Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Did Pierce County miss its opportunity to elect the dive-bar candidate?

Courtesy photo

Tacoma Municipal Court Judge David Ladenburg laughs while adamantly explaining, “It wasn’t a strategy.”

Still, anyone who watched with curiosity his quest to replace retiring Judge Ron Culpepper on the Pierce County Superior Court — a bid that ended in defeat last week when Ladenburg placed third in a three-person race and failed to qualify for November’s general election — probably noticed the pattern.

Ladenburg, who didn’t go to law school and instead used the old-school apprenticeship path to becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge, utilized an equally old-school Tacoma approach in trying to get supporters to cast ballots on his behalf this year.

I believe political consultants call it “locking down the dive-bar vote.”

While yard signs are nothing new in local politics, Ladenburg’s grass-roots campaign — at least compared with his adversaries, Karena Kirkendoll and Tom Quinlan, who each raised more than $100,000 (to Ladenburg’s $29,121) and collectively outspent him nearly five-to-one — got the candidate’s name in front of voters in one of the more blue-collar ways imaginable.

The first big David Ladenburg sign I noticed was plastered on Delia’s Oakland Lounge on Center Street. An unassuming neighborhood watering hole known for its underappreciated pizza and sizable liquor collection, the sign made me think Delia’s must be Ladenburg’s campaign headquarters.

Never seen that before, I thought.

The sign above Delia’s, however, turned out to be just one of many.

It just kind of happened. I’ve known the owners (of these businesses). I’ve been a community member. We socialize. … I never really set out with a strategy to any of that, quite frankly.

David Ladenburg

Soon, I noticed the Ladenburg campaign sign stuck to the facade of O’Malley’s Irish Pub on Sixth Avenue, just above an advertisement for the bar’s ongoing “Inked Mistress Calendar Contest.” Given what I’d seen at Delia’s, neither sign seemed particularly out of place.

Next, I came across the Ladenburg sign on Jim’s Home Plate Tavern on Sprague. You know the joint — it’s the one tucked between the used-tire store and the bartender academy, where booze-filled pudding shots have been known to grace the menu, and bleary-eyed patrons often squint upon re-entering the sun of the real world.

Finally, I got word of a Ladenburg sign on Spud’s Pizza Parlor way out on Pacific Avenue. The revelation momentarily distracted me from what I usually think about when I ponder Spud’s: pitchers of domestic beer and a Canadian bacon sandwich.

Assuming there was some high-level political strategy at play, I called Ladenburg to get the scoop.

“I actually didn’t work for any of it,” Ladenburg told me. “It just kind of happened. I’ve known the owners (of these businesses). I’ve been a community member. We socialize. … I never really set out with a strategy to any of that, quite frankly.”

Instead, Ladenburg explained, the owners of these fine Tacoma establishments asked how they might aid in his campaign, and placing his signs in what he describes as “high-traffic areas” is what they came up with.

“(The signs) weren’t so much for the people in the bar, but the traffic outside the bar,” Ladenburg said. “It’s kind of unique, I’ll agree. … I’m just very honored that these businesses would do this. I’m still humbled, and I mean that. It brings me to my knees really to think about people that make the commitment to reach out. It’s very flattering that people want to help you. It’s been a really an awesome thing.”

And it wasn’t just bars, Ladenburg insists. He’s right. Hilltop Loans — the pawn shop at South 11th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way — also had a sign. So did his dry cleaner, he says.

“He grew up on Hilltop. I think he’s done a good job,” said Rand Chiarovano, co-owner of Hilltop Loans, when I asked why he wanted to put Ladenburg’s sign up. He pointed out that his business has put up signs for other candidates in the past.

He grew up on Hilltop. I think he’s done a good job.

Rand Chiarovano, co-owner of Hilltop Loans

“They’re all people we’ve had business with or know one way or another,” Chiarovano said.

I’ll take the homegrown Ladenburg at his word when he says the signs — and particularly the signs at bars — weren’t a calculated move. But that doesn’t make the tactic any less memorable. And while, ultimately, they weren’t enough for Ladenburg to reach the general election — at last count he was down by some 1,800 votes — he still believes they helped.

“Absolutely,” he says when asked if the not-a-strategy strategy benefited his campaign. “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results (of the primary election), but I’m very, very proud and very, very satisfied with the effort we made, given the resources we had.”

Meanwhile, whether candidates follow Ladenburg’s dive-bar lead in future elections remains to be seen.

“I don’t want to be known for locking down the dive-bar vote,” Ladenburg joked. “What I want to be known for is people who’ve lived in this community and known me for so many years made the decision to support me. These are hardworking, 9-to-5, down-to-earth people. I live in this community, and I’m honored to have their support.”

“I enjoy going to places that have down-to-earth people,” he continued. “I’ve probably paid the mortgage at a few of these businesses over the years.”

Next round’s on Ladenburg.