This Washington

Democrats Should Not Underestimate New GOP Chair Kirby Wilbur

By Michael Hood February 1, 2011

PubliCola asked talk radio watchdog Michael Hood, who blogs at Blatherwatch, to interview the new GOP state chair—and former KVI talk jock—Kirby Wilbur. Wilbur said he'd give Hood 10 minutes, but true to form, Wilbur talked for nearly an hour. —Eds.

He was tea-party before the Tea-Party was cool. He earned his patriot cred after causing a ruckus in Westlake Park in 1994, organizing a rally that now looks like it could have happened in the fateful "Obamacare" summer of 2009.

One hot July day in '94, Kirby Wilbur and and a large contingent of his KVI radio listeners shouted down, booed, and embarrassed First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was in town stumping for health care reform. ( Must watch 1994 video here). Wilbur's KVI protest is said to have helped change the political trajectory for Clinton’s ultimately ill-fated plan.

It was carried on world wide news. “We thought we’d be lucky to get 100 people,” says Wilbur.  More than 1000 showed, representing a wider-than-usual swath of the right: The Libertarian Party got members out, as did the College Republicans, and the [Ross] Perotistas, who were still intact at the time.

He’s homey as a biscuit, a church elder, an NRA member, and he has a radio voice like Kermit the Frog. It’s hard to dislike him; harder yet finding anyone who does.

Kirby Wilbur, 57, is the erstwhile talk radio host and tea-party stalwart who ousted Republican “moderate” Luke Esser last week to become the new GOP state chair. Republican Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, the Republicans’ hope for governor in 2012, supported Esser.

Does Wilbur's ascension represent a Tea Party revolution? (A Tea Party leader was elected head of the state GOP in New Hampshire the same weekend)

"I don’t consider myself an insider," Wilbur tells PubliCola.  "I’m from Duvall, not Medina […] I'm not a part of the, what do they call it, the Bellevue Mafia?"

He adds: “I’m a Reagan conservative. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m [very] conservative, but that’s now the [Party] mainstream.”

His face may not be known statewide, but Kirby Wilbur’s no stranger to those of us who listened to conservative KVI radio from the early 1990’s until November 2009 when Fisher Communications ungraciously dumped him.

I talked to Wilbur yesterday, as he was coming down off the high of the Roanoke Conference, the annual GOP sleep-over at Ocean Shores. Rob McKenna was there and Wilbur denies there’s any feud going on.

“Rob and I are old friends, I disagree with him on a few things, but he knows it’s political and not personal. Rob will likely be our candidate for governor next cycle. As chairman, I will be neutral during the primaries.”

(PubliCola editor Josh Feit jokes, though, that McKenna may have to sue Wilbur: Wilbur takes the job already the subject of some controversy. In a story first reported by Josh, the Tea Party group, Americans for Prosperity Washington, is under investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission for campaign finance irregularities. Democrats are saying the money AFPW raised is more like $500,000—as opposed to the $35,000 they reported. Follow all of PubliCola's coverage of that story here.

“The attorneys are handling that,” Wilbur says, “but I will say this: We raised 35 and spent about 33 [thousand], and we’ve got the receipts to prove it.” Often underestimated, Wilbur says this time he’s being overestimated. “They give me way too much credit. If I’d raised half a million bucks, I’d have a better job than the one I’ve got now.”)

I’ve listened to Kirby since he was KVI listener (and frequent caller) and  then talk host in 1992. I’ve chronicled him and his conservative radio cohort on my blog, Blatherwatch since 2005.

Is he a rock-ribbed, hard-right ideologue who will push the party even farther to the right as lefties gleefully charge?

If it’s guilt by association, the answer is yes: His friendships with the brand-name hard right are deep and wide, his national right-wing connections too numerous to list. They include his close friend Fox News tool Sean Hannity for whom he fills-in on Fox Radio; his name has been uttered more than once by Rush Limbaugh; Karl Rove has Kirby’s number, and Kirby has his. He’s on the tu-toi with Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter.

He's definitely a gundamentalist, anyway. After the siege at Waco, (a heady time in talk radio leading up to the 1994 Republican realignment) Wilbur  bought a Glock, learned how to shoot it, joined the NRA, and shared the whole process with listeners. Kirby told me he no longer owns the Glock, he’s traded up to a Sig Short Trigger, but doesn’t get out to the range much any more.

In those salad days of KVI, black helicopters flew by every night; Kirby talked to militia leaders and listeners who claimed to be armed to the teeth and ready for the insurgency.

Wilbur’s been with the new tea party movement since day one, having encouraged, coordinated on-air, and attended tea parties - including the first so-called Porkulus Rally in Westlake Plaza in February 2009.

Take any issue: abortion, gay rights, “traditional marriage,” affirmative action, immigration, taxes, public schools, guns, the role of government—Wilbur has espoused and produced radio espousing the most conservative positions.

But unlike most Limbaugh clones that so populated the AM dial in talk radio’s heyday, Wilbur was not, is not, pissed-off. Seattle Times editorial prognosticator Joni Balter recently called him “flammable,” but as so many in Seattle MSM, that leads to me wonder if she's actually ever listened to his show. “In his years on the radio, listeners never heard him actually angry,” says former producer Matt Haver.

The aw-shucks Kirby was “everybody’s neighbor” on the radio—his show an early-morning kaffee-klatch bristling with guns, God, and geezers flying high on caffeine.

Were there angry listeners? Oh yeah. But what Kirby did could hardly be called ranting or railing. An oft-used word to describe what he did was “mumbling,” for which a program director sent him (to no noticeable effect) to a voice coach in 2003.

Raised in Seattle, Wilbur is an alum of Queen Anne High, and UW where part of a noisy, late ’70’s, early ’80’s minority of right-wing students that included John Carlson, longtime GOP flack Brett Bader,  and Floyd Brown. Rob McKenna was there, although Kirby never met him.

Drawn to politics by Ronald Reagan, he met his to-be wife, Trina as they campaigned for the Gipper in 1980. Running the state and national Young Republicans, he began accumulating a mighty Rolodex. All the while, he was a student, a precinct chair, and doing party work at the cheese-ball level. Wilbur has presided over several state GOP conventions, a task his friend (and fellow radio personality) John Carlson has described as “a truly thankless task requiring immense patience and an ironic sense of humor.” He kind of stumbled into radio, which he has described as the “best job I ever had.”

His broadcasting career started in 1992 as dissatisfaction brewed against Bill Clinton and Congressional Democrats who had just swept the national elections. Kirby was a Eastside realtor and his friend Carlson had a new evening show on KVI, a heritage rock station that had recently flipped to talk, and was  owned by cowboy businessman Gene Autry.

Kirby became a frequent caller and familiar voice on the show, and with Carlson’s encouragement, station suits Shannon Sweatte and Bryan Jennings gave him a chance at the microphone. He stayed for 13 years.

Anchored by a fresh-mouthed Limbaugh, KVI pioneered conservative talk, or what they called “hot talk.” It was a winning format, which saved AM radio from its downward spiral as music went to the FMs. KVI was the first station in the country to program all right-wing, all day.

It’s stunning success was counter-intuitive in liberal Seattle, but Sweatte and Jennings found a niche and mined it for all it was worth. (Read “KVI: An Irreverent Histoire here.) It was so successful that programmers all over the country began cloning an army of “little Limbaughs” at the local levels. Though politically Kirby more than fit in, spiritually, he was not made from that hyperbolic mold.

KVI had its dips and swings; Carlson left, came back, left and came back again. A big host, Mike Siegel was fired under a cloud of civic shame after letting a contributor and callers libel Mayor Norm Rice. Hosts and program directors flamed in, burnt out.

But Kirby, mumbling along, was one thing that never changed through its long heyday and little beyond.

Things got stickier for the right-wingers when the local Fisher bought the station: “I knew we were in trouble when a caller came up with 'Wilbur’s Warriors' as a name for my loyal listeners. [And] Fisher suits told me it was too war-like, militaristic, we had to drop it.”

Any candidate on the ballot was welcomed to the show, and Kirby treated them all respectfully. “The problem was getting Democrats to come on,” says Haver. “If they’d ever listened to the show, they would have known they would’ve been treated well by Kirby.”

Outspoken lefty blogger David “Goldy” Goldstein appeared many times and Wilbur encouraged his pursuit of a radio career, even writing him a letter of recommendation.

Kirby had clout. Republican candidates were well-advised to drop by KVI and talk to him. At the top of his radio game, he was ranked number three in the morning market, and could whip listeners into action flood politicians and bureaucrats’ fax machines and mailboxes instantaneously with outrage. He could inspire brigades of exurbanites to freeway overpasses to “support the troops” and stick it to Seattle peace activists.

Indeed, reporters and Democrats should not underestimate the portly Mr. Wilbur. Another case in point: one morning in 2005, Kirby and fellow KVI host John Carlson dreamed up on-air the idea to file an initiative to strike down a much-needed and hard-fought highway bill and repeal the gas tax that funded it. Then they got to work.

(With the help, ironically, of the ACLU, the free speech rights to do bread crumb level campaigning over the public airwaves was upheld by the state supreme court, another victory for right-wing media bent on partisan activism.)

“Don’t get mad, get a petition,” said Kirby.

And from a website with downloadable petitions they did—by the thousands. From their microphones in Seattle, the Wilbur and Carlson micromanaged field offices, organizers, and directed dragoons of volunteers brimming with the passion of the pissed-off.

They pulled it off: 442,000 signatures in 30 days. Despite the initiative failed in November, the effort to get it on the ballot was amazing and Kirby and Carlson crowed.

By 2009, however, Kirby’s long run as KVI’s morning man had slipped from number three in the market to somewhere south of 20th.

It was a long, slow dive mirroring the decline of talk radio in general, and KVI in particular. Fisher’s teevee-centric corporate culture has long treated the radio division like a red-headed step sister.

Fisher suits first corporately shunned Kirby for a year or two, then, the day after his birthday they shed him with a 30 second dismissal. No one was surprised except some of his rightie listeners who were pretty sure “the White House was behind this somehow.”

A year later, Fisher fired the last live and local KVI talk host and flipped to “Hits of the ’60’s & ’70’s.” It’s been trashed: even fewer listen to it, now.

There are demographic trends and other yawn-ographies I could cite, but with a 13-year run at one station, Kirby Wilbur had a hell of a run for radio, especially considering he was never a broadcaster in the first place.

All those years on the radio, Kirby never stopped working for the party, doing much of it on the air. As I said, he’s made a lot of friends.

The tea party in Washington is a little pathetic because they’re little more than the tiny Republican base, the same white Boomer male demographic as Wilbur’s listeners, and the right-wing radio audience in general. They’re graying out, and like talk radio, the GOP has made few credible attempts to tempt the next generations.

Can Kirby turn that around? I don’t know, the party cat-herding might well take up all his time. He says, “I’m learning that much of this job is babysitting for adults who should know better.”

Wilbur is still a Reaganite activist, and the GOP chairmanship is a job he’s long coveted, and aimed at. “I didn’t even realize until lately that I’d been training for it for a long time.”

Kirby has been around real politics since high school in the 1970’s. He’s got a small-town demeanor, but he’s wily and street-smart. After years as the man in the middle of the hapless, snarling, state GOP, Kirby will do what he needs to do with what he’s got to work with—which ain’t much at the moment, and he knows that too. It might even work.

But radio has still got him. He says wistfully, "If [Fisher] called tomorrow and said we want you back on mornings for a quarter of my old pay, I’d tell the Party in a heartbeat: ‘I’m outa here.’”

Michael Hood is a freelancer who owns and operates BlatherWatch, which has blogged talk media news and politics since 2005
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