Cogswell “understood the idea immediately,” says Falkenbury. And he understood why Falkenbury’s amateurish effort was fizzling. He enlisted in it, cleaned up Falkenbury’s sloppy writing and signage, and honed his message. He invented an ingenious, low-tech automated alternative to the usual prerequisites for a successful petition, an army of volunteers or money to pay signature gatherers. Instead, Cogswell devised four-by-eight-foot plywood easels on which literature and petitions could be set out for passersby to read and sign at leisure.
“It doesn’t matter what really happened. We’re making myths here!”
“Grant’s the kind of guy who will have 100 good ideas—and one of them will be just the right idea,” says Falkenbury. “This one was brilliant!” It was too late to gin up support for ’95, but they launched a new petition drive in 1996 (in between Cogswell’s two stadium campaigns), swept onto the September 1997 ballot and passed with a healthy 6 percent margin.
The New York Times called the monorail victory the Northwest’s “biggest political upset” in a decade. Cogswell celebrated by getting the city seal tattooed on his shoulder. It was a grandiose gesture, and a commitment: From now on Seattle was his, and he was Seattle’s.
Actually building the monorail was another matter. Vultures charged with implementing it loomed in the city government, waiting to pick it off. In 2001 Cogswell decided to unseat one of them.
Phil Campbell arrived from Memphis in August 1999 to take a job as a reporter at The Stranger. But he didn’t get Seattle. Its big-cause activists left him bewildered and suspicious, and the anti-WTO protests three months later blindsided him. Then, looking up through the tear gas, pepper spray, and flash grenades he saw “a two-wheeled apparition”: Grant Cogswell, a freelance music critic for The Stranger, speeding with fierce, expert determination through the chaos.
Cogswell became Campbell’s Virgil, guiding him through the mysteries of Seattle’s soul. Still, Campbell lacked the right snarky edge for The Stranger, and in June 2001 the paper fired him. Campbell was despondent, but Cogswell revived him with an audacious idea. He was going to run for city council, against transportation committee chair Richard McIver, a key monorail opponent. And he wanted Campbell for his campaign manager.
The rest is history, as recorded in Zioncheck for President and reimagined in Grassroots. Cogswell lost, but won 45 percent of the vote against a popular incumbent, the only African American on a council that had for decades had a semi-dedicated “black seat.”
Supporters and political pros urged Cogswell to run for an open seat next time around. But he was done with electoral politics. Campbell was deeply disappointed: Cogswell was throwing away all their labors, squandering his chance to actually change the system.
“I didn’t give up because I lost,” says Cogswell. “I gave up because I saw it was a place where I wouldn’t be able to get anything done…. Zioncheck was a great warning sign, though of course I didn’t see it at first. I realized I had to stop.”
Cogswell resumed campaigning for issues rather than office. For about one year, starting in 2002, he became Executive Director of Yes for Seattle, a nonprofit promoting select urban—environmental initiatives. The first two, for water conservation and creek restoration, succeeded so well that they never made it to the ballot: City Hall enacted versions of them.