State GOP Chair Kirby Wilbur: Passionate and Pragmatic

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.”

Primary Education

So we (I’m hoping everyone who reads, at least) voted in our primary election a couple of weeks ago and most of us probably didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the process. After all, we settled all that a couple of years ago after a protracted battle involving state legislation, initiatives and court cases. Done deal, right? Well, sort of. At least it is for those of us who live in a little place I like to call the real world. Regardless of whether you like your primary served up “Cajun” style (the current “Top Two” system) or with that wide-open taste of the “Montana” frontier (“Pick a Party”), you’ve moved on, accepted the verdict, right? Of course you have! You’re not a political hack.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve used that label to describe myself on a number of occasions and parties certainly have their place (especially when piñatas are involved), but when parties lose sight of their goals the ugly side of partisanship we all love to hate bares its ugly and wasteful grin. And so it is with the primary battle.

A bit of history. From 1890 to 1907 parties nominated their candidates through conventions or petition (a brilliant idea, if you ask me). But then the state legislature, in its populist “wisdom” decided to enact a “semi-open” primary wherein voters didn’t have to declare party affiliation but did have to select either a Republican ballot or a Democrat ballot on Election Day. In 1934 the Grange and the AFL-CIO teamed up and proposed an initiative to the legislature which further opened the primary, allowing people to vote for whomever they liked, regardless of party (the “Blanket Primary”); i.e. they could vote for a Republican primary candidate for governor and a Democratic primary candidate for state legislator. The initiative passed the legislature, the state parties challenged it, and the State Supreme Court upheld the new law. Fast forward to 1978 and the state parties challenged it once again and once again failed to have it thrown out. Fast forward again to 2003 and the parties finally got their way, sort of. Based on a similar ruling of California’s primary, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the “Blanket Primary” and Washington State was forced to come up with a new system. After much debate in the legislature, debate which caused a rare split within parties, it narrowly voted for the “Montana” system. Being forced to pick a party ballot, people were up in arms; writing all sorts of obscenities on their primary ballots that September and quickly gathering enough signatures to put an initiative to the people to institute the “Top Two” system. Unsurprisingly, in November of 2004 it passed by a 60% margin statewide and actually passed with a two-to-one margin in most traditionally Republican counties. And the parties, once again, sued. In 2005, a U.S. District Court sided with the parties, forcing the state to return to the “Pick a Party” system, but then had its decision overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, finally granting the people of Washington the system that they wanted. Phew!

So you’d think once the Supreme’s made a decision, things would settle down, at least for a few decades. But no! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, except, maybe, a political party scorned. In the Republican Party’s defense, SCOTUS overturned the lower courts decision because they felt the argument constituted only a facial challenge, i.e. it was based on a hypothetical argument that voters would have a problem differentiating an officially nominated candidate from one who listed his preference as Republican or Democrat. The problem, the Republican Party (along with the Democratic Party) argued, was that candidates being able to list themselves as “prefers Republican Party” on the ballot without going through some form of closed primary violated the party’s First Amendment right of association by allowing members not of the party to choose the candidate; the same argument that initiated this whole mess back in 2003. The new challenge, filed in June, now argues based on actual facts based on the 2008-2010 elections. It seems like a reasonable argument and some argue that the 1996 nomination of Ellen Craswell for Republican gubernatorial candidate was the result of Democrats crossing over during the primary to vote for what they perceived as the weaker candidate. I think that’s a bit of a stretch but there’s really no way of knowing.

But all of this aside, the continued and costly battle to overturn the Top Two primary is a waste of time. First, from a common perspective, how many Democrats are really voting for the “weaker” Republican candidate? And even if there are a few, I’d dare say that there are an equal number of Republicans doing the same thing in Democratic primaries. Turnabout is fair play after all.

Furthermore, it’s just bad politics to continue this challenge. It was actually bad politics to challenge it in the first place. As I repeatedly tell many purists, would you rather be right or would you rather win? You can’t always have both. Say the GOP was to succeed in this challenge. The legislature would have to go back to the drawing board, wasting more time (as if they already don’t waste enough) crafting yet another law to run our elections instead of focusing on, here’s a wild thought, jobs, education, crime, just about anything other than primary elections.

(In fact, they likely will be wasting some time on this issue because one casualty of this legal battle has already been PCOs on both sides of the aisle. PCOs would be up for reelection next year but the judge did rule that office could no longer appear on the primary ballot so, come January 2013, unless the parties figure something out, there will be no PCOs. This actually came as music to the ears of County Auditors statewide as they’ve always been irritated by the amount of money spent on a race that rarely garners more than one or two votes, if any. It should also come as music to the ears of every small-government conservative too, since PCO elections are basically taxpayer-funded party politics.)

And even if the wasting of lawmaker time wasn’t an issue, most people are change adverse. We’d have 2004 all over again with voters by the droves writing expletives across their primary ballots and burning both elephants and donkeys in effigy. Who knows? They might get mad enough at the parties that they finally decide to elect someone like Goodspaceguy or Mike the Mover! Either that or the media will report, somewhat correctly, that this new round of election fiddling is “all the Republicans fault” and the GOP will be relegated to minority status for yet another decade. And to restate an earlier point, even if the media didn’t decide to pin most of the blame on the Republicans it wouldn’t matter. The results of the 2004 initiative show that more Republicans than Democrats prefer the top two system. By continuing this lawsuit the Republican Party is firing on its own people.

And, finally, the chances of a legal victory over the Top Two primary just diminished even more this past week when a U.S. District Court in California ruled in favor of the defendants (including, ironically, our old friend Dean Logan) to uphold that state’s Top Two primary.

The Washington State Republican Party’s State Committee will be meeting in January. By that time this issue may have been decided by the courts, which would mean, should the GOP lose, that the State Party would have to pay out another $55,000 in fines. Not something that donors really want to hear. My advice: kill this ridiculous challenge, post-haste. Save the party money, save the court’s and the legislature’s time, and don’t anger the voters of Washington.