2021 insurrection, or the more recent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi?

Dan Evans said the country had seen tumultuous and violent times before – from the Civil War in the 1860s to the string of political assassinations in the 1960s.

“Everybody likes to think about the good old days, but they weren’t as good as we remember,” Evans told KIRO Newsradio. “We had plenty of fights.”

What’s different now, Evans said, is the decline of true professional media outlets staffed by journalists – in particular, the great newspapers of the late 20th century that didn’t mingle fact and opinion – along with the rise of social media and the constant churn of misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric.

Even the rise of broadcasting after World War II did little to change the information landscape, Evans says.

“We depended on radio and then on the television, even, but not on these instantaneous pieces of equipment we’ve got now,” Evans said, invoking the ubiquitous smartphones that have become mandatory tools for most politicians and for those seeking office.

“And what it’s done is push people into being 100% opponents rather than being just political and policy opponents,” Evans said. “And that’s where I think we’ve created a difficult time, which is going to take some skill and some leadership to change.”

Now, those Facebook and Twitter layoffs – and the Twitter soap opera notwithstanding – the internet, smartphones, and social media aren’t likely to go away anytime soon. Thus it’s likely that the “some skill and some leadership to change” part is probably easier said than done.

One big part of that skill and leadership emerging and taking action, said Charles Royer, is about the timing and about a critical mass of the public having the will and the stomach – or maybe the nose – necessary to tackle the big issues.

Royer used Lake Washington as an example and, in particular, the effort more than 60 years ago to clean up what had become so choked with sewage that kids couldn’t swim in it anymore.

“That’s when you build a sewer system and get everybody to put money into a wastewater treatment system,” Royer said, referencing the work of Jim Ellis and others to design and publicly fund a major cleanup through the creation of a system still in place today.

“And so, ‘the lake’ doesn’t smell bad enough right now,” Royer continued, now turning Lake Washington from an example into a metaphor for the body politic. “But by God, it looks to me like it’s going to really, really put up a stinker in the next few years.”

While Charles Royer’s political nostrils tell him that the metaphorical “lake” doesn’t smell bad enough right now to inspire change, he does think the 2020 election deniers and former President Trump certainly have the ability to stink it up quite a bit more between now and 2024.

Former King County Executive Ron Sims pointed to similarly odiferous eras in American history when he says social and political change didn’t come fast enough. However, as he looks around now, Sims sees reasons to be hopeful.

“I’m the optimist, believing this is not the first time that we’ve dragged our feet in this country,” Sims said. “I don’t have much hair left, so I can’t pull any more out, but it’s one of those things where I look and say I think we’re at a time, a moment. And I think over the next two to three years, we’re going to see some significant changes that will actually push back what we assume may happen that’s bad, and move forward with things that we think are going to be to our country’s benefit.”

Dan Evans, Charles Royer, and Ron Sims may have political differences, but all three remain optimistic about the future. They all agree that it’s key for young people to be active in their communities, and for good people who want to serve their communities to get into politics and run for office – not just those hungry for power.

While political differences between Democrats and Republicans are inevitable, all three men – two Democrats and one Republican – acknowledge to varying degrees the “alternative facts” reality of the current political landscape, and the corrosiveness of dishonesty.

Honesty, says Royer, is critical to a functional political system. Even though Royer didn’t share the political views of Ronald Reagan, who was president during much of Royer’s tenure at Seattle City Hall, he did admire him.

“I thought he was a pretty good president. And he was an honest man, I think, and he was a caring person,” Royer said. “But he also told the truth. He may occasionally have, in some of his stories, bent the truth a little bit to his advantage – particularly if he was campaigning – but he didn’t outright lie.”

Royer praised Evans for his honesty and invoked the nickname “Straight Arrow” – which was applied to Evans decades ago precisely for his honesty and integrity. It’s the current standards of discourse, however, that worry Charles Royer.

“Telling the truth […] is a thing that has disappeared from our politics or political language,” Royer said. Trump, Royer says, “may run again, but he will run on a bunch of lies again.”

Based on the collective wisdom and insight of Evans, Royer, and Sims, it seems that the big takeaway about American democracy is that it’s always been a long game, and the most important time to remember that it’s a long game is when the country – and the norms and institutions built up over nearly 250 years – seem most in peril.

Sims thinks the biggest challenge we’re currently dragging our feet on is addressing climate change, but he’s philosophical about meeting all the challenges ahead.

“This country is the world’s grand experiment,” Sims said, “And we still have to keep experimenting if we want future generations to have a quality of life and fewer problems and more joy in their life, more love in their life, less war in their life, less disease in their life and more hope in their life.”

“And I think that we can do that,” Sims continued. “We can do that.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Elder statesmen of Washington weigh in on current politics