by Glenn Nelson
I’m going to skip right to the punchline here: The King County Council failed last week when it asked Kathy Lambert to apologize for what six of them termed her “racist piece of political mail.” It also acted insufficiently on Tuesday when it voted to strip Lambert of her committee leadership positions. Nothing short of her resignation or removal is enough of a reckoning for what even in today’s divisive climate were absurdly blatant, public, and undeniably racist actions.
With a super-majority endorsing her opponent, Sarah Perry, the Council has only partly done a deed that they should have finished.
That is, unless they all can rationalize that, by following the research and advice of her political consultant, Lambert simply was representing her constituency. Even that is more problematic than it sounds.
“The flyer is par for the course,” Girmay Zahilay, the County Council’s only Black member and centerpiece of Lambert’s offensive mailer, said in an interview with the Emerald. “It exposed publicly how she views the world.”
Lambert can talk all she wants about “one lapse in judgment,” but it’s become increasingly clear that she secures her worldview through a wayback machine.
Zahilay recalls that, early in his term, Lambert invited community leaders and advocates for housing-unstable youth from Zahilay’s District 2 “to come sleep in the youth jail.” Lambert voted against making Juneteenth a paid holiday, taking cover with the I-have-Black-friends defense, as well as claiming to support programs in Africa. She also voted against Indigenous Peoples’ Day and I can only imagine that she feels justified because she already celebrates Thanksgiving by watching reruns of the 1950s TV series The Lone Ranger.
From telling KUOW that sexual assault is a “two-way street” to her support of public funding for landlords to bring eviction cases as a matter of “balance of equity,” Lambert has demonstrated that she has lost touch with shifting societal and political norms.
That shift presumably is taking place in King County District 3, which Lambert has represented for the past 20 years. District 3 is a sprawling, considerably rural Eastside construct that stretches from Redmond, Sammamish, and Issaquah to a large swath of National Forest and Wilderness lands east of smaller towns such as Duvall, Carnation, and North Bend. It had been reliably red, which served Lambert, a Republican, well until the August 2021 primary, in which she barely outpolled Perry, 40% to 36%.
Mired in such political quicksand, Lambert unleashed a desperate, cynical ploy to mobilize what she considers her base and, at the same time, scare off newly woke voters with layers of tried-and-true racist tropes, all slathered into one convenient illustration.
The mailer, created for Lambert’s approval by Republican consulting firm 1892, LLC., taps effectively into white supremacist rigor mortis. Political scientists Charles McIlwain and Stephen Caliendo established various criteria for racist — as opposed to racial — political appeals in their award-winning work, Race Appeal. The book, published after the Obama presidential elections, establishes several major boxes of racist appeal that Lambert’s flyer ticks:
- The use of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in campaign material for a white candidate is dog-whistle racializing for “not one of us,” according to McIlwain and Caliendo. Lambert’s mailer pictures not just Zahilay but also Vice President Kamala Harris, who is Black and Indian American, and Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is Indian American. That Zahilay is Black with, as he puts it, a “funny sounding last name” and is an immigrant born to refugee parents presents a further grab bag of othering elements.
- Reference to Black politicians as left-leaning is code for extremism, which in turn can translate to “dangerous,” the political scientists say. Lambert’s flyer identifies Zahilay and Perry, and presumably Harris by association, incorrectly as socialists. Sawant is the only true socialist pictured and offers the added othering bonuses of being considered dangerous by establishment Seattle, leading to her recall and harkening to … horrors … big-city politics.
- Audience is the most telling of McIlwain and Caliendo’s variables and, though it may be getting more diverse than it was, District 3 still is more than 68% white, according to the county’s 2020 study of broadband access. That and the fact that the district awarded Lambert a primary plurality can at least bolster a perception of support primed for racist messaging, especially if she was searching for that perspective. Apparently she was, as both County Councilmember Rod Demowski and the Northwest Progressive Institute say they glimpsed polling language that explored the themes presented in Lambert’s flyer.
The mailer further depicts Zahilay in a red bow tie and pin-striped suit, conjuring Nation of Islam symbolism, again, leaning on Black extremism. Zahilay also is shown as manipulating puppet strings connected to Perry, tapping into the “Black brute” caricature considered especially menacing to white women. Such an association has not been so egregiously deployed since the 1988 presidential campaign, when George H.W. Bush invoked Willie Horton, a Black convict who raped a white woman and stabbed her boyfriend while on weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.
The entirety of the illustration was so shocking and intentional, Zahilay said his initial reaction was that “not even Kathy Lambert could do this.”
Yet part of Zahilay already had publicly recognized Lambert as a source of wickedness (my word, not his). He, after all, was the first King County Councilmember to endorse her opponent, Perry. Zahilay agrees with me that endorsing against a sitting colleague “is an odd thing to do,” but said he considers Lambert “particularly harmful.” He pointed out that councilmembers have not endorsed against any others, including the other two identified Republicans on the Council, Reagan Dunn and Pete von Reichbauer.
By the way, let’s suspend the conceit of nonpartisanship in city and county politics. We know who’s zooming who, particularly in these divided times.
“She holds harmful views,” Zahilay added of Lambert, “and acts in ways that are harmful to marginalized people and communities.”
Chipping away at the status quo continues to exact great personal cost for BIPOC politicians. Jimmy Matta has seen a raft of sign defacement in his reelection campaign for Burien City Council; he faced similar race-based opposition during his first campaign for the seat. State Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat whose district includes White Center, has been the victim of negative, racially tinged campaigning during his run for King County Executive against incumbent Dow Constantine. The forces arrayed against Nguyen are some of the same — including other Asian Americans — upon which Lambert is counting.
Successful campaigns perpetuate the onslaught. Zahilay, of course, was dragged into an election in which he isn’t even running. Serving as the first Latino mayor of Burien, Matta was the victim in 2018 of an attack that he and others regarded as a hate crime. Nguyen was openly mocked in the State Legislature for the pronunciation of his name. He said awkwardness in mostly white spaces, constant threats, and incessant trolling on social media — from all parts of the country, not just this one — is part of the deal for politicians of color.
Instigating change is a daunting proposition, but the alternative cannot be considered acceptable.
“That’s why I’m running,” Nguyen said in a telephone interview. “When you talk about systems of power, they tend to reflect the people who created them. In my State Senate race, I was never going to be picked by the political establishment. I had to go and fight for it. Oftentimes folks who are in power don’t realize the impact that they have until they’re challenged and held accountable. That’s why it’s important for more People of Color to run for office.”
Zahilay, 34, is — like the 38-year-old Nguyen — an ascendant BIPOC politician. He admits to grander goals but says the flyer controversy will force him to weigh the emotional and physical tolls of seeking higher offices. He points out that Washington has never had a Black, statewide office holder and adds, “I assume this is why.”
Jon Gruden, the white, now-former head coach of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, had an entire star-spangled career extinguished over subterranean racist, misogynistic, and homophobic viewpoints that had to be excavated from an unrelated investigation. Kathy Lambert’s obvious, public transgressions, as Council Chair Claudia Balducci said in a release, “undermined our ability to work with each other, our staff’s confidence in us as leaders, and our reputation and relationships with outside organizations and agencies.” Yet despite flaunting her privilege and racist tactics like they were designer jewelry, Lambert, unlike Gruden, enjoys career viability.
There is scant accountability in a relatively slight loss of prestige and an apology delivered grudgingly, especially if the potential cost is the aspiration of young leaders like Girmay Zahilay and those who thirst for their leadership. Inadequate consequences are, in cases like this, tantamount to cancellation — of hope, of new ideas and energy in government, of faith and progress and fairness. I’d like to be confident that the people of District 3 will deliver what the system did not, but since when is justice reliably served to BIPOC and other marginalized communities by the ballot box?
Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @trailposse on Twitter or @thetrailposse on Instagram.
📸 Featured Image: Kathy Lambert. Photo courtesy of King County Council.
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