SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | Is that a governor in your pocket?

Being Kemper Freeman means being so rich that you never, ever need to take “no” for an answer.

For years, the wealthy Bellevue real estate and shopping mall developer who’s never seen a patch of land he didn’t want to improve with asphalt, has been trying to stop expansion of light rail to the Eastside. His experience even over just the last year tells a lot about how decisions get made — or not — in our one-dollar, one-vote version of democracy.


If at first you don’t succeed…

In April 2011, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against Freeman’s lawsuit to stop the use of the Interstate 90 floating bridge for light rail.

Last November, voters decisively rejected Initiative 1125, a Tim Eyman measure almost entirely bankrolled by Freeman that would have (among many other things) blocked a major source of funding for light-rail expansion.

Then, in early March, Judge Michael Cooper of Kittitas County Superior Court ruled against another Freeman lawsuit — this one seeking to block the use of the I-90 bridge’s current express lanes for light rail rather than cars. 

If you’re wondering what on earth a judge in Ellensburg is doing ruling on the details of funding transportation across Lake Washington, you’re clearly not familiar with the concept of shopping for the most sympathetic possible court. Yes, even Republican Kittitas County, where they don’t need no stinkin’ public transit, slapped Freeman down.

It doesn’t matter.

Some wealthy people use their riches to feed starving Africans, fund the local opera, buy a sports team or invest in the next big thing. Freeman uses his to try to pave everything in a thousand-planet radius, by hiring lawyers, filing initiatives and seemingly buying politicians.

One of whom is his ace-in-the-hole in the face of years of the courts and the public rejecting Freeman’s anachronistic, automobile-centric ethic.

Because Rob McKenna just might be your next governor.


Buttering that bread

McKenna, the Republican attorney general, is currently neck-and-neck in the polls with former Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, in the race to succeed Gov. Christine Gregoire. 

For years, McKenna’s worked hard — with the help of fawning media coverage in places like The Seattle Times — to project an image of being a moderate, “reasonable” Republican, not like those fundamentalist, Tea Party-ish crazies that keep losing statewide elections. McKenna’s done so primarily by avoiding visible stances on divisive or culture-war issues. 

Mind you, he’s just as much an ideologue as any Tea Partier. But with the conspicuous exception of joining other Republican state attorneys general in the lawsuit to end ObamaCare now before the U.S. Supreme Court (against the wishes of Gregoire, the state Legislature, and — if you believe polls — a solid majority of Washingtonians), McKenna has not publicly thrown a lot of red meat to his base.

So some people were surprised when, on March 21, McKenna appeared before a gathering of the Freeman-funded, road-friendly Eastside Transportation Association and said, among other things, that he is a “deep, deep skeptic of bringing light rail across I-90”; that he isn’t even sure how it is going to work (perhaps he should ask someone?); that he doesn’t understand “fixed rail on a floating bridge” (ditto); that he believes uninformed voters were duped by Greg Nichols in 1998 over the first public vote on light-rail expansion to the Eastside; that “we [that is to say, Freeman and whoever’s on his payroll that week] have lost the key battles ever since”; and that despite being a public official who, in theory, ought to be responsive to 14 years of consistent rejection of Freeman’s positions by both courts and the voters, he isn’t sure how light rail can be stopped, but he’s willing to help to try to do it.

Now, this sort of extreme position — hostile to both voters and the laws that McKenna, as a two-term state attorney general, is supposedly committed to enforcing — doesn’t make a whole lot of sense coming from someone not only running for high office, but doing so by trying to paint himself as far less extreme than he actually is.

But it does make sense if you remember that McKenna, before he was attorney general, served for nine years on the Metropolitan King County Council representing Kemper Freeman’s hometown of Bellevue. 

And that Freeman has been a major financial and political patron of McKenna’s throughout his career, including giving more than $6,000 in personal donations so far from Kemper and his wife for McKenna’s statewide races alone.

Freeman knows McKenna is a reliable ally because McKenna knows where his bread is buttered. Freeman has had his buddy Rob on speed-dial throughout McKenna’s nearly 20 years in public office. 


The new political model

Sadly, this is increasingly the model for public office at every level, especially after Citizens United: Prospective elected officials have a huge advantage in their campaigns if they cozy up to the extremely wealthy. 

For the bargain-conscious oligarch, buying someone like McKenna is a fabulous investment. For only a few thousand dollars, your company can get government contracts or relaxed regulations or enabling legislation worth far more.

Or, in Freeman’s case, you can have a governor who’s willing to act aggressively to enforce your pet obsession — voter preference, court rulings and public benefits be damned.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.

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