Chilling out about candidate endorsements by The Olympian

Posted on October 29, 2011

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Yesterday Olympia city council candidate Nathaniel Jones released a statement about The Olympian’s endorsement of the incumbent he is challenging, Rhenda Strub.  The statement, which is posted on OlyBlog, does an interesting dance.  Jones expresses “disappointment” with the paper’s “erroneous characterization” of his campaign and then dismisses the editorial’s importance.

Jones doesn’t mention the specifics of The Olympian’s critique, such as that his “campaign seems personal and negative in nature.” Instead, he quickly proceeds to turn The Olympian into a campaign issue:

“The Olympian has a poor track record with Olympia City Council races.  In the last election, every Olympian-endorsed candidate failed at the polls.  Over the years, The Olympian has repeatedly been on the wrong side of the ballot, and Olympia’s voters have not shared the newspaper’s agenda.  We cannot allow The Olympian’s editorial board to influence the outcome of this election.”

McClatchy changes course after a failed crusade

Jones makes a reasonable, if surprisingly explicit, argument. Shortly after McClatchy purchased The Olympian in 2006, its management embarked on an aggressive effort to cultivate support within the business community.  News coverage and editorials crusaded for a more pro-development city council.  The grand vision seemed to be a veritable “Tacoma by the Capitol.”  The amped up coverage did indeed play a major role in pro-business candidates sweeping to power in 2007.  However, that council’s hotly controversial policymaking led to the stunning defeat in 2009 of all four candidates The Olympian had endorsed.

The significance of the 2009 election is difficult to overstate — voter backlashes of this size rarely occur in Olympia. McClatchy’s crusade bolstered its standing with the business community but created a lot of ill will with average voters.  Might that have impacted The Olympian’s circulation, which was already in decline? If this speculation is correct, it makes sense that coverage in 2011 would be much more subdued and endorsements more reflective of the city’s political center of gravity.

I would go a step further and argue:  If Stephen Buxbaum and Dick Pust had run for mayor in 2007 or 2009, Pust would have received a fawning endorsement. I don’t say this to diminish Buxbaum’s vastly superior experience and leadership qualities.  But let’s get real:  Buxbaum’s the same guy in 2011 as he was in 2009.  You’d never know it by reading the 2009 and 2011 Olympian endorsement editorials side by side.*

A Buxbaum endorsement precluded one for Jones

By 2011 the anti-isthmus majority on the council was so strong that The Olympian simply had to find a way to make a peace offering. In theory the editorial board could have endorsed Jones and Pust. But endorsing Buxbaum made the most sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that he was very likely going to win anyway. Why unnecessarily antagonize the leader of one of the biggest political waves to hit Olympia in decades?

So Jones shouldn’t take his lack of endorsement personally. If his more than two-to-one advantage in fundraising is at all reflective of voter enthusiasm, Jones is likely to join a distinguished group of candidates who went on to big victories despite The Olympian’s disapproval.

POSTSCRIPT: Now that I’ve thought more about it, my analysis may be off base regarding why Jones wasn’t going to get an endorsement.  It may well be largely an issue of loyalty.  Strub supported the isthmus rezone.  She took enormous political heat for it.  For The Olympian to now come out against her would have been rightly viewed as a sign of betrayal, particularly if the endorsement went to an anti-isthmus challenger.

* UPDATE: After posting this story I reworked some of the language in this and the previous two paragraphs to clean up some awkward phrasing and clarify my point.

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