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The 1978 August Mardesich/Larry Vognild Campaign

HistoryLink.org Essay 5685 : Printer-Friendly Format

The year 1978 saw an unprecedented Washington primary campaign, one that pitted powerful pro-business incumbent State Senator August Mardesich against retired firefighter and pro-union newcomer Larry Vognild in the 38th Legislative District (Everett and the surrounding area). The story of this contest is excerpted from Class Wars: The History of the Washington Education Association, 1965 to 2001 (Seattle: WEA, 2004)

Teachers v. August Mardesich

Nineteen-seventy eight was a critical year for Washington Education Association’s Political Action Program. After two years of political organizing and training, it was time to flex some Association muscle. The major target was Democratic Senator August Mardesich. 

Mardesich was an attorney and commercial fisherman from the 38th Legislative District, comprising Everett and some bordering precincts. He was officially a Democrat but voted on the side of big business and against many union legislative goals. He was the Senate Majority Leader. In the 1970s, legislation seldom passed without his approval. Bob Fisher, a WEA lobbyist was in awe of his power. “I was amazed at his depth of knowledge gained through reading nearly every legislative bill that crossed his desk,” said Fisher. Known as Augie, he was the most powerful person in the Legislature. The 38th Legislative District was a safe Democratic seat and Augie was considered “untouchable.”

If he was “untouchable,” why was Mardesich WEA’s target? Among other things, Augie had supported severely reducing public employee retirement benefits. In 1976 he was responsible for creating “Plan II” retirement systems for teachers and other public employees. With his support, the Legislature eliminated the teachers’ Continuing Contract Law in 1976, leaving them without any due process rights for a year until a somewhat weaker version could be reenacted. He gave big business what they wanted, usually at the expense of employees and the unions that represented them.

Beginnings of the Campaign

After the 1976 elections, Don Johnson, WEA’s Chief Lobbyist and Steve Kink, WEA’s Political Action Director began meeting with other public employee union leadership. The primary unions involved were the state employees union (AFSCME), the state firefighters, the state trial lawyers, and the police officers. The purpose of these meetings was to develop a coordinated campaign to elect commonly endorsed candidates throughout the state.

Johnson and Kink shared the WEA’s desire to go after Mardesich. There was much skepticism expressed by the other unions about being able to beat him. “After much persuasion,” said Kink, “we decided to go all out and all out we did!”

WEA and AFSCME took the lead in the coalition. They assigned Steve Kink and Mark Brown, AFSCME’s Political Action Director, to organize the campaign against Mardesich. Doug McNall from Everett was the state firefighter’s union President. He volunteered to join the campaign organizers. Kink was chosen as the campaign manager, Brown would coordinate union volunteer activity and help with campaign public relations, and McNall would provide critical in-district knowledge and run the yard sign activities. From the very beginning, these three knew that they were involved in something unprecedented in Washington campaign politics. “We all respected each other and worked well together,” said Kink.

Vognild's Good Image

The first problem the team encountered was they had no candidate who was willing to take on Mardesich. They consulted their local union affiliates for names of potential candidates. Everyone seemed afraid to challenge him. According to Kink, “all the local political potentials were afraid of Mardesich or they thought that he couldn’t be beat.” Finally, McNall saved the day by talking Larry Vognild into running. Vognild was a retired firefighter and a political neophyte. The one obvious plus to begin with was that with his gray hair and stately looks, he had the image of a good candidate. The strategy became clear. Vognild would run as a Democrat against Augie in a winner-take-all primary. The chance of a Republican winning in a general election in the 38th District was minimal at best.

Another major concern was the potential for WEA’s local affiliate, the Everett Education Association (EEA), to give much assistance to the campaign. It appeared the EEA might be on strike that fall during the campaign. The Everett school district boundaries made up most of the 38th Legislative District. It could have been a problem in two ways. One, there would be few volunteers to draw from during the strike and two, if it were a nasty strike (which it turned out to be), it could have a negative impact on the on the campaign. Larry Vognild would have to support the EEA strike because he was the candidate supporting unions and their members.

The coalition then filed with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) as a political action committee so that it could raise funds for the campaign. This would be a challenge because each union had to have enough campaign contributions for all their other endorsed legislative candidates in addition to funding the campaign against Mardesich. Augie would have all the money he needed from big business. Kink and Brown came up with the idea to do a raffle.

One Dollar Times Thousands

Kink and Brown met with the Public Disclosure Commission and the Gambling Commission staffs and got approval to move forward with a campaign raffle. This was a perfect strategy because the raffle amount was legally limited to one dollar per ticket. This amount would sell easily within the union membership. “This fundraising strategy had never been tried on a statewide basis within the coalition unions’ membership,” said Kink.

The coalition unions set about informing their memberships of the campaign goals and particularly the Mardesich target. They distributed information about the importance of the campaign. Union leaders strongly encouraged their members to participate. They solicited volunteers to work in endorsed campaigns. Every type of union and Association leader sold campaign raffle tickets, and volunteers were trained for specific campaign activities. Raffle tickets were sold at nearly every WEA, UniServ Council, and local Association function. (The UniServ Council was an organizational unit of the WEA.) Thousands of members bought raffle tickets.

On the WEA’s part, Kink met with John Morrill, the Pilchuck UniServ Director (regional Association representative) to deal with the potential Everett teacher’s strike. Morrill insisted that the campaign not use any of the Everett members during strike. Kink agreed but asked for several things in return. One, would the EEA make a major effort to get their members out to vote; two, would they take the picket lines down on election day in those schools that were polling places; and three, could the campaign have access to all the other Pilchuck local leaders and members in the Council? Morrill and Kink agreed, and then they identified key leaders through Pilchuck UniServ Council’s Political Action Committee to be major players in the Vognild campaign.

Kink then brought them and other association political activists to WEA’s Olympia office where he trained them in precinct targeting. Through this targeting, it became clear how many votes, and in which precincts, were needed to win.

At WEA’s VIP Conference (Association summer leadership training program), Kink had all the UniServ PACs report on their campaign plans and contracts with endorsed candidates. Many of them had set aside volunteers who were on call at anytime to work in the Vognild campaign.

Kink and Brown set up meetings during the summer with coalition union contacts in the area. They were something, according to Kink, “Union reps would bring in large paper bags full of money and raffle ticket stubs. Each meeting would produce several thousand dollars accompanied by hundreds of member volunteer commitments.”

Vognild a New Voice

The Vognild campaign office was established on Ruston Way in Everett. The campaign message was; “Senator Mardesich no longer represents the voters in the 38th District. He has sold out to big business and forgotten about the employees who have supported him over the years. It was time for a new voice that represented everyone in the district.” This message sold well in the historically unionized 38th Legislative District.

Brown did most of the campaign literature and newspaper ads emphasizing these messages by identifying Mardesich’s voting record and his public statements and by specifically identifying his campaign contributors. The comparison was made between Vognild as someone who represented people inside the district and Mardesich who represented the big business outside the district.

Later in the campaign, Kink decided to visit a local radio station and grabbed John Chase, a colleague who was working the Everett strike, to go along. It turned out that the station producer hated Mardesich and was willing to donate his time to help develop several campaign radio spots. “We saturated the airwaves in the last days of the campaign,” said Kink.

One day during the campaign, Kink was mentioning to Doug McNall that it would great if we had some inside intelligence as to which precincts Mardesich was working and what campaign pitches he was making. The next day McNall showed up with a list of Mardesich’s targeted precincts and one of his doorbelling packets. “I started to ask some questions of McNall and then decided I really did not want to know how he got this valuable information,” said Kink.

Voters were targeted in three types of precincts. In the No. 1 targeted precincts, each voter would be contacted by some campaign activity a minimum of five times. The No. 2 precincts would be hit four times and the No. 3 precincts three. All of this would be done in the four weeks before the September primary election. This was supplemented by a massive yard sign blitz run by the firefighters into the targeted precincts

Mardesich the True Republican

“I insisted that no work be done in those precincts that historically voted Republican,” explained Kink. “It is wasted energy. If they voted Republican, then they will vote that way again and the true Republican in this campaign is Mardesich.” These precincts turned out to be Mardesich’s major support and his campaign worked them hard.

WEA members and leaders were crucial during the campaign. Darlene Hensley, from Marysville, was assigned the responsibility of coordinating volunteers for the mass mailings. She ultimately helped in coordinating volunteers for doorbelling. Connie Christman and Deanna Thorpe, from Snohomish, worked with Association volunteers in various campaign assignments. They developed volunteer goals for each local Association in Pilchuck, minus Everett, and assigned them to campaign activities. Lorraine Evans from Mukilteo assisted with office activities. Hundreds of Association members from Marysville, Snohomish, Mukilteo, Monroe, Sultan, and Lake Stevens volunteered in mailing, doorbelling and other campaign projects. They also helped in the volunteer coordination of other locals outside the district that provided volunteers to the campaign.

“The hardest part of the campaign was coordinating all the volunteers,” said Kink. “On doorbelling days we would have busloads of union members from as far away as Spokane coming to help. Off-duty firefighters and policemen from all over Western Washington would show up to volunteer. State, county and municipal employees would come by the carloads to doorbell or do what was needed. Association members would fill in the nightly activities during the week. However, they would also show up for the weekend activities. A major expense in the campaign was paying for the pizza and beer following each campaign activity. It was truly a great thing to see, the variety of union employees pulling together for their common good and enjoying each other’s company.

Dollars v. People

Initially, Kink and Brown agreed that it would be best to keep Vognild away from debating Mardesich. They thought Mardesich, with all his insider knowledge and political savvy, would chew him up in any confrontation. However, Vognild insisted on debating him. After much preparation on Vognild’s part, they finally met in a public forum and he held his own. He did it by staying on message and attacking Augie on his record.

There was some extra money to spend late in the campaign so Kink designed a very controversial full-page newspaper ad. The ad brought Governor Dixy Lee Ray into the campaign on the side of her friend, Augie.

The ad was a full page divided down the middle with Vognild and Mardesich contrasted on opposite sides. In the background, on Mardesich’s side were a huge dollar sign and a list of all the corporations that contributed to his campaign. On the Vognild side was a picture of a crowd of people and list of all the organizations that endorsed him. The inherent message, Mardesich was bought by the corporations and Vognild was the peoples’ candidate.

Governor Ray went ballistic and decided she wanted to help Mardesich by coming to the district to hold a news conference. Many thought that this would hurt the Vognild campaign. Kink disagreed. “This is great,” he said, “because we knew that most of the voters supporting Vognild also disliked Governor Ray. This would solidify the Vognild voters and bring some fence sitters over to our side.”

Sure enough, the Governor came to Everett ranting about the newspaper ad and threatened to take it to the State Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution. Mardesich seemed like an afterthought during the media attention around the ad. Ray only succeeded in bringing more attention to the ad. “The campaign headquarters’ phones rang off the hook the next day from people calling to volunteer,” said Kink.

How Victory Was Won

After a huge get-out-the-vote campaign in the Vognild targeted precincts, the election finally came. Vognild not only beat Mardesich, he won in the targeted precincts by 600 votes more than what Kink had projected during the campaign.

This Vognild election victory set several state campaign precedents. One, no other campaign had brought the collective union and Association membership to focus in a coordinated manner on a single campaign. Two, it set a record for legislative campaign expenditures. The raffle alone raised well over $80,000 and that did not count all the additional contributions made by individuals and organizations. This came at a time when the average legislative campaign expenditure was around $35,000. Three, this legislative campaign used more volunteers than were generated in some statewide general election races. Nearly 3,000 individuals volunteered for various campaign activities and this does not count those who purchased raffle tickets. Four, it proved that someone who was willing to take a risk could beat an “untouchable” incumbent in a primary election.

Sources:
This story is excerpted from Steve Kink and John Cahill, Class Wars: The History of the Washington Education Association, 1965-2001 (Seattle: WEA, 2004).


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