Matt Driscoll

Think Tacoma’s mayoral race has gotten historically nasty? Think again.

A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen, seen here in glasses, congratulates Wallace Walker Sr., for his work with the Central Area Progressive Improvement Association in this 1968 photo. Andrew Hess, Federal Housing Administration regional director, is on Rasmussen’s right. Rasmussen was described as “irascible” by some, and his mayoral campaigns often were mudslinging donnybrooks, according to former Tacoma mayor and local historian Bill Baarsma.
A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen, seen here in glasses, congratulates Wallace Walker Sr., for his work with the Central Area Progressive Improvement Association in this 1968 photo. Andrew Hess, Federal Housing Administration regional director, is on Rasmussen’s right. Rasmussen was described as “irascible” by some, and his mayoral campaigns often were mudslinging donnybrooks, according to former Tacoma mayor and local historian Bill Baarsma. Courtesy

The vitriol is cranked up, the rhetoric teetering toward hyperbolic.

So is the state of Tacoma’s political discourse — particularly through the crude medium of social media — as the mayoral race comes careening toward a conclusion.

While our two candidates, Jim Merritt and Victoria Woodards, largely have stayed above the mudslinging fray, the same always hasn’t been true for some of their internet surrogates.

In short, the nastiness seems to have reached a fevered pitch.

Seeking perspective, I asked former mayor and local history buff Bill Baarsma if there were mayoral races in recent memory that compared.

Baarsma initially harkened back to nearly 50 years ago when fiery state Sen. A.L. “Slim” Rasmussen smack-talked his way to the mayor’s seat.

Later, Baarsma recalled the mayoral contests of 1989 and 1993, two races he called so ugly that he “just blocked them out.”

Yikes.

First, let us return to the present.

This week Merritt supporters have lobbed questionable allegations at Woodards, arguing that she knowingly fudged her academic records to score her first public office, going as far as to suggest the deception was criminal.

The dubious claims have fed into a general online furor. To hear her online detractors tell it, Woodards is a shill for big business and fossil fuels, a strong proponent of private prisons and an unqualified candidate so untrustworthy that even her military record should be reexamined.

Meanwhile, less belligerent but still biting critiques and campaign caricatures of Merritt have emanated from Woodards’s camp. Most recently, backers have accused the architect of deceitfully touting involvement in the Point Ruston development, as well as straight-up stealing drone video footage for use in a campaign video.

And this is just the stuff I can print.

It’s enough to make a columnist’s stomach churn.

Enter Baarsma.

In 1967, he said, growing resentment toward Tacoma’s city manager-style of government helped Rasmussen, a Lincoln High dropout, ascend to the city’s top elective office. That year, Rasmussen handily defeated incumbent Harold Tollefson.

Rasmussen, described by newspaper writers of the day as “uncompromising and irascible,” spent the bulk of his campaign deriding property taxes and demeaning Tollefson and Dave Rowlands, who was city manager at the time.

The themes of Rasmussen’s brutish campaign clearly resonated, according to Baarsma. Known for blue-collar cred and particularly powerful in Tacoma’s South End, Rasmussen capitalized on voter disenchantment and the perception that working-class neighborhoods in Tacoma weren’t getting a fair shake at City Hall.

There was more to it than that, according to Dennis Flannigan, Tacoma’s longtime state representative from the 27th District who launched an unsuccessful bid for the City Council in 1969.

He was seen as a bully. He was a put-down artist. Slim was caustically witty, in a way that no one was quicker than he was. … Slim was somewhat admired by lots of people for his Donald Trump-ness. He was blunt, and he called ‘em like he saw ‘em.

Dennis Flannigan on former Tacoma Mayor A.L. ‘Slim’ Rasmussen

“He was seen as a bully. He was a put-down artist,” Flannigan recalls. “Slim was caustically witty, in a way that no one was quicker than he was. Slim was somewhat admired by lots of people for his Donald Trump-ness. He was blunt, and he called ‘em like he saw ‘em.”

At the time, mayoral elections were held every two years (the mind shudders). In 1969, Rasmussen lost an extremely close race to Gordon Johnston.

If 1967 had been bad, the lead-up to 1969 was worse.

In the months that preceded that year’s campaign, sitting City Councilman C. Morrison Johnson told a local service club that “certain persons ‘with the level of a fifth-grade education grow up and become mayors.’”

It was an obvious jab at Rasmussen.

Rasmussen and his supporters, of course, were far from innocent victims. Once, an on-air host at a conservative radio station in Puyallup that had forged a relationship with Rasmussen remarked that “the City Council is … doing exactly what Hitler did. The only things that are missing are the jack boots.”

All of the uproar of the late 1960s was nothing compared to the political bitterness seen in 1989 and 1993, Baarsma said.

In 1989, Karen Vialle defeated Tim Strege, a former City Councilman looking to make a comeback. The outcome was likely aided, at least in part, by allegations of abuse against Strege that never resulted in criminal charges but nonetheless got prominent play in The News Tribune.

Four years later Vialle was defeated by Jack Hyde (who died roughly two weeks after taking office). Baarsma recalls a campaign filled with incendiary mailers and general viciousness from both sides.

“The messages that were in these hit pieces were appalling and shocking,” Baarsma said.

Former News Tribune columnist Peter Callaghan, who covered politics in Tacoma for nearly three decades, called the ‘89 and ‘93 contests “two of the nastiest races I've witnessed.”

All of this brings us back to today, and the realization that the level of political vitriol we’re witnessing likely isn’t something new or even particularly horrid, at least compared to the past.

What’s changed, according to those who’ve watched the evolution, is the platform and instant reaction social media allows for.

“The anger was there. The vitriol was there. But you had to be present to get it. That’s the big difference,” recalled Harold Moss, who began his long Tacoma political career around the time of Rasmussen.

Or, as Flannigan added: “Now, if you can twist a verb or put a strong verb together with a good noun, a well-crafted piece of venom can reach people.”

Lord help us all.

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