by Erica Barnett
Earlier this month—after multiple investigations, a vote of no confidence, and a lengthy internal trial that found him guilty on five counts of workplace misconduct, financial malfeasance, and “conduct unbecoming an officer,” King County Democratic Party chairman Bailey Stober resigned from both his position as chair of the county party and his $98,000-a-year job as communications director for King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson. The announcements capped a months-long process that turned into a referendum on not just Stober but the culture and future of the local Democratic Party.
Even after losing his position at the party and his paying job at the county, Stober remained defiant and mostly unapologetic. In a letter to Party members announcing his resignation, Stober took credit for numerous successes, including a fundraising campaign that began before his tenure. Then, he offered a vague apology, “to those I have let down and disappointed.” He did not mention the sexual harassment and financial misconduct charges that led to his ouster or the fact that after one year under his leadership, the county party had almost no money in the bank.
His resignation letter to Wilson went even further. After taking credit for a long list of successes at the assessor’s office, Stober suggested he was the real reason “longshot” Wilson managed to win his election in 2015 when Stober was 23. Furthermore, he claimed people were telling him Wilson “didn’t stand a chance to succeed.” Stober did not apologize for, or even mention, the investigation, which concluded that Stober had behaved inappropriately toward his employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo by, among other things, calling her a “cunt” and a “bitch.”
In exchange for agreeing not to sue or seek employment at the county in the future, Stober received a $37,700 payout from the jurisdiction, on top of unemployment benefits that could, over six months, total nearly $20,000. Combined with the full pay Stober received during the one month in 2018 when he was on the job at the assessor’s office and the nearly three months when he was on fully paid leave, Stober could make more than $87,000 in 2018 even if he does not work another day. The investigation itself cost taxpayers another $25,360.
To the end, Stober’s supporters have insisted that the investigation into his behavior was a witchhunt by a group of politically motivated fabulists who resented his success. Several allies even resigned their positions at the King County Democrats after the trial, saying that they no longer felt “safe” in the organization. Even after three separate investigations concluded he had committed many of the actions of which he was accused, Stober professed his innocence and insisted that his accusers had “made up [or] exaggerated” most of their claims.
“If I have to be the first one to go through this process to open our eyes to the flaws that we have … so be it,” Stober said after the trial, noting how hard it had been for him personally to sit in the room throughout the proceedings and listen to people “debate whether or not I’m a horrible person.”
Stober’s opponents, including Koss Vallejo, said their goal was to hold Stober accountable for his actions and ensure future leaders accused of misconduct will not be able to manipulate party rules to hold on to power to the bitter end.
Who won? Strictly speaking, of course, the group of Democrats who accused Stober of misconduct prevailed. The former Chairman is no longer in power, and his ambition to become state Democratic Party Chair has been dashed for now. In a larger sense, though, the jury is still out on that question. The bruising debate over Stober’s guilt or innocence has split the local Democratic Party into factions, and the King County Democrats have been left with no permanent leader, no money in the bank, and no consensus on whether justice was served.
To understand the implications of Stober’s resignation, and the arguments that were made by his supporters and detractors, it is important to know a little about the charges brought against him. They included:
- Spending thousands of dollars in Party funds without the approval of the group’s treasurer, Nancy Podscwhit, or its governing board.
The expenditures in question included a $1,826 stay at a house on Vashon Island for Stober and a few Party officials; an office in Auburn that cost more than twice the amount Stober was authorized to spend; a $500-a-month Internet package with enough bandwidth to power a mid-size e-commerce firm; and thousands of dollars in brand-new office equipment for Stober and Koss Vallejo. By the end of Stober’s term, according to treasurer Nancy Podschwit, the group was “broke.” (Stober defended his financial decisions in a lengthy open letter).
- Firing his lone employee, Natalia Koss Vallejo, on shaky grounds and without board approval.
Stober said he dismissed Koss Vallejo after she “vandalized” a car in a parking lot because it had a hat with the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement logo displayed in the back window. A security-camera video of the incident, obtained by Stober and posted anonymously to Youtube by a new account called “DemsAre BadPeople,” shows Vallejo tossing the contents of a cup on the hood of the car. (Koss Vallejo said the cup contained the dregs of an iced coffee.)
- “Conduct unbecoming an officer,” including frequent “excessive public intoxication,” sexual harassment, incidents of pushing drinks on party volunteers and subordinates, and bullying Koss Vallejo and other Party members.
Among other accusations, Stober allegedly grabbed Koss Vallejo’s phone and posted “I shit my pants” on her Facebook wall, mocked her appearance in front of other people, called her a “bitch” and a “lying sack of shit,” and made sexist jokes, including one about a party member who was accused of raping an underage volunteer at a state Party event in Walla Walla last year.
Stober spent nearly two months pleading his own case—on Facebook, his personal blog, at party meetings, and in emails to party members—but the trial was Koss Vallejo’s first formal opportunity to speak on her own behalf. During and after Koss Vallejo’s testimony, Stober’s supporters aggressively questioned her credibility and even accused her of having a drug problem, witnesses recounted—a claim for which they reportedly provided no evidence, which Koss Vallejo denies, and which is irrelevant to the question of whether Stober was guilty of misconduct.
“It was absolutely humiliating and degrading,” Koss Vallejo said afterward. “I wasn’t the person on trial. He was on trial for misconduct, and he was able to waste several hours focusing on my character and maligning me.”
After the trial ended, Koss Vallejo said, she didn’t feel like she had “won.” “It was never my goal to get Bailey Stober to resign; it gives me no pleasure,” she said. “No one should have to spend this much time on an internal process to remove someone who is guilty of malfeasance. All of those volunteer hours should have gone toward knocking on doors and strategizing about the real work that we’re supposed to be doing”—promoting and electing Democratic Party candidates, Koss Vallejo said.
In King County, electing Democrats might seem like an easy lift. Last year, as Stober himself noted in his farewell message to members, Democrats prevailed in three out of four partisan elections in King County. Currently, they also hold the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. However, the way King County Democrats have handled allegations of workplace and financial misconduct could have ripple effects across the state.
Will donors, including elected officials, put their funds and efforts into building a party that seems to care more about protecting its own than building power? Will young women considering careers in politics think twice before joining a party that has a reputation of disbelieving women? Will people who do not fit in with the prevailing “party culture”—a culture that, according to many party members, has long revolved around drinking—feel unwelcome?
Stober, who blamed some of his behavior on a “combination of volunteering 30 to 40 hours a week, working a full-time job … stress, alcohol, and immaturity,” was an enthusiastic participant in, and proponent of, the kind of party culture that state Party chairwoman Tina Podlodowski has been trying to root out. Indeed, several witnesses have described him and another Party member mocking Podlodowski for banning alcohol at Party functions and trying to tamp down the drinking culture in the organization. Such effort that was thrown into high relief when an underage Party member said she was sexually assaulted after a state Party event in Walla Walla, where she says she was given alcohol by, among others, Bailey Stober.
More recently, Jin-Ah Kim, a recovering addict who is active in the 32nd District Democrats, said Stober repeatedly pressured her to drink with him, despite knowing she is in recovery. While drinking alcohol neither causes nor excuses misconduct, it undoubtedly contributes to bad decision making and excludes people who, for whatever reason, prefer not to do business at bars or after hours.
Many of the women who supported Koss Vallejo have said they are enthusiastic to get back to the work of promoting Democratic candidates for the 2018 elections and rebuilding the party. This task will require not just changes to the group’s code of conduct and its process for removing officers but a period of reconciliation between party members on both sides of the Stober divide.
Two weeks after the trial, Stober’s most stalwart allies were still lashing out at Koss Vallejo’s supporters online, accusing them of misrepresenting her experience as a part of the MeToo movement and chastising them for deciding Stober was guilty before the 14-hour trial had concluded. With Stober himself out of the picture, though, many on both sides of the debate over his behavior hope the group can start to heal itself and rebuild—starting with the adoption of an HR and a revised code of conduct that gives victims who are not part of the formal party structure an opportunity to speak on their own behalf.
One person who will not be involved in that rebuilding process is Koss Vallejo. “I still care deeply about the Party,” Vallejo says. “I’m deeply invested in helping Democrats win and helping women win. But it’s not my place to fix these problems. I’m hoping that the people who are still involved, and the new people who have come into the party through this process, will be able to correct the problems that have taken place over the course of this investigation,” so that the next person who believes she has been harassed, bullied, or mistreated by someone in the Party will feel safe coming forward.
Erica C. Barnett is a longtime Seattle journalist who covers city politics and policy as a freelance journalist for various print and online publications and at her blog, The C Is for Crank. Previously, she was a co-founder of PubliCola, the local politics blog, a staff writer and news editor at the Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas.