This past January, Kirby Wilbur was swept into the office of Washington State Republican Party Chairman on a wave of Tea Party support. But unlike many tea-partiers, Kirby has been a fixture in Washington State Republican politics for decades.
Maybe that’s because it’s in his blood. He was born in Washington, D.C., moving to the other side of the country when he was only eight. He first took notice of politics, however, during the 1964 election. His parents weren’t especially political. They voted for Kennedy in 1960 but felt Johnson was the wrong choice in 1964. Wilbur, like most kids that age, threw his support behind the same candidate as his parents, Barry Goldwater. Unlike many, though, he was very passionate about that choice and was one of only six in his class to wear a Goldwater button. The majority of the others supported Johnson.
His first real involvement, and the first time he got his name in the Seattle Times, came a few years later in High School when he and a friend decided to rip down a “Che Guevara” flag that a group of SDS students had put up in place of the US flag in one of the classrooms. After grabbing it and running out of the room, he and his friend planned to hold a public burning of the flag.
“If they were going to go around burning my flag I was going to burn theirs,” Wilbur says.
When the leader of his school’s SDS movement confronted him, demanding that he give him his flag back, Wilbur questioned the student’s communist philosophy. “You’re flag? I thought you believed in collectivism. This flag belongs as much to me and as it does to you.”
The following day he was able to gather his fellow conservatives, the media and a couple hundred other students, most of whom, while not as passionate about politics as Wilbur, weren’t big fans of the SDS. When his rival showed up and threatened to call the police Wilbur again questioned his philosophy. “You mean the same police who you were calling ‘pigs’ just the other day? Now that you need something you’re going to call them?” In the end, Wilbur, showing some of the pragmatism and diplomacy he carries with him today, chose not to burn the flag. Instead he returned it but only under the condition that it wouldn’t be displayed again unless a majority of the Queen Anne High School student body voted for it. There was never an election.
Today he’s not as confrontational as he was in those days. In fact, he finds the personal nature of politics to be its ugliest side. He has many liberal friends who he enjoys discussing politics with but believes the personal and sometimes violent nature of things, like name calling and the keying of cars because someone has a bumper sticker you disagree with, have no place in politics.
He doesn’t expect the negativity of politics will ever go away, though, and points to the fact that we’ve come a long way as a nation in becoming more civil despite what some may claim from the podium or the press. He blames much of the misconception on our 24/7 news cycle.
He also believes negative politics are here to stay because, despite what people may say to pollsters about how much they hate the negativity, negative politicking works. And of course, he adds, one person’s truth may be another one’s negativity. “At least we’re not holding duels in Lafayette Park anymore!”
An avid historian, Wilbur also shares a story about the 1800 presidential campaign, during which Jefferson was accused of being an atheist and opponents spread rumors that he’d seize everyone’s Bible’s if elected. (Ed. – Something those who through out claims about Perry and Bachmann wanting to take away their religious freedoms might take note of.)
He does feel that the Republican Party could spend more time on promoting its issues though.
“If you look at the last few elections in Washington State you’ll notice that even heavily Democratic areas like Grays Harbor County voted overwhelmingly for anti-tax initiatives. In fact, during the 2010 election, there was a double-digit spread in 30 out of 39 counties between Democratic victories and anti-tax initiative victories. Sure, there are some Patty Murray Democrats who are anti-tax, but not that many. I think that shows there’s a disconnect between what the Republican Party actually stands for and what many voters feel the Republican Party might stand for.”
On the issue of political parties he’s clear. While Washington warned his successors against forming parties, he believes Washington was a strict constitutionalist and therefore didn’t see the need for parties.
“If we were to follow the letter of the constitution, which gives government a very defined role, there would be no need for parties.” But Wilbur also realizes that the debate between strict constitutionalism and a broader view of government’s role has been going on since the time of Jefferson and Hamilton and, as long as it does, there will always be a need for political parties. Furthermore, he believes in the two-party system.
“The only perfect candidate for me is me and the only perfect candidate for you is you. Having multiple parties brings chaos,” he says, referencing the nature of multi-party, parliamentary systems like the United Kingdom.
And because he believes in the efficacy of a two-party system, he also believes in the idea of the “big tent.”
“The Republican Party’s core values are basically economic.” He welcomes libertarian minded people into the fold because they basically believe in a limited roll of government.
“Our differences on issues like abortion basically come down to where we believe life begins.” He adds that, although he welcomes pro-choice libertarians into the party, he will continue to fight for the pro-life stance in the Republican Party’s platform.
What three things would he like to see done to reform election and campaign law?
1. He’d like to see registration by party; Republican, Democrat, Independent. “It’s about the primary. Parties are like a club and only members of the club should be allowed to select their own representatives. Having an open primary is like having the Elk’s Club President being elected by Rotarians.” He thinks one way around this would be to return to the days when we had party conventions but he’d also be okay with a traditional closed primary.
2. He’d like to see us return to poll-only voting with no absentee ballots unless there’s a legitimate reason. “I may have a Norman Rockwell view but I just like the idea of everyone going to the polls; people being able to interact with their neighbors.”
3. He’d like to see campaign donation limits lifted but have immediate reporting. “Donations are a form of speech and should not be restricted be they from individuals, corporations or unions. If I want to give a candidate a million dollars I should be able to do that. He will then, of course, have to weigh the impact of taking that donation.” He doesn’t believe that money is as big an influence on politics as some think. “Politicians don’t sell their votes. When people give to a candidate they’re doing so because of that person’s ideology.”
When it comes to the issue of term limits he believes politicians should limit themselves but ultimately let the voters decide. “Term limits lead to lazy voters. If they know the guy in office is going to be out at the end of that term they don’t worry as much about what he’s doing.”
He does like the idea of limiting the terms of congressional staffers or at least rotating them around since they often have much more knowledge and, therefore power, than the senators and representatives they serve.
Ultimately though, he believes the only way to limit the corruption that comes along with things like big money donations, lobbyists and lifetime congressmen is to limit the size and scope of government. “Lobbyists are just doing their job. If politicians had no ability to hand out all those favors there’d be no reason for there to be as many lobbyists.”
As for Wilbur’s “best” moment of his political career, “meeting Reagan at the White House in 1983. We were looking at a collection of plates on a shelf inside the Oval Office when he walked in. Before we even heard or saw him we felt his presence.”