(EDITOR’S NOTE: With less than two weeks till ballots are mailed for the August 17th primary, we’re taking a closer look daily at the candidates in two contested local races. This week, we are bringing you stories about WSB conversations with the four contenders for 34th District State House, Position 2. We began Tuesday with Joe Fitzgibbon (story here); continued Wednesday with Mike Heavey (story here); tonight, Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy.)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Do something different,” exhorts the white lettering on the back of Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy‘s campaign uniform, a black T-shirt.
After all, he did something different.
For one, the 46-year-old entrepreneur filed to run as an “independent” in the heavily Democratic 34th Legislative District (map), running against three D’s.
For two, instead of more classic campaign activities, he’s focused on one that’s led us to bump into him multiple times each week for the past few months: He’s been attending neighborhood council and association meetings around the district.
When it came time to sit down and do an official interview for our series of candidate conversations, though, we wound up on his turf – Mac’s Triangle Pub, feet from the West Seattle/White Center line.
Of course, we asked about the meeting strategy. “I’m a firm believer that the job of representative is pretty clear – I’m running to represent the people of the community – and the more-active ones go to community meetings. If there’s a way I can leverage my time across a broad demographic, it’s by going to community meetings, partly to wear my shirt, to say hi, and partly to hear the concerns of my potential constituency.” (He’s going to festivals, too – the photo below is from last week’s West Seattle Summer Fest, and this weekend, the Vashon Strawberry Festival is on his calendar.)
So far, we asked, what are the concerns he’s hearing?
“Because i work in a bar and have had a lot of people come across my door – people by and large want employment and a sense of security that comes from employment – they want an education for their children -
the potential for a better future … Everybody bitches about the traffic and would like to have roads that don’t have holes in them, that get where they want to go, don’t deal with traffic jams … I figured i would go out and just listen which is why you don’t hear me say much at these meetings for the most part – I am just there to
listen to the concerns of the people that are going to be voting for me, so that when I get voted in, I’m actually listening to those voices, rather than the voices of a party.”
And as the lone non-Democrat in the race, he is blunt about what he sees as the differences there: “I’ll tell you this, a (political) party’ s main role in life is to elect members of their part. My goal is to represent the people of the 34th District.”
Not that he’s anti-Democrat, he says: “If this was a (predominantly) Republican district, I’d be having the same conversation. … There’s an awful lot of time wasted on ideology and dogma …”
Wasting time does not seem to be part of his repertoire. He bought the pub five years ago, according to his online bio, just a few years after getting an MBA at the University of Washington, which followed a few different careers, including a decade in the U.S. Navy. This is his first venture into politics, though it is clear he sees it more as a natural step in community involvement, rather than yet another career.
“I’m a member of the White Center Chamber of Commerce, and four years ago I got involved in the (White Center Community Development Association) in a number of ways, most notably the Spring Clean – I went out and started cooking burgers (for volunteers) … it went from 100 people the first year to 560 people this year. The benefit to the community is huge. … It’s nice that I have a network to bring (people in to help) but the real heroes are (those) who organized folks, and the chamber, and the CDA, who got everybody out there. Ever since I bought this bar, I invested myself in this community – it was an investment in my own future (too) – more good businesses are better than fewer … There’s a changing demographic in White Center, Southwest Seattle, North Burien, ostensibly due to depressed property values, but (it’s also) one of the last places close to the city center, an opportunity for people to come in and create community. (So) to the extent that I can (provide) a safe place for communication and community, I can help, and make a couple dollars … and that’s all I’m making …”
He trails off and then picks up again about his business. “I’m not just the bar owner, I’m the bartender. I love to cook, take pride in the food I serve, but I also take pride that a single woman can come here and feel safe at any hour, and many do … once you feel that sense of security in the community, you have a toehold. There’s a lot of people who like the old Rat City thing – they are well-served down the street. I’m interested in the new White Center, a new vision of what a community can be.”
And as one of at least five Independents running for the Legislature this year, he says he’s looking for a new way to collaborate politically. “Figure out what your commonalities are, what do you want, what do I want, so we can work together. I’m a huge proponent of small businesses. Small businesses are not susceptible to representation by lobbyists, but … they employ more people and pay (more) taxes. I’m not against taxes, I think they’re great.”
However, McElroy is not in favor of Initiative 1098, which would create an income tax for people earning more than $200,000 a year, calling it “shortsighted” and likely to “ultimately fail … the people I know who have a wad of dough will move somewhere else.” At a different point in the conversation, he elaborates, “The high-earner thing, I think, is socially divisive. I think it’s just as divisive as the tax measures that came out of the special (legislative) session – they were going to raise taxes anyway, who did they raise taxes on? Not even my customer base – my folks pay $4.50 for a microbrew. The people getting taxed are the folks that buy a half-case of Budweiser, a bottle of pop and a pack of cigarettes. They’re the ones that get hit, and they’re the ones that can least afford to get hit. … We can tax everybody in the world and transfer the money, (but) that’s going to be nonviable and nonsustainable. The only sustainable model for taking care of our children and our environment, the social safety net, the only way we can take care of all these things, is to create more value – the one area that just happens to be the one I have more experience in – I am an MBA and own a small business, I understand about creating more value. I’m a firm believer in, if we figure out how we can solve the mortality rate of small businesses in the first five years, we’re going to help everybody.”
He’s not talking subsidies, he is quick to say – but rather, about finding out what works for successful businesses, to help others emulate them. And he doesn’t think economic pessimism is warranted right now, either. “Are we in the very worst situation we’ve ever been in? No … but we’re treating this economy situation like it’s the end of times, and it’s unrealistic, unrealistic to think we’ll continue to (raise taxes) … we need to create a sustainable model that mitigates the economic ups and downs.”
McElroy sees the business model as one for other services. “We are one of two states with a constitutional mandate to provide K-12 for children. I think that’s awesome, but we don’t treat children as the customer – we treat teachers as the customer – the Washington Education Association.” He thinks it should be easier to remove “inept” teachers from their positions. “The only way we will have a say beyond our own graves is if we take care of our kids first. … We need to take the lessons we have lernaed and teach children so they can move forward and not make mistakes we’ve made. (But) our society doesn’t seem to be based on that, the two-party system is not based on that. … I am not trying to create a third party. I’m trying to create an environment where people aren’t choosing the lesser of two evils.”
Part of what he sees as the problem is that political leaders won’t act courageously to do something unpopular that nevertheless seems to be the right thing to do. While at two points in our conversation he uses the usually derisive term “Obamacare” to refer to the recently passed health-care changes, he also suggests the president should have been able to do more. Recalling the time before the presidential election, McElroy says, “It seemed like the nation was of a mind, we’re one of the richest nations but even less-rich (ones) have universal health care, I thought, ‘that’s awesome, that’s so in keeping with us walking the talk’ … (Obama) was the epitome of, you can do anything in America. I think the country had more hope in that period of time than since (President John F.) Kennedy said, ‘We’re going to go to the moon’. It’s not for nothing that people were excited about health care – but (the eventual result) wasn’t health care, it was insurance reform, and it was more of the same.”
He’s also disappointed in where health care has gone on the state level. “I think Washington was courageous with our health-care system, and I think that, second to education, that’s something we should have figured out how to continue. We didn’t. We cut funding, ostensibly because we figured out the feds would pass this new health-care thing that would somehow mitigate those costs.” He says the issue needs “forward-thinking leadership that goes beyond the next election,” since the population’s getting older and more likely to need more care.
As for where the money’s coming from: “Politically speaking, it’s the wrong time for more taxes. So what do you do? If you can’t create more revenue, then you have one of two choies. It’s not cutting, it’s creating efficiency. I understand we’ve cut the fat, cut the meat. How about if we stop cutting, what if we look at it from the perspective of creating an environment where small businesses could succeed – and I’m not saying we should be cutting the B&O taxes. But don’t make it any more onerous (for businesses to succeed).”
More than that, McElroy suggests, the state should find ways to help those businesses succeed. “I would commission a study – there’s a small-business commission that reports to the governor, the most recent information is four years old … maybe they provide (prospective entrepreneurs) with information that would be geographically based. You have to take a test to drive a car or cut somebody’s hair or file nails, why shouldn’t you be responsible for information that will help you not be blindsided by the (various licenses and fees faced by entrepreneurs)?” He jumps from there into a recollection of how many different permits, taxes, licenses, fees he learned about while getting his business going. “Like the square-footage tax (from the city) – I didn’t know about that. Is that my fault? Probably. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I’m not a moron either. So if I can be blindsided, others probably are. … If you get sideways with the state at one point, is that a hospitable environment in which to run a business? The state has become adversarial with small businesses …”
Which, he believes, is a bad move, given that small businesses create so much of the state’s jobs. “They’re voters, taxpayers, the most responsible people in the state. … I can’t come up with an example of where I felt the government was really on my side. I can’t get the police to come here, and thank God I haven’t had a fire, though I’ve had people sick on the street … At the end of the day, aren’t we interested actually in paying for all these programs, and aren’t we depending on the folks who are making money to pay those taxes? It ought to be a very symbiotic, friendly relationship. (But) the Republicans hate the Democrats, the Democrats hate the Republicans, and they all hate me because I don’t represent anything that they understand.”
Despite that, he is confident he would be able to make his mark in the Legislature. “I have a track record of success in starting at the bottom of several things I’ve done in my life. I started out at the bottom in the Navy and came out well-regarded, got out and the civilian population had a much-lower view of my skillset and experiences than the Navy did … I was homeless for a period of time. But I started working at a company … started with driving a truck, and moved on up.” He says the pattern continued with his pub: “This was arguably the worst bar in White Center, which would have made it the worst bar in the district … but we’ve created a sense of community, and a comfortable place for people to come.”
He also expects that, if elected, he would be dealt with respectfully and appropriately: “Anybody who would spend the time and money you have to spend to get elected – I expect that people are motivated from within because they have a sense of service. And I’m going to talk to them about that, and about the people, going to give them the same choice I’m giving the voters, going to do my best to create a nonpartisan coalition. … Frankly, I’m not interested in the politics, I just want to get some things done. … Change is upon us, whether I get elected or not. The way things have been going, the status quo is not going to work for much longer.”
If elected, McElroy vows to keep in personal touch with constituents, the way he’s going around meeting people now. He promises online updates, “to say this is what I’m doing, this is how I’m doing, this is what I expect, just be in constant contact” – and that means in person, too. “In the past couple months, I haven’t met anybody that represents me. I hadn’t met (Reps.) (Eileen) Cody or (Sharon) Nelson … I’ve been here almost five years. I only met (State Sen.) Joe McDermott because I introduced myself to him (at an event). I was introduced to (King County Executive) Dow Constantine someplace … An effective representative needs to be out with the constituency.”
In one regard, he says, “I feel like I have already won” because the voters have so many choices in this race: “If you accept the premise that choice is inherently good, and that folks are vying for the opportunity to represent you, not the right to move up through the party, then you wonder why it wasn’t until I ran that we had more than one Democrat (in the race).”
If he is so disinterested in the political machinations, then, we wonder, why even take this route?
McElroy recalls learning that his father had once longed to run for office – “but it was shortlived, my mom said, no way in hell will I be married to a politician.” At the time, he says, they were living near Washington, D.C., and “I did have the benefit of them taking me to all the museums and landmarks … and we traveled the country, so I did get a sense of how the representation system had to work. … I’ve always been patriotic, thus my service in the Navy, always interested in caring for other people. I’m the oldest of five – my folks adopted my brother and two sisters from Appalachia, then got pregnant, so I went from being an only child at 9 to the eldest of five at 11.”
But, he says, he didn’t really understand how government could affect his life until he opened the pub, and “started getting really upset about the fact I was paying more in taxes, fees, permits and licenses than I was taking in for myself – especially when you have debt, and you’re employing people …” And he’s fought to keep that status, he says: “I was on track to buy another bar, but the economy went (south), the real-estate values went down, my personal level of income went down, I became a roommate as opposed to having my own place, because I’m not going to let my business go – when things are not going well, you have to mitigate, cut your overhead, it’s simple math.”
McElroy’s bottom line – Instead of complaining, he’s trying to move up into a position where he can help make change happen: “Mom always said, if you’re going to bitch about something, man up and do something. The time is now. I have the education, I have the language, I have the personality, and I have the fire.”
ENDORSEMENTS: Here’s his current online list
FUNDRAISING: $5,112 in contributions as of tonight (7/15/2010), compared to $29,650 for Mike Heavey, $29,156 for Joe Fitzgibbon, $28,693 for Marcee Stone, per the state Public Disclosure Commission website. (To see who has given McElroy money, go here.)
WHITE CENTER – SEATTLE OR BURIEN? We asked this by e-mail. McElroy’s reply: “The White Center area has an inherent value, and we need to come at this issue from a position of knowledge. To date, neither Seattle nor Burien has come to us with an adequate proposal that shows us what benefits the community will receive and in turn how much it will cost the citizens. Another concern is that neither of these cities have the resources to service our social needs like Police and Fire. Both are taking cost cuts in these areas. Prior to any decision, organizations like the White Center Chamber of Commerce and the Community Development Association need to reach out to our diverse community to learn what our local citizens have to say as well.”
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