On the evening of November 2, 1999, friends and family of a new political advocacy group called the Snohomish County Elections Committee meet at the Everett Underground, a bar that caters to a primarily gay and lesbian clientele. For a $6 donation guests can enjoy all-you-can-eat spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread. Donations of $10 or more will also include a year's subscription to SNOMEC's candidate rating sheet, the launch of which the group had recently celebrated. The event is open to the bar's usual clientele if they want to pay for the meal, but overall the evening is filled with a tight-knit gathering of activists engaged in political discussion and watching the state general election results roll in. Modeled after a similar group in Seattle, SNOMEC remains active from 1999 through 2003.
Seeds of Activism
Several months earlier in 1999, the Snohomish County Elections Committee, or SNOMEC, was co-founded by Charles Fay (b. 1936), Pat D'Willis, and Jeff W. Phillips (b. 1972); no official date for this event was recorded. All three founders had been politically active prior to working on SNOMEC, and each had spent time working with the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee, or SEAMEC. SEAMEC had been interviewing local candidates to assess their knowledge of and commitment to issues of importance to the GLBT community since 1977 (see Editor's note below).
SNOMEC was designed to emulate the Seattle group's model of conducting candidate interviews and producing rating sheets. SEAMEC had long wished to see its work replicated in surrounding counties, but due to some technicalities in its bylaws, this expansion was difficult to accomplish in an official capacity. Phillips recalled that SEAMEC went as far as to send out "how to" literature to different advocacy groups around the country in the hopes that others would set up similar systems of candidate assessment and rating. When the time came to launch SNOMEC, Fay, D'Willis, and Phillips received the enthusiastic approval of SEAMEC to proceed, but initially were not given any financial or organizational support. Eventually SNOMEC agreed to become a subcommittee of SEAMEC so that it could be written into the larger organization's bylaws and could exchange voter lists and other information, and deposit donations in a shared account from which funds could be drawn.
Once the groundwork was laid, Fay, D'Willis, and Phillips, with the aid of a large network of dedicated volunteers, set about contacting local and statewide candidates and conducting interviews. Most of the responses came from candidates in local races, although the group did use public records and statements to make endorsements in statewide contests. Both Fay and Phillips credit Sno-Isle and Everett Public Library locations with being vital to these interviewing activities. Having access to meeting spaces in public libraries gave SNOMEC the privacy needed to conduct the interviews, and in some cases lent more credibility in the eyes of candidates who may have been reluctant to participate.
The Interview Process
When making the initial calls to candidates to arrange interviews, Phillips explained that the volunteers would not specify that the interview questions would be focused on GLBT topics but would provide that information if the candidate asked directly about the nature of the interview. Letters sent to candidates to request interviews were very clear about SNOMEC being a GLBT interest group that would be asking questions about issues related to their causes.
Ratings sheets noted how each candidate reacted to interview requests. Sheets had codes for different responses including those who failed to appear for scheduled interviews; those who declined rudely; those who were unable to schedule; or those who simply declined being interviewed, either outright or by not responding to requests.
SNOMEC volunteers had clear guidelines about format and demeanor during the interview process. Interviews were kept to a strict time limit, and interviewers were encouraged to stick to the script. They were advised to be "businesslike but not stony ... friendly but not chummy ... welcoming" (Charles D. Fay Collection). Above all, interviewers were reminded to remain impartial, not indicating any level of support or disapproval of any candidate until the ratings sheets were released. Candidates were allowed to bring one guest, who would remain behind the interviewee during the interview and could not remove notes from the interview room. Late arrivals had time deducted from their total, and those coming 15 or more minutes late could be rescheduled.
One questionnaire from the year 2000 included topics ranging from something as simple as whether a candidate personally knew any gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individuals, and whether they thought being gay was a choice, to questions about Dr. Laura Schlessinger's First Amendment rights and the legality of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
Making the Grades
Candidates were assigned a final grade to indicate where each candidate landed on a spectrum ranging from Actively Hostile to Endorsed. In many cases, candidates who received a 0 rating for Actively Hostile had declined to be interviewed. The SNOMEC and SEAMEC definition of Actively Hostile was an individual who was an "actively outspoken opponent of gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgendered rights" and had a "known history of anti-gay activities" (Charles D. Fay Collection). Candidates received a black triangle and bold capital typeface for Endorsed status on the SNOMEC rating sheet, defined as "a clear choice of importance to voters on gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgendered issues" (Charles D. Fay Collection). In some cases, endorsed candidates participated in the interview process in more than one election cycle.
After the interviews were conducted and the results compiled, the rating sheets were prepared for distribution. Getting this information out was a massive undertaking, involving many volunteers. There were letter mailing parties at private homes where envelopes were stuffed and sent out to large lists of voters. SNOMEC volunteers hand-delivered stacks of ratings sheets to every public library in the Everett Public Library and Sno-Isle systems. The reception they received from local libraries was mostly welcoming, but initially there was some resistance from a couple of locations. Literature distribution policies varied among library branches. A letter to all locations from Sno-Isle administration dated October 28, 1999, acknowledged confusion over "the distribution of political information within the guidelines of our varied building policies" (Kelly).
All recipients were urged: "If your building does not specifically address the free distribution of literature, please assume from this point forward that any handouts you receive -- political or otherwise -- should be set out for the public to pick up" (Kelly). Charles Fay, who also received a copy, credits Sno-Isle staff for their quick action to resolve any misunderstanding of policies and make SNOMEC literature available to the public. A follow-up letter from an attorney from the ACLU nudged the last reluctant library board into line, and the following year every location knew what SNOMEC was, and had no issue distributing the ratings sheets.
SNOMEC's political activities in Snohomish County were impactful but ultimately brief. While there many very willing volunteers to do the legwork, none were interested in assuming leadership roles. By June 2003 it had become clear that SNOMEC would not have the level of organizational support needed to complete that year's ratings sheets, and a letter was sent asking for volunteers to take up the mantle for 2004. Shortly after, SNOMEC ceased its candidate rating activities. (SEAMEC continues to operate under the same model.) An archive of SNOMEC materials can be accessed at the Northwest Room of the Everett Public Library, and an online collection can be found at epls.org.
Editor's note: The terms used in this article reflect the language used by SNOMEC between 1999-2003 to refer to members of, and issues related to what was then referred to as the GLBT community. While terminology has shifted over the years to reflect the preferences and realities of members of the GLBT community, for the sake of consistency between direct quotations from historic documents, and present-day terms, one set of vocabulary was chosen.