Stalking Slade

Tribes, Greens and Democrats hope to ambush Washington Sen. Slade Gorton in November

  • Slade Gorton

  • Ron Allen, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe

    Stephen Stuebner
  • Surrounded

    Mike Osbun
  • FUN WITH POLITICS: Wendy Adams of Tacoma has an opposing view of Slade Gorton

    Stephen Stuebner
  • Bud Ames of Puyallup

    Stephen Stuebner

Note: a sidebar article, "Washington's Steel Magnolia," accompanies this article.

SEQUIM, Wash. - A fresh breeze sends waves of low whitecaps rolling into Sequim Bay just outside the office window of W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe.

S'Klallam means the "strong people," and Allen certainly fills the bill: He's husky, barrel-chested and energetic as he discusses the objectives of the First American Education Project, the first-ever nationwide political campaign funded by Native Americans. The project's goal is focused like a laser beam: To oust U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., Public Enemy No. 1 in Indian country.

"We don't have anywhere near the power of industry or labor or the environmentalists, but the fact is, we're starting to play the game," says Allen, vice-chairman of the education project. "We've got money and we've got votes, and we're going to deliver."

Gorton's reputation in Indian Country is so abysmal that the First American project has attracted contributions from 29 tribes in Washington and more than 20 tribes throughout the United States. In the final weeks before the Nov. 7 election, the tribes hope to raise as much as $2 million to run slick TV ads that spotlight Gorton's record on the environment, and health-care issues, and his "abuse of authority" in trying to eliminate the tribes' sovereign immunity.

"This is the way the game is played," says Allen. "If you attack us, then you will be responsible at election time."

The tribes are not alone in gunning for Gorton. The Sierra Club is running the Slade Gorton Accountability Project. It's a $250,000-plus information blitz, using 500 volunteers and direct mail to shower suburban residents in the Puget Sound and Spokane areas with 40,000 voter-education cards and 250,000 voter-education guides. TV ads are part of the mix, too.

The goal is to prevent Gorton from re-inventing himself as a moderate environmentalist, according to Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director for the Sierra Club.

"(Gorton) will put on green lipstick and try to seduce the voters," says Arthur. "We're doing what we can to make sure voters know that his real environmental record is long, relentless and ruinous."

Gorton beat back environmentalists six years ago. But this year, his race has attracted the National Democratic Party, largely because polls show Gorton is vulnerable and he has a capable opponent in Maria Cantwell, 41, a wealthy high-tech marketing executive who made her fortune at RealNetworks, a company that sells video, audio and CD-music software for computers worldwide. Cantwell won the Sept. 19 Democratic primary 3-to-1, and she's put $5.1 million of her own money into the campaign over nine months, an amount that Gorton took six years to raise from corporate PACs.

For Indian tribes, environmentalists and Democrats to aim at the same candidate - with national money brought to bear - is unprecedented, political observers say. The convergence has added intrigue to a contest already interesting because of the stark contrast between the youthful, high-tech woman and the 72-year-old male survivor.

Beyond that, the race is a bellwether for the West. Gorton is a classic "old-guard" Republican senator in the West, who has championed industry, including logging and mining companies. Cantwell, who served one term in the U.S. Congress starting in 1992, is entrenched in the high-tech industries that inhabit cities west of the Cascades.

Their contest may tell whether the relentless demographic changes in the West are beginning to change the political scenery. If Gorton loses, Washington would be the first state in the West, besides California, where urban (and largely pro-green) Democrats have overwhelmed rural Republicans.

"It's going to be tough for Gorton this year," says Vernon Johnson, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "He's always had high negatives because of his personal style. He's viewed as being arrogant."

Nobody is counting Gorton out, though. Throughout his 42-year political career he has shown an ability to bounce back. And he has used his seniority to blunt the attacks of his opponents and win support from constituencies on both sides of the Cascades.

Making enemies

The perception of arrogance goes back to Gorton's affluent upbringing in Chicago's northern suburb of Evanston, Ill. He got his bachelor's degree at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire, then followed with a law degree from Columbia University.

"After graduating from law school, I had a job waiting for me in a Boston law firm, or I could return to Chicago and sling fish," Gorton says. "I decided to go West."

He picked Seattle. In just two years, he was elected to the Washington House of Representatives at the age of 30. He served in the House for a decade, rising to the post of House majority leader. In 1968, he was elected Washington attorney general, a position he would fill until winning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1980.

It was during his tenure as attorney general that Gorton began to earn the enmity of the tribes. In the mid-1970s, he appealed a federal fishing case, U.S. vs. Washington, called the "Boldt" decision after the federal judge who made it. It allocated 50 percent of the salmon and steelhead catch to Indian tribes in the rivers feeding into the Puget Sound region. Gorton took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He lost, but the tribes never forgot the attack. Gorton's fight with the tribes took a new turn in 1980, when he won a state Supreme Court case that made cigarette sales on Indian reservations subject to state taxation. Washington had been losing $64 million in annual tax revenue from reservation cigarette sales, Gorton said.

Despite the court victory, the state never collected a dime. The tribes claimed they were protected by sovereign immunity, a clause in treaties that makes tribal governments immune to civil lawsuits. And Gorton never forgot. Just two years ago, he decided to go after the tribes' sovereign immunity in Congress. Although he didn't succeed, his attempt rekindled tribal animosities.

More recently, as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Gorton has tried to cut off federal funding to tribes that were getting wealthy from casino gambling. He also pushed a Robin Hood-like measure that would have redistributed federal funds from the richest 10 percent of the tribes to the poorest 20 percent. None of Gorton's efforts passed; nor were they supported by impoverished tribes.

"He just wants to keep tribal governments weak," says Allen. "His effort to redistribute the wealth was really trying to keep all of the tribes equally poor."

"I can't think of any politician who's done more to piss off Native Americans," says Lance LeLoup, chairman of political science at Washington State University in Pullman. "I think the tribes would like to have his head as their next trophy on the wall."

Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman says Gorton's positions on tribal issues are misunderstood. "Gorton's fundamental philosophy on all tribal issues comes down to this: Indian tribes have the right to govern their own affairs, they just don't have the right to govern the affairs of non-Indians," she says.

Though he has angered the tribes time and again, a few tribal leaders are reluctant to attack Gorton because he's sent funds to their reservations for public schools or fish projects. The Lummi Tribe, north of Seattle, received $15 million for a new K-12 school. Tribal Chairman Willie Jones told The New York Times that the needs of the Lummi children come first, and the tribe has yet to decide whether to join the First American project.

"We have to stand up for our children," he told the Times. "But we also have to make a stand for our rights. The Indian tribes are finally learning how to use the system, and this is the test case."

Randy Settler, head of the Yakama Tribe's fish and wildlife committee and a member of the executive council, says his tribe worked with Gorton to secure money for fighting a spruce budworm outbreak in tribal forests and more funds for wildlife programs. The tribe has no plans to join the fight to defeat Gorton, he says.

"He's a key political figure in a key position who can bring home a lot of benefits to the state of Washington," Settler says. "He's been really receptive to our requests for assistance."

A lighter shade of green

Gorton's record on the environment lacks the consistency of his tribal record. As attorney general in the 1970s, he helped create the Washington Department of Ecology and fought against excessive billboards.

Such stances fit Gorton's interest in outdoor recreation. While he was serving as attorney general, his family bicycled from Olympia to Boston. He's participated in more than 20 Bloomsday events, a huge 12K footrace in Spokane. He's climbed to the top of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier, the signature glacier-capped peak in western Washington.

In 1980, when he made the leap to the U.S. Senate, Gorton continued to have a moderately green voting record. Early on, he cooperated with the rest of the Washington delegation to pass a 1-million-acre statewide wilderness bill. But, according to the Sierra Club's Bill Arthur, Gorton wasn't a "champion" for any particular wilderness area, but rather brokered deals to save trees for the timber industry.

Nevertheless, the League of Conservation Voters gave Gorton a 41 percent average during the 1980s. (This doesn't include 1987 and 1988 because Gorton had suffered a shocking defeat to Brock Adams in 1986. Just two years later, however, he won the other Washington Senate seat when it was vacated by former Gov. Dan Evans).

Gorton's green leanings faded in the 1990s. When the Bush administration listed the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, Gorton joined the timber industry in blaming environmentalists for hurting timber-dependent communities.

When the Clinton Forest Plan was put to work in the mid-1990s, Gorton emerged as a leader in the conservative backlash. His legislation to roll back the Endangered Species Act stung environmentalists, and not only because it weakened the law. Leaked memos showed that industry lobbyists had drafted the bill. Those memos would haunt Gorton later in his career.

Gorton lobbied hard for the infamous 1995 Salvage Logging rider that allowed timber companies to harvest old-growth trees without environmental review. His rhetoric had a hard edge. "Do we care about the people who live in timber country - or do we only care about the well-being of certain environmental organizations and their lawyers?" he was quoted in the Seattle Times.

During the 1990s, Gorton's League of Conservation Voters rating plummeted to an average of 14 percent. He scored 0 percent in 1997 and 1998. At the same time, his financial reliance on industry grew. A quick read of his PAC contributors shows that he receives large sums from all of the big companies in the Pacific Northwest, including Weyerhaeuser, Boeing, Plum Creek and Microsoft.

Environmentalists say Gorton has never treated them as constituents. Bill Arthur describes Gorton as aloof. "He is self-aware that he's a smart guy, so he has a tendency to look past you when you're talking to him."

Does it have anything to do with Gorton's power on the appropriations committee? "Well, when you're one of the cardinals, you're used to people approaching you on a bended knee," Arthur says.

"He's always got a big smile on his face, and I get a big hug when I see him, " counters Mary Dye, a Pomeroy wheat and grass farmer who is active in Republican politics. "He's very scholarly -- he's not a downhome, back-slapping kind of man. But I think he's a warm fuzzy in a runner's body."

Gorton does not have a cozy relationship with media. He seldom grants interviews. (For this story, the reporter faxed questions to Gorton's aide, who then passed on the Senator's answers.) In his race for re-election in 1994, Gorton faced Seattle City Council member Ron Simms, an African American. During public debates, the media blasted Gorton for being too tough and too mean. "I thought he was just doing what politicians do," says Western Washington University's Johnson, "but it shows how the media perceive him as being too nasty and mean."

The midnight rider

If Gorton already had a reputation for doing the bidding of industry, he solidified it on the evening of May 12, 1998. With lobbyists from the mining industry hovering, Gorton got down on his knees in a basement room of the Capitol and wrote out special language that would give a federal permit for an open-pit gold mine in eastern Washington. The scene was captured in a story by a Seattle Times reporter.

Gorton's language was attached to a $15 billion emergency spending bill that helped pay for the war in Kosovo. But the rider reversed an Interior Department ruling that blocked approval of the proposed Crown Jewel gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain (HCN, 8/31/98: Excavating Ecotopia). The rider passed Congress and was signed by President Clinton.

Gorton's victory was shortlived. The mining project suffered a fatal blow weeks later, when the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board refused to grant the project a water right and water-quality permit. Still, the mining rider has become the "smoking gun" for both Indian tribes and environmentalists.

"This rider epitomizes the kind of sneaky, midnight-raid approach to legislating that people don't like," says Arthur of the Sierra Club. "Mining has no tradition or history in Washington, and it has very little public support."

While Gorton defended the move as a way to create local high- paying jobs, the First American project made Gorton's late-night rider the subject of its first TV ad in August. It ran on the major TV networks in Spokane for three weeks, and polls showed that it undermined support for Gorton.

Gorton has frequently used his positions as senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee to attach riders to spending bills to block environmental programs that he doesn't like.

This summer, he placed a rider on the 2001 Interior Appropriations bill (since removed under a Clinton veto threat) that would have blocked federal agencies from studying the impact of breaching four Lower Snake River dams to save salmon. Cantwell is on record as opposing breaching, too.

Gorton has dragged his feet on the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, a measure that fish advocates say would do more to restore salmon in the Pacific Northwest than any other. Once the dams are removed, fish experts estimate, the adult fish runs will increase from 3,000 a year to 390,000 a year, including all types of salmon stocks, steelhead and bull trout.

Though Gorton voted to remove the Elwha dams in 1992, and moved ahead with spending $29.5 million to buy the dams from the Fort James Paper Co., between 1994 and 1997, he refused to go further, claiming the dams' removal would set a precedent for removing many dams in the West.

"Slade has been all over the board on the Elwha issue," says Shawn Cantrell, Northwest regional director of Friends of the Earth. "He's been a complete roadblock, and he's been a reluctant helpful partner."

But as with the tribes, Gorton has brought home the conservation bacon, directing tens of millions of dollars into habitat-restoration programs on the Pacific Coast. In fiscal 1999 and 2000, he sent $40 million to the Washington State Salmon Recovery Board for salmon-restoration efforts in Puget Sound and coastal areas. He also got $1.5 million in fiscal 1999 and 2000 for 12 Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups that work on volunteer habitat-restoration programs for salmon and steelhead. The list goes on.

Many environmentalists criticize Gorton's fish-habitat programs as feel-good projects that have yielded thin results. Gorton trumpets them. Recently he began running radio ads with endorsements from Democrats and environmentalists who have received help from Interior Appropriations bills.

One testimonial comes from Joy Huber, director of Seattle-based Planet CPR and a longtime environmental activist. Huber developed a program for youth groups which limits pollution to Puget Sound by placing filters in storm drains in parking lots and streets. After searching for funds from many local government sources, Huber approached Gorton, who came through with $451,000 in fiscal 2000. More than 5,000 kids will help install the filters, she said.

"I'm a Democrat, and I'm a Gore and Gorton supporter - that's kind of weird," Huber says. "This is a very local program -- something the entire electorate can get involved in. I don't care what their politics are."

Huber says she's gotten the most grief from her personal friends. "They were like, how dare you! Some people absolutely hate the guy. I consider him an ally."

Gorton also went to bat for rock climbers when the U.S. Forest Service tried to ban pitons and fixed anchors in wilderness areas. He placed a rider on an appropriation bill to prevent the agency from implementing the policy, and climbed an artificial cliff at the Seattle REI store to protest the issue. The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based recreation club and publishing house, supported his position. A number of Washington rock climbers say they will vote for Gorton because of his support.

Down to the wire

As of the writing, statewide polls show Gorton and Cantwell in a dead heat, with slightly more than 40 percent each. Now it's a battle for the "undecideds."

The undecideds aren't east of the Cascades. Wheat farmer Mary Dye predicts Gorton will carry 60 percent of the vote in rural eastern Washington.

"He really understands the economy of natural resource-based industries, she says. "He understands it in his soul."

What Gorton and Cantwell both need are the suburbs of Seattle, where residents have little concern about natural-resource industries.

Money and its influence on social and environmental policy is the issue.

"I believe the public has become cynical and apathetic due to the disproportionate amount of power special interests have over politicians like Sen. Gorton," says Maria Cantwell. "As one of the leading beneficiaries of special-interest PAC money, Gorton has voted time and time again to stymie even the most modest campaign-reform proposals, and is woefully out of step with Washingtonians on issues like the environment, health care and a woman's right to choose."

Cantwell has refused PAC money so far, but Gorton's spokeswoman, Bergman, says her stance is "typical Maria Cantwell -- her TV ads say one thing, but she does another. Maria doesn't want to talk about her record in Congress, back when she was one of the top recipients of PAC money. If PAC money is so evil, why did Maria Cantwell take so much of it in 1992 and 1994?"

The race for high-tech suburban votes has been fierce. Though Cantwell is well-connected in the high-tech industry, Gorton did everything he could to support Microsoft during the anti-trust trial. He blasted the feds for intruding in the company's private affairs, and even tried to cut the budget of the antitrust division of the Justice Department to send a message. Now Microsoft tops Gorton's list of corporate campaign contributors: $100,300 as of Aug. 30. So far, Microsoft has contributed only $10,500 to Cantwell's campaign.

But companies don't vote, and Jeff Angus, a Seattle-based technology consultant and a former Microsoft employee, predicts that people in the high-tech industry will be tugged two ways.

"Cantwell will be considered cooler because she's an insider and she's cute, and most of these people are nerdy guys who couldn't get a date in high school. On the other hand, some people are going to like Slade because they're wealthy, and he's going to work to lower taxes. So that's the basic duality."

Angus says he's going to vote "enthusiastically" for Cantwell. "I think the Sierra Club is too gentle on Gorton," he says. "Why he's so opposed to Native Americans is one of the big mysteries for me. But I think the Democrats smell blood, and I think they've got a really good chance to beat him."

For Pacific Northwest environmentalists, evicting Gorton from the U.S Senate would signal a major political shift. John Osborn, a physician and environmental activist from Spokane, says Gorton is an important part of the powerful cabal of conservative Western Republican senators that has resisted environmental protection for the past 100 years.

If Gorton goes, Osborn says, it will show that the timber industry's political grip on the Pacific Northwest has finally slipped, years after the industry has fled to other timber frontiers.

Does that mean conservative Republicans in the Interior West should be looking over their shoulders? Probably not, says Osborn. "There is a huge difference between Washington and Idaho," and it may take many years for the demographic and economic changes that shape the Pacific Northwest Washington to fully reach the interior West.

Ron Allen, meanwhile, hopes the First American campaign pushes Cantwell over the top and puts an end to Gorton's attacks on tribes. Gazing out at the blue, wind-whipped waves in Sequim Bay, he says, "I'm confident this effort will be money well-spent. (Gorton) may win, but he'll never forget it."


Steve Stuebner is a freelance writer out of Boise, Idaho.


  • First American Education Project, Russ Lehman, managing director, 360/352-9833,;
  • Sierra Club, Northwest Office, 206/621-1696, or;
  • Sen. Slade Gorton campaign office, 425/450-9374,;
  • Maria Cantwell campaign office, 425/697-5336,

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stephen Stuebner

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