Opinion

What happened on my way to the outhouse

It happened on a rainy election night.

The candidate I was supporting had lost. I was in my apartment, looking at the TV late at night, nothing but infomercials. I didn’t pay any attention to it because my mind was filled with fear and other conflicting emotions.

The man I had supported for mayor of Seattle had lost. He lost to Seattle’s first black mayor, Norm Rice.

This campaign was eerily similar to presidential candidate Barack Obama — Northwest style. You had the usual suspects: A press that lavishly praised Norm Rice as a savior vs. Seattle city attorney Doug Jewett, a Republican who was demonized as a George Wallace type because of his desire to end busing in Seattle schools. I remember the excitement, the anticipation and, yes, the ugly name-calling, racism and threats.

I remember that spring day six months previous, when I received a phone call from a Democratic consultant, who asked me if I wanted to work on the mayor’s race — for a Republican. I immediately answered no. I said it was probably because he’s a racist, since he’s a Republican. My friend assured me he was one of the good guys. “Just have lunch with him and you can decide for yourself,” he said. I agreed.

I have been involved in politics since high school. My first campaign was supporting a guy named Mario. He was running for student body president. Our platform: If you voted for him, he would make sure the price of school lunches would be lowered. Even then, politicians were promising a free lunch. I guess some things never change. He lost by a mere 12 votes. That was a valuable lesson for me that I remember to this day.

I have always been a risk taker. So I called back my friend and agreed that I would work on the campaign. During the course of the campaign, Doug Jewett was called a racist and anti-black. As usual, I was called Uncle Tom, etc. Fill in the blanks.

I was shocked at first because I had been a loyal Democrat all my life. But since I decided to work for a Republican, and I was black, I was immediately told that I hated my mother and didn’t like black people. I was also threatened, which shocked me. I began to wonder, why all the hatred?

I eventually realized there were forces at play that didn’t want a Republican to win, and resented my involvement in the campaign. I believed then, and I believe now, that busing was bad public policy because the only children that were bused at 5:30 a.m. were black kids going to school in the north end of Seattle to sit next to white kids. By the end of the campaign, all the newspapers had endorsed Norm Rice for mayor, and he won. The liberals were happy and felt good. Remember, with the liberals, it’s always about the “feelings.”

I was quoted in a newspaper that Seattle wanted a black mayor to show the world how progressive we were, and that we weren’t like those rednecks in the South. One of Norm Rice’s first acts when he became mayor was to force the school board to end busing. The irony was lost on most people, but not on me.

On election night, when Doug had lost, I was standing alone at his headquarters, tears streaming down my face. He came over to me and said “thank you” because he knew the price I had to pay and the friends I had lost because of the courageous decision to support him. He said “I’ll never forget you.”

I realized then that I could never go back to the party that me and my family had belonged to for generations. I had crossed an invisible line. I had committed a mortal sin, which was that I supported a Republican. Blacks don’t do that.

It is not easy being a Republican, the party of Lincoln, the anti-slavery party, which had often mouthed the words of inclusion, but rarely acted to achieve inclusion. I believe in a smaller government, but I also believe in compassionate government. I believe in the sanctity of life, and I also believe in a God who loved me until I could love myself.

I couldn’t say that or believe that if I were a Democrat. I am proud to be a Republican, but I haven’t always been proud of the Republican party. I believe America is the land of freedom, even for a kid from the ghetto who’s free to become a Republican. But freedom and personal responsibility are rarely easy.

I was once asked: Knowing what you know, would you do it all over again? I stopped for a moment, and with a sly grin, I said I’d do it over in a heartbeat.

No excuses.

Federal Way resident Walter Backstrom: wkbackstrom@aim.com

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