Earlier this fall, Thurston County seemed to offer a sterling example of how election campaigns ought to be: civil, agenda-driven, and focused on solutions to pressing problems.
Even in the contest between incumbent Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim and challenger Victor Minjares, where the differences were acute, public debate was sharp but reliably civil. But as the campaigns wore on, cracks in the façade of civility began to appear.
First there was the pants-on-fire lie spread in mailers masterminded by right-wing bad boy Glen Morgan. They urged people to cast write-in votes for “a real progressive,” E. J. Zita, rather than Tye Menser, the undeniably “real progressive” actual Democratic candidate. That was just downright creepy. Zita, a Port Commissioner, was emphatically not running for the County Commission seat.
Then multiple Facebook posts started to appear recounting hostile, bullying behavior by Andrew Saturn, a candidate who sought to defeat incumbent Public Utility District commissioner Linda Oosterman. In mid-October, Saturn claimed, without offering any details, that he was assaulted by an Oosterman campaign staffer back in mid-July. There also was snarling over Saturn spreading misinformation about the PUD, and PUD administrator wrote a memo to correct the record.
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All this occurred in spite of Saturn’s signing a “pro truth pledge” committing himself to “protect facts and civility.” In the end – on Nov. 5, when most people had already voted – the Thurston County Democrats’ executive committee condemned Saturn’s behavior and disassociated itself from his campaign.
In most cases, candidates maintained their civility, but some of their supporters didn’t. Many letters to the editor were rejected for personal attacks, insults and hatefulness that added nothing to the debate. (Other, better letters didn’t make it into print simply because of lack of space.) Some of Minjares’ supporters seemed particularly spiteful; several wrote letters insisting that anyone who didn’t support him was a racist.
And while it’s not surprising that even the best candidates get tired and testy in the final days of a long and demanding campaign, Tunheim should have taken a nap rather than write on Facebook that “I don’t know if he (opponent Minjares) actually believes what he’s saying, but one thing I’m sure of, he doesn’t know enough about our system to be talking about it.”
Snarky comments like that surely don’t help improve our county’s “data-driven hope score” – Tunheim’s signature extra-curricular cause.
Why is all this important? It’s important because the deep reservoir of civil American democratic practice has run low in these polarized times, and it’s up to us to refill it.
At the national level, having a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives puts a welcome brake on the Trump administration, but (barring a miracle) it also intensifies polarization and continuing gridlock at the national level. So for now, any hope for refilling the reservoir of civility and reviving a fully functional democracy probably lies closer to home, in state and local governments.
Even if we can’t overcome the multinational oil companies to pass a carbon tax, it is fully within our power to reduce the toxic pollution of meanness that pours into our political environment.
The race between 22nd Legislative District Representative Beth Doglio and her Libertarian challenger Allen Acosta is proof that this is possible. Here is Doglio’s morning after the election Facebook post:
“Thank you Allen Acosta for being a friendly opponent. You always greeted me with a warm smile. Thank you for your work in our community on behalf of veterans and the homeless. I look forward to playing blackjack with you and your wonderful wife again in the future!”
This is the ideal that all candidates should uphold, even if they don’t play blackjack.