Women in rural Washington enter local politics after Trump

Energized by the election, more women in Klickitat County seek office, and change.

 

This article was originally published on Crosscut.

This past March, two police officers were standing on either side of the entrance to the firehouse in White Salmon, Washington, giving out numbers to count how many people were attending a city council meeting on one of the most controversial topics residents had seen in years. With a renovation to the town’s city hall underway, meetings had to be conducted in a small, fluorescently lit room, where more officers were stationed inside.

With White Salmon’s population of just 2,500, the 60 who showed up was notable, especially on a spring night when a brutal wintry mix pelted the town in southcentral Washington’s Klickitat County. Many came in opposition, but even more had come in support of a proposal spearheaded by a newly energized group of women.

After the 2016 presidential election, the women organized and asked the city council to issue a public statement that White Salmon was a safe city for immigrants. It wasn’t a “sanctuary city” declaration, but a reaffirmation from the city that it wouldn’t discriminate.

White Salmon Mayor David Poucher had delayed the vote for two meetings and sought legal counsel to rewrite the group’s original declaration. This night, though, the city council members would vote on the new declaration, a somewhat watered-down version of the original. 

As people filtered into the room, some wore “Make America Great Again” hats; one wore a “Killary for Jail” T-shirt.

“It brought out the old guard, the Republicans that I remember from 30 years ago,” says Michelle “Mike” Mayfield, a co-founder of the group, the Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network. “They felt threatened by it.”

A few came from neighboring towns to speak against the declaration. In the public comment, one woman lamented, “Illegals bring STDs into the community.” Local pastors, some of the women and even a 16-year-old boy spoke up in support of the declaration. But an ongoing theme emerged in the public comment and was reaffirmed by council members’ statements: We don’t need this because we already don’t discriminate. The immigrants shouldn’t feel scared.

The White Salmon City Council voted the declaration down 3-2, with only Councilmembers Tao Berman and Kimberly Hoppus voting in favor.

But in Bingen, just one town over, the declaration passed with no issue and was embraced by Mayor Betty Barnes, who went on to translate it for Spanish speakers. Latinos make up about 28 percent of the local population of 700 people.

It was a defining moment for the women who had pushed the resolution forward, and it turned an idea into a full-on movement, seeking to bring new perspectives into local government in a county where Republicans have long held sway.

White Salmon, Washington, left, and Hood River, Oregon are connected by the Hood River bridge over the Columbia River.
Sam Beebe/Ecotrust

The dynamics of Klickitat County, Washington

Klickitat County sits along the Columbia River at the southern edge of the state. In a lot of ways it is a microcosm of the United States today. A long county about 100 miles from one end to the other, it only has a few towns from east to west: Goldendale, Lyle, Bingen and White Salmon. The biggest is Goldendale, which has a population of 3,500. There is an east-west, blue-red divide. Klickitat is so close to Oregon that it’s often working across two states (all of the media, except for local papers, comes from Oregon).

“I would say from the east side of the county all the way to about Lyle, which is just before White Salmon, you’ll have mostly Republican activism,” says Susan Kelsey, the Klickitat County Republicans’ vice chair. “Then it switches over to Democrat, and we’ve seen a real surge in activism since President (Donald) Trump came into office.”

To get to White Salmon from Seattle, you have to take I-5 down to Portland, get on I-84 and cross a rickety metal bridge over the Columbia Gorge. The small town sits across from Hood River, Oregon, up high with incredible views of the Gorge. The area is known for its windsurfing: In the early 1980s, windsurfers came in and started buying up houses. That is when the animosity began between the locals and windsurfers, or “boardheads” as they were called.

“There are always winners and losers … What happened here was like what happened everywhere: The timber industry declined greatly and family-wage jobs disappeared,” says Shelley Baxter, a local Democrat. 

At one point, the county had the highest unemployment rate in the state of Washington, but then it was buoyed by the 1994 arrival of Insitu, an aerospace company that designs, develops and manufactures customized, unmanned aerial systems. The company was eventually bought by Boeing and is headquartered in Bingen. The modern building looks out of place, sitting next to the gorge with mountains framing its sleek structure. 

Today affordable housing is hard to come by and property values have tripled as the company has expanded and brought in more jobs. Just this year, Baxter says, there have been 115 new housing permits in White Salmon — a hefty increase from previous years.

The county went 53.9 percent for Trump and has a long history of voting Republican. But with newcomers comes change. Politically, that change is mainly impacting the west side of the county. With Klickitat County divided in three districts, White Salmon is in the county commission’s District 1 and tends to lean blue, while the other two go red. Still, because the entire county gets to choose county commissioners, District 1 has elected a male Republican commissioner for as long as anyone can remember.

Many candidates in the area run as Independents even though they are Democrats, but that usually doesn’t result in a win either.

“I think a Democrat would have a hard time running here, and I think we would do better if we could find moderate Republicans to win elections,” one woman pointed out. “Democrat is a bad word around here.”

Kelsey, the Republican vice chair, has a hunch that part of why rural counties lean Republican is because the party is less pushy. “It’s less intrusive, less regulations. Most families are generational and they are used to taking care of themselves,” she says.

Kelsey sees the new movement of women of the Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network as activists trying to take control of the area, and she and other local Republicans aren’t just sitting back. As with the White Salmon City Council controversy, they’re coming out and making their opinions known.

“Many [Republicans] feel that we can make our own decisions, and I think sometimes the activists come in and try to take over and tell you what you can and can’t do — from the perspective that they know better,” Kelsey says.

The constant push-and-pull in the county has stifled some of the new Columbia Gorge network’s big plans.  

Members of the Columbia Gorge Women's Action Network gather for a potluck in White Salmon, Washington.
Sofia Jaramillo for Crosscut

Turning frustration into a run for office

Back at the City Council meeting, Amy Martin, 28, was getting angry as a few council members stood up and spoke about why they wouldn’t support the declaration. One council member said the entire room should make personal declarations.

“The council’s mind was made up before they walked in that room, and there was nothing that was going to change their votes,” Martin says. “I was upset with the lack of message they gave back. Here I am sitting with a majority of people who showed up and wanted it to go through and we were ignored.”

Not feeling heard, and hoping she could make a change on a local level, Martin channeled her anger into a 2017 run for the White Salmon City Council. Never one to shy away from a debate or sharing opinions, Martin doesn’t see herself as a politician. In fact, she says she finds the word “icky.”

Southern-bred and a former chef whose favorite food to cook is “anything that warms your heart and fills your belly,” Martin gives off something of a cool-biker-chick-with-soft-edges vibe. Living in Virginia, she’d go shoot guns once a week and spend as much time outside as possible. When she moved to White Salmon four years ago, the outdoors stuck, but outings at the local gun range got to be too much, with what she remembers as “anti-Obama, stand up for your rights, Trump is the savior” rhetoric.  

She moved to White Salmon on a whim from the South. This past winter, she finally broke down and got a puffy jacket, a sign that she is here to stay for a while. White Salmon is a community she loves, but she fears what it could become.

“We have no policy on short-term rentals and I think we need to hone in on affordable housing and availability so we aren’t faced with a housing crisis,” Martin says. “In the last couple months I’ve seen housing prices shoot up, and I have friends who’ve been looking for houses for over a year and can’t find anything.” 

It wasn’t just Martin who got fired up after the city council meeting. Marla Keethler, 37, was pissed off too.

During last November’s election, Keethler was on a road trip from New York City to White Salmon. She and her husband, Ryan, had decided to move to a place with a slower pace where they could immerse themselves in the community. 

When Trump won, she was in Omaha, Nebraska, where she says the mood was celebratory. At a Starbucks the next day, a man was reading a brand new copy of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” They walked into a McDonald’s and caught two employees mid-conversation, talking about how excited they were that Obamacare was going away.

A week later, settling into her new life in White Salmon, she met a woman at the grocery store who told her about the new group of women that was forming. As she attended their meetings, she began to get into a groove and feel like part of the community. 

Then the inclusivity declaration happened. For the first time, she felt resistance to new people, like herself.

“Both sides talked about how this was a place where everyone knew their neighbors, but having come in as a newcomer, I found some circles that welcomed me,” Keethler says. “But I had to put myself in situations to find those connections. 

“The new growth scares some of the older residents, but I hope that if I am elected to city council, we can make it more about inclusion and getting people to meetings, but then grabbing a drink or coffee afterwards.”

Keethler says that being a newcomer is an obvious flag she carries — and she won’t be running away from it. She isn’t the kind of person to run away from anything, as you’ll understand after a simple conversation with her. Keethler is a straight shooter. She spent 15 years in sports television, a male-dominated industry, where she says she often had to shout louder than everyone else.

“I would say something as an idea and watch somebody repeat it and because they were a guy, it would be heard differently. They could lose their cool and that was applauded, but if I lost mine, it was seen as inappropriate or too combative,” Keethler says.

It was not being heard, yet again, that fueled her run for the city council.

“It wasn’t a conversation where you felt like the city council was listening to what the room was saying,” she says of the spring meeting. “It felt like the minority versus the majority, and the city council voted the exact opposite of what the majority of the room was. So you walked away feeling like this wasn’t a conversation in a community, and the city council should be a reflection of what the community is.”

There are currently three women running for city council. If all three succeed, there would be a 4-1 female majority for the first time in White Salmon’s history.  

Is the future female?

The spurring of women into action here since the 2016 election is part of a larger regional and national trend. Amplify Washington, an organization that recruits and provides training to people of color, women, young people and LGBTQ candidates for office, said the number of people interested after the election has exploded. They typically do six trainings a year all over Washington and Oregon, and get 35 people to attend on average. So far in 2017, every training has sold out and there are plans to do 23 this year.

In November, Seattle will elect a female mayor for the first time in 91 years and it isn’t the only city. The Seattle Times Danny Westneat wrote recently that we’re on our way to the “year of the woman” in Western Washington politics.

Emerge America, which focuses on training Democratic women to run for office, says they’ve seen an 87 percent increase in women applying for their training programs. Since election day, 24 states reached out about opening new affiliates, including Washington, which ended up raising funds and training women in the shortest amount of time the organization says it has ever seen.

In White Salmon, the women organizing at the hyper-local level have created a movement that is shaking things up. The Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network founders Mayfield and Kirsten Dennis were both looking for support after the election, so they separately invited friends to dinner. Soon, after being introduced by mutual friends, they brought everyone together to talk through what had happened and what they could do.

A closed Facebook page was created. As they received request after request to join, they realized women wanted a place to get involved and take a stand. When they organized the first meeting in December, more than 100 women showed up, and the Facebook group now has over 2,000 members.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Dennis says. “In our group there are a lot of the older women who went through this (organizing) in the ‘60s and are like, ‘We are doing this again?’ And then a lot of young people … we hear that comment a lot, that they’ve never seen this many people want to be this active. Women here are very motivated.”

Over the summer, attendees dwindled slightly, but the core group remained engaged despite the blowback they received for introducing the inclusivity declaration at the city council meeting.

While they are sometimes described as a “liberal activist group,” the members want to be nonpartisan; they say it’s impossible to get anything done toting “Democrat” on their backs. A few Republicans have attended meetings, but there aren’t any plans in the works to run Republican candidates. 

“Tensions are high, and it can be hard to find common ground,” Dennis says. “We don’t want anything we try to do to be seen as immediately really negative. We are trying really hard to avoid certain words or else we won’t make the kind of impact we want to make.”

Sitting at a brewery, a few of the women would say something and then immediately look behind themselves to see if anyone had heard. It’s a small town and people talk, so the messaging can get twisted. Some Republicans in the area thought the inclusivity declaration was a sanctuary city declaration. Words like “liberal” and “progressive” are off limits; rather than “regulation,” many network members use “protection.” 

They’re walking a fine line, and it becomes clearer, and more fraught, with every meeting or rally they organize to try to force change.

Sasha Bentley sits in a hammock in front of her house with her cat, Juno, in White Salmon. As a Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network member Bentley said, “It’s nice to have a space where it’s just women, to have mentors and be supported.”
Sofia Jaramillo for Crosscut

Stirring up the sheriff

If you walked into Sasha Bentley’s home, you’d know right away that she is a traveler. Before settling down in White Salmon two years ago, she and her husband, Chris, traveled to every country in Southeast Asia except East Timor and Brunei.

Normally, she says she wouldn’t consider herself a local after only two years in one place, but with how quickly she has become entrenched in the White Salmon community, she is rethinking that. Upon first meeting, you might wonder if Bentley, 29, is in a bit over her head — but there is a deep intensity bubbling just beneath her surface.

After the election, she spontaneously decided to run for the Klickitat County Democratic Party chair in a reorganization meeting and she won. From that moment on, she has been ruffling feathers in the county.

In early March, she too learned how Klickitat County reacts to activism. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) introduced nine model state and local law enforcement policies and rules to support and protect immigrants. Bentley wanted to know if the sheriffs in Klickitat, or neighboring Skamania County to the west, would adopt any of them, so she planned a discussion between the local law enforcement and the community.

It was again well attended by many Republicans in MAGA hats and Trump gear. A local gun and fish club wrote in its newsletter that members needed to attend to protect their rights, despite it being solely about immigration. 

Things quickly turned tense. In an exercise, attendees wrote down an outcome they wanted to see from law enforcement. After the reading of one note that said, “The ACLU out of our county,” several people clapped. The White Salmon Enterprise wrote, “Multiple members of the audience were hostile and disrespectful to others throughout the discussion, often speaking over facilitators and issuing personal opinions while others spoke.”

When asked if he would institute any of the nine policies, Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer said he wouldn’t be “letting the ACLU bully me into doing what they want.” 

It was similar to the inclusivity declaration. The sheriffs and some in the crowd wondered: Why do we need to declare we will follow some of these policies if we already do a good job of treating immigrants fairly?

“The big argument from the sheriffs was that they already do this,” Bentley says. “What I don’t understand is: A declaration is just saying you do it and you’ll continue to do it so it should be easy. If you do it already, then why not just declare it?”

The meeting ended up discouraging Bentley from arranging public events, but also opened her eyes to the dynamics of local politics. It did reaffirm she would be in the county for the long haul. She started a nonprofit called Klickitat Advocacy, where immigration is a priority issue.

A few days after Trump’s early September announcement that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, Bentley was at it again, organizing a Defend DACA rally along Highway 14 near White Salmon. She and more than 20 others showed up and held signs saying, “We support DACA” and “Defend DACA” — all as smoke from wildfires burning on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge engulfed them.

“After the election and all of Trump’s policies, I knew I needed to start some kind of local nonprofit,” Bentley says. “I had to do something.”

It will soon be a year since the presidential election — a year of controversial headlines and political unrest. A year where many have felt helpless in knowing how to change what they see as broken. 

But, rather than throwing their hands, they continue to organize — next with a forum-style candidate’s night as the November city council election approaches. They’ll be campaigning for both Martin and Keethler, persistent in the challenge of both place and mission.

Cambria Roth is Crosscut’s Assistant Editor. She focuses on editing, writing, curating Crosscut’s daily and weekly newsletters and more. Find her on Twitter @CambriaRoth or email at cambria.roth@crosscut.com