Respond to this Article April 2006

The Coffee House Candidate

The engrossing tale of a Seattle cab driver's ill-fated run for local office.

By Jonathan Rowe

Grant Cogswell was a cab driver and sometime poet who had led, with another cabbie, a quixotic ballot campaign to expand Seattle's downtown monorail and won. Phil Campbell was a writer for a Seattle weekly who was tired of being an outrage machine in a city that provided little occasion for it.

Zioncheck for President
by Phillip Campbell
Nation Books, $15.95

Campbell got fired. (His boss was syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage of "Savage Love" fame.) Cogswell asked Campbell to manage his campaign for the Seattle City Council. Zioncheck for President is the story of that campaign.

It is not a campaign memoir in the usual sense. There is not much on strategy and issues, and still less blow-by-blow. The candidate himself is somewhat blurry, beyond his crabbing about printing errors and distaste for fundraising calls. Basically, he comes across as impassioned in a good way--the kind of fellow who sits in coffee houses during the long grey Seattle winters and broods on the absurdity of "freeways" jammed with cars that burn gas as they go nowhere.

Cogswell is the believer, while Campbell is a man trying to believe, but who never truly can. He's an observer as much as a participant, the novelist as campaign manager. I suspect the thought that this could be book material occurred to him early on.

I was prepared for a snarky put-down of local politics. Instead, I entered a world I became sorry to leave. The main setting is the Seattle subculture defined roughly by Kurt Cobain at one end and the WTO protests at the other. It's the sort of grunge idealism of people who might have been bike messengers one day, or maybe still are, somehow both cynical and na´ve. They think that nirvana really is going to come in the form of a rock band and are on what seems an almost nightly quest to find it.

These folks sally forth into the precincts of Seattle's mainstream Democrats, who are right-thinking in a way that perhaps helps explain why their kids might become slackers. A difficult fact of the campaign was that Cogswell was challenging the only black member of the council--a cautious and unexceptional fellow, but black; and to white Seattle-ites for whom color is a symbol more than a neighbor, this was big. "We can't vote against the colored guy," one man shouts at a meeting in a white district. "There needs to be at least one of those."

Another awkward fact was that Cogswell had vocally supported Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential campaign, and had been as disdainful of mainstream Democrats as Nader himself was. Campbell seems mystified that Democrats would be less than enthused on that account. On this at least he was not quite distanced enough.

His focus though is on the human details--the cranky candidate, the mess-ups with volunteers, the awkward meet-and-greets, the sheer exhausting grind. He has a fine seismometer for social subtexts. At a gathering of Young Democrats at the University of Washington, he is standing around when a school board candidate pounces. Once she gets over her disappointment that he isn't a Young Dem they settle into campaign gossip, "both relieved to appear occupied."

As for the Young Dems themselves, they seemed mainly interested in riding a winner, the better for career advancement.

There are no grandiose, save-the-world thematics, and this is refreshing, especially coming from a save-the-world campaign. Neither Bob Shrum nor Grover Norquist could have written this book. I do wish Campbell had been a little less submerged in his sensibility and funk, however. There is, after all, a campaign going on here. Cogswell's appeal on the stump remains something of a mystery. After a string of defeats at Democratic district endorsement meetings, it comes as a total surprise at the end that Cogswell got 45 percent of the vote.

The author portrays the loss in his usual grey winter tones. But the vote seems extraordinary given what we've read. How did he do it?

Campbell frames the campaign with two other stories that run in tandem through the book. One is that of Marion Zioncheck, the radical and brilliant local figure who entered Congress in 1932, and flamed out four years later, finally leaping from his office window. Zioncheck is the patron saint of the Cogswell campaign; the candidate had written an epic poem to him.

He's also connected to a more immediate inspiration for the campaign, Ralph Nader; and this is something of which Campbell seems unaware. Zioncheck's House seat went to a young local prosecutor by the name of Warren Magnuson, who went on to become the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. From that perch "Maggie," as he was called, moved much of the legislation Nader set in motion in the 1960s and 1970s. How much more good Ralph would do if he seeded local campaigns such as this, rather than waged presidential non-campaigns that achieve the opposite of what he purports. (That includes, it appears, helping to defeat a Grant Cogswell.)

The other story involves Doug, the author's housemate. Doug is a lout who chugs beer, plays his stereo at wall-shaking levels, and after 9/11 buys a handgun which he fondles in his room at night. Zioncheck was the brilliant advocate of "the people." Doug is who many of those people actually are. In this, the Cogswell campaign is every venture in political idealism. Between the light and the shadow, the willing spirit and the too-weak flesh, somehow we must find our way.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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