By Tom James
It’s easy to like Rod Hearne.
Locally, Hearne is known for heading Equal Rights Washington during the last successful effort to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, but he talks without the ego of the small town big shot, or the stultifying disconnect of the fact-laden wonk.
Instead, Hearne is easygoing and open, avoiding the tone of lecture even as he talks politics with the confidence of someone who has been deep in the game.
Hearne earlier this month declared his candidacy for the Seattle City Council Third District seat. Under the new system, which Seattle voters approved two years ago, seven of the council’s nine members will be elected by individual districts. Two seats will remain citywide, but Kshama Sawant, the former community college professor who made headlines for her socialist credentials and initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage, will stand for the Third District seat.
As much as any policy position, in a lengthy interview over the weekend, Hearne’s defining characteristic was, before answering each question, a pause. Seeming to reach down into himself, Hearne came up with answers that – when they avoided the political realm – were notable for their candor.
But in a race against Sawant, who has made a mission and a message out of attacks branding her opponents as not only wrong, but probably enemies of decency, justice, and all good people everywhere, the question is whether that likeability – even paired with a relatively strong record – will be enough to sway voters.
Part of the challenge is the territory. The Third District, which stretches from the Montlake cut to the south end of the Central District, was a major Sawant stronghold in the last election. While most of the rest of the city was a patchwork, with the exception of the wealthy Madison Park neighborhood and a thin strip along Lake Washington, the Third District went entirely for Sawant.
Yet, while it’s clear that Sawant still has a strong base of support, it is less clear how much damage has been done by her polarizing style.
In a much-cited October poll by EMC, Sawant registered the strongest level of District support – 61 percent rated her favorably and 54 percent would vote to re-elect her out of all nine city councilmembers.
But in something of a paradox, while Sawant’s approval ratings were among the highest in the city, so were her disapproval ratings.
That was because less people were unsure about her. While other councilmembers had sometimes as many as two-thirds of voters responding “don’t know,” Sawant had more name recognition – and less voters on the fence – than any other councilmember.
Instead, alongside Sawant’s strong support, she also had the strongest citywide “unfavorable” ratings: nearly one-in-three voters. The next most-opposed official was the mayor, who was viewed unfavorably by less than one-in-four.
District results were less clear because of a high margin of error, but still found Sawant as having among the strongest in-District opposition of any councilmember.
While far from a decisive blow in Hearne’s favor, the results point to an unknown in the race – how hard Sawant’s opponents will fight, and how much of a boost Hearne may be able to harness from a waiting, already-polarized base.
The Decision to Run
In the months leading up to his decision to run, Hearne approached Ryan Mello for advice. A city councilman in Tacoma and fellow gay rights activist who Hearne met through Equal Rights Washington, Mello said the two talked about the race and the realities of being in office.
“He’s going into this with his eyes wide open about […] what the tone of the race may turn into,” Mello said. “I think he’s as prepared as you can be.”
Mello agreed that bringing voters around in a district that turned out for Sawant would be a challenge, but said he thought Hearne’s personality would give him an advantage on the ground, going door to door.
Building a Reputation
Already, Hearne, who gained a reputation as a bridge builder during the push for same-sex marriage, is being painted by some as the establishment candidate.
Instead of fighting the charge, Hearne is hanging much of his campaign on the idea that he will be able to turn it on its head.
The label, of course, isn’t far from the mark. During the marriage push, Hearne solidified the measure’s victory in large part through his ability to make connections with those already in power. Even before the campaign, Hearne was clearly meeting all the right people, serving on the campaigns of both Gov. Gary Locke and Mayor Greg Nickels.
But Hearne points to the marriage push as proof positive that compromise can work.
“You have to make friends with people you don’t agree with all the time,” Hearne said.
When he and others were drumming up votes in Olympia, he said, the group graded legislators on key issues. “If we had only talked to the ones who got A’s, we wouldn’t have had 27 votes for marriage equality in the Senate.”
Another point that Hearne has pressed in recent interviews, and re-iterated over the weekend, was that he thinks voters will want a different kind of candidate to go along with the new district system.
The logic goes something like this: voters elected Sawant because they wanted a disruptor, but in a new system, they’ll see that they only have one neighborhood representative to call.
Against a candidate that has staked her reputation on big fights – and who it can take weeks to speak with – Hearne is hoping he can come off as more accessible and more in touch with Third District issues.
The Race Factor
One thing Hearne is clearly sensitive about is something he can’t change: his race.
Already, against a challenger who is herself a member of a minority group, Hearne said he feels he has been painted by some as not only the establishment candidate, but as a white man trying to displace a woman of color on a council already disproportionately white.
“I was able to go to college, I was able to buy a home in Seattle,” said Hearne, who was raised in Madison Park. “I’ve been given opportunities that a lot of other people haven’t been given, but I’ve been aware of that fact all along.”
“That truly doesn’t excuse any of the inequality,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been trying to fight against all my life. But then to have somebody sort of dismiss me because I have had that, and not just dismiss me, but paint me along with people like the Koch brothers,” he said, referring to the neoconservative billionaire donors, “it’s just kind of painful. It’s kind of unfortunate.”
At the end of the day, Hearne said, the notion that he is an establishment candidate is one that he accepts.
“If somebody’s going to attack me because, I’m you know, a tool, or what have you…”
After one of his trademark pauses, Hearne let out a long sigh.
“I can deal with that,” he said. “Life goes on, and I have, at least in my own heart, been blessed by the knowledge that what I did once really made a difference.”
“I certainly wasn’t the only person involved in the [marriage] campaign, but I played a key role, and it changed the world. I can go to bed every night knowing that there are 7,000 couples married in Washington in part because of work I helped do. And that feels very good. And you know, if in the process somebody sort of attacks me for, you know, being inauthentic, or ineffective, or what have you – I’ve already done good work. I can live with that.”
Being Ready to Fight
But a question is looming over Hearne, and it loomed over our interview, too. As a coalition builder, he can present a case for himself that rests solidly on a major accomplishment. But in politics, building bridges with your allies comes second. Beating your opponent comes first. Before the compromise starts, I asked him, is he ready to fight?
“Well,” he said. “I think,” he stopped himself.
He started again.
He picked up his thread there. Before their victory, when he was leading Equal Rights Washington, he said, “we lost every single marriage equality battle in every state across the country. We had 32 losses. And I not only had to fight our opponents…I had to fight some of our allies.”
Clearly, Hearne’s strengths – and the strength of the coalitions he helped build – carried that fight. But without 32 states to lose as a warm-up, it remains to be seen if a falter out of the gate will cost him the race against an incumbent who manages to be both a progressive darling and a bulldog, and who will definitely come out swinging.
All photos in this story are courtesy of Tom James/The Seattle Lesbian.