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Marion Zioncheck (above left), like Cogswell, was an outsider touched with brilliance and a passion for politics.

For the next six months, Zioncheck’s capers made him a darling of the scandal sheets, who dubbed him “the playboy congressman” and stalked him obsessively. He collected and ignored speeding tickets, and had to be stopped from brawling with a Texan delegate on the House floor. He married a federal typist after one date; she left him, then came back. Straightjacketed away to a sanitarium, he escaped and returned to Seattle. He announced he would seek reelection, then changed his mind and withdrew his candidacy, then decided again to run.

On August 8, 1936, Zioncheck was to give a speech in -Seattle. He stopped by his office in the Arctic Building to pick up some papers. His brother-in-law entered the office and found Zioncheck scribbling at his desk. Zioncheck jumped up, dashed to the window, and plunged to the pavement. The note he’d started read, “My only hope in life was to improve the condition of an unfair economic system that held no promise to those that all the wealth of a decent chance to survive let alone live.”

To Cogswell, Zioncheck’s life seemed to embrace his own contradictions: his social conscience and impish exhibitionism, ardent energy punctuated by paralyzing bouts of depression—that familial “confluence of political passion and madness.” He began writing an “Ode to Congressman Marion Zioncheck.”

Cogswell worked on it for six years, till it reached epic length.

Marion Zioncheck for President

of Death!
is my new campaign: your plea
wins just one vote in this house,

my own….


Phil Campbell took his title from the poem and seeded the book with Zioncheck’s story. But there’s no room in movie comedy for the ghosts of Congress past, and no Zioncheck in Grassroots. Just as well, says Cogswell; he’s writing the movie he wants to make about Zioncheck. Cogswell found a cautionary example, even a type of hope, in his doomed hero’s despair. He would face the world, even when he likewise felt buffeted by it. He would fight, but stop when the fight could no longer be won. By surviving, he would write a happy ending to Zioncheck’s story.

MORE IMPORTANT THINGS

Cogswell entered the political fray just as Zioncheck had: via a ballot battle to protect public resources from private interests. Around the time he landed in town, the Mariners and Seahawks began demanding new stadiums to replace the dowdy but functional Kingdome. An opposition group, Citizens for More Important Things, formed, and Cogswell became its field coordinator. In late 1996 he began an all-volunteer petition drive that collected a record 74,000 signatures in two months for an initiative that would ban public funding of pro-sports facilities—a stunning upset. “It wouldn’t have happened without Grant,” says Chris Van Dyk, the campaign’s founder. “He was everything you could hope for in a political activist—committed, methodical, organized, able to live on next to nothing. He’s one of those rare people who come out of nowhere, take on anybody, and can do anything.”

Almost anything. In the end the team owners won. The legislature overrode county voters and funded the baseball stadium. Paul Allen, the Seahawks’ new co-owner, spent $3 million on lobbying and $8.4 million on a special election for a football stadium.

The campaigns wore hard on Cogswell. Some sports fans bitterly resented the challenge to their beloved teams. “I was getting death threats all the time,” he recalls. “I stopped listening and tried to put it out of my mind. I guess I didn’t really—it stayed in my body.” He started getting severe pains in his back, then hips, legs, shoulders, and feet. He couldn’t stand cold; the watch cap he often wears in summer is not an affectation. “Doctors were baffled,” he says. “I think it’s stress-related.” The symptoms, vividly caricatured in Grassroots, recurred as long as he stayed in Seattle.

MONORAIL MEN

At Bumbershoot 1994 Cogswell saw a garrulous bear of a man named Dick Falkenbury desperately flogging a petition to build a monorail system. Falkenbury, then a chatty, polymath taxi and tour-bus driver, came to a realization while navigating traffic: Seattle didn’t just need transit. It needed elevated transit, which wouldn’t block or get bogged down in traffic, nor divide neighborhoods with dangerous railways as would the surface light rail the official powers wanted to build. And monorail, unlike rail, could climb Seattle’s steep hills, eliminating costly tunnels.