Jerry Gibbs is a Navy veteran, a cancer survivor, a bootlegger’s son, a dog-walker, and a raconteur — and over the past five years, from his basement in Gig Harbor, he’s quietly built one of Pierce County’s more potent political machines.
Last year, Gibbs, 64, led a successful referendum campaign to kill the county’s proposed new administration building.
Before that, he grappled with leaders of the Peninsula School District in a sometimes bitter battle over spending. The effort led to an unusual reversal: Gibbs accepted a short-term appointment to the School Board and backed a maintenance and operations levy that passed with 70 percent support last month, after multiple capital spending measures had failed in previous years.
His recent successes have earned respect from activists across the ideological spectrum. Local progressives and conservatives have sought his advice, which he gives freely.
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He’s watching the heated Republican race for the presidential nomination. Early on, he supported Carly Fiorina. Now he’s not sure. He confesses he’s no fan of frontrunner Donald Trump.
“He’s gone too far with some of the things he’s saying,” Gibbs says.
He’s a charmer, a tall man (6 feet 7) with a lilting Georgia accent and a courtly manner that might be his best weapon. He labels himself a fiscal conservative rather than a social firebrand. (“I don’t care who you sleep with,” he says.)
He sees an overall trend of increasing political populism at all levels of government, and he couldn’t be happier about it.
The News Tribune interviewed Gibbs this week about his activism, his history and his views of local politics. Gibbs can talk with the best of them; what follows is an edited transcript.
Q: You’ve built two houses, and you oversaw the work on this one.
A: It’s something I recommend people do once in their life, ’cause you sure learn a lot. If you want to get a grasp on county bureaucracy and regulation, go build a house.
Q: You’re also a cancer survivor.
A: I retired in 2008. I went in for my physical, and I had a lump on my neck that I thought was a swollen gland. It was squamous cell carcinoma, stage four.
I had a tumor on my throat, and on the side of my neck and a big one right above my lung that was starting to spread into my lung. If it had gotten into my lung, I would have been dead.
I never get sick. I didn’t even know I had cancer. I had no symptoms. They gave me about a 5 to 10 percent chance (of survival). It worked out. I had great health care right there at Tacoma General.
I didn’t talk or eat solid food for almost a year — and you know me, I like to talk. From that, cancer outreach has been one of my passions. I advocate for death with dignity. I considered that option. I was glad that it was there.
I had great health care right there at Tacoma General. I didn’t talk or eat solid food for almost a year - and you know me, I like to talk. From that, cancer outreach has been one of my passions. I advocate for death with dignity. I considered that option. I was glad that it was there.
Q: Around the same time, you were a victim of identity theft. What’s that story?
A: This guy was a super scumbag.
I went to dinner here in Gig Harbor, and my credit card was skimmed. He took my credit card and created an identity — a driver’s license and a credit card — it pops up on my credit card charges for $56 worth of pizza.
Everyone should go through a criminal justice experience and see how slow, awkward and cumbersome it is. I was going through cancer treatment at the time, so I had to testify with a whiteboard. He was a jailhouse lawyer type, but I stuck in there. He got seven years.
Q: Before you retired, you served in the military. What was your job?
A: I was in the Navy, in the submarine program.
I joined the nuclear power program at the (Bremerton) shipyard, went through the apprenticeship program. I retired as a project superintendent. My final five years was the first Trident submarine. It was a big project.
Q: Can you talk about your parents?
A: My mother died two years ago. She was 94 years old. She was in perfect health until about two weeks before she died of congestive heart failure.
I learned all my conservative values from her. She used to wash paper towels and dry them and use them again.
My dad passed away about 10 years before that time. My father was a moonshiner. He was a bootlegger. I’m safe to tell this now because he’s gone.
He used to have hot cars where he would carry booze and outrun police and things like that. But on Sunday he would go to church, and he had farms and he had businesses and he was quite the guy around town.
His name was Rozell. They called him Rosie. He always had a job, but he liked his after-hours brew.
Q: Who taught you how to talk?
A: My dad. He was a salesman. He could sell ice to an Eskimo.
Q: You’re a self-described conservative, fiscal, not social. Where does that come from?
A: I’ve always seen government waste.
When I became a project superintendent, I was responsible for the budgets and the schedules. That’s kind of where my fiscal hawk and schedule adherence and quality assurance comes from. In nuclear power, it’s 100 percent quality — zero defect, I like to call it. It just taught me so much.
I’ve always been a person that asks why do we have to keep doing it this way. I’ve seen the $40 Band-Aid, the $400 screwdriver and the $1,100 toilet seat.
So when I was in a position to do something about that I did, and I said wow, man, I just saved $80,000 this week by transferring my orders to Tacoma Screw, and doggone it, they delivered.
Q: What got you started in politics and activism?
A: I got asked to be the spokesman for a group here in Kopachuck called Preserve Our Parks.
It all came out of (then-Gov.) Christine Gregoire wanting to close 13 parks across the state. We started generating emails, Web pages. We came up with a concept and got legislation written, and we got legislation passed.
I had no appreciation until that point that a group with no money and nothing but passion can get a bill signed by the governor. I mean there’s people in the Legislature who can’t do that. Today that park (Kopachuck State Park) is still open.
Q: You moved from that cause to the Peninsula School District.
A: I’d go to School Board meetings, I’d look at their budgets. Of course, I’m the only guy there and I’m some gadfly.
I started seeing that they were coming up with some levy ideas that I didn’t think were responsible spending, so I said, well, if they’re not going to listen, maybe we’ll challenge them at the ballot box. The divide in this community — it was like a little Grand Canyon. They couldn’t pass a simple majority levy.
Q: More recently you were appointed to fill a vacancy on the School Board. What was that like?
A: It was only a 4 1/2 month appointment, but I told them, I want to redirect some focus to the horrible maintenance of our facilities. I told them, let me help you build a levy plan.
What’s the old saying, keep your enemies closer? It turned out to be a great working relationship. We crafted a resolution that the board put to the voters. Our committee endorsed it, I personally donated to it, and they got 70 percent of the vote.
Q: Why not stay on the School Board? You have this built-in organization. If you ran, you could probably win.
A: If I wanted to run for School Board, I would win. I guarantee you I would.
But I’ve gotten myself involved in a lot of things, and I found out that sometimes as a community activist, I could have more influence than being one vote on the board.
I enjoyed my time on the board. I think I was good at it. But I do a lot of grooming of potential candidates — I like to say our political bench — and I like to encourage people to get involved in the process.
Go and run for office. Go and work on a campaign. Go out and get involved and serve in your own capacity. So I feel in some ways what I’m doing now is more effective.
Q: I’ve heard a story I wanted to check with you. I’ve heard that during the referendum campaign on the county administration building, you had a group of signature gatherers trying to ransom signatures, hold on to them in exchange for higher pay, and that you were carrying a gun to emphasize that you weren’t going to play that game. Any truth to that?
A: Absolutely. It’s absolutely true.
I will say that it (the gun) wasn’t on the table. But I am a firearms owner, and I have a conceal-carry permit. It helps being 6-7, 250 pounds, too. I’ve got a lot of experience managing difficult people.
I hired these guys myself. We met twice a week. They would turn in the signatures to me, I would do a random sampling for validation, and I would pay ’em right there.
My success was based on a few simple principles. You bring good signatures, I pay you on-site. Normally that never happens. If I got one complaint from (Sheriff) Paul Pastor or the Gig Harbor police chief, I would fire them immediately. And I had to fire a couple of ’em — matter of fact, I fired one or two a week just for show. Fire for effect, they call it.
Q: What’s the difference between you and (initiative activist) Tim Eyman?
A: I know Tim. The difference between Tim and I, first of all it’s the scope.
He does statewide. This (the county building referendum) was my first countywide (campaign). Pierce County is 1,800 square miles. It’s huge. Come over to little Gig Harbor and do something with the school district, that’s chicken feed compared to Pierce County.
The difference between Tim and I is I do it as a passion, OK? This thing cost me money. Tim does it for a living. I don’t begrudge him for making a living and for doing what he does. I don’t agree with every one of his initiatives. A lot of them I do.
But for me it’s a personal mission, a passion.