How’s this for an October surprise: Mail—the vintage, postmarked kind—can apparently still go viral.
Kathy Lambert learned that the hard way earlier this month. Seattle’s online politicos couldn’t type “that’s racist!” fast enough upon viewing an offensive political mailer from the King County Council member’s reelection campaign. Last week, the council removed her from all committee chairmanships after Lambert herself asked to resign from them, guaranteeing that, no matter what happens on November 2, the fifth-term Republican has already lost significant political clout. She’s pretty bitter about it. “One lapse in judgment that was insensitive should not be allowed to overshadow 27 years of good service,” she said during last Tuesday’s meeting, adding, “for those of you who have never made an insensitive remark or act, congratulations.”
Lambert, who represents a large swath of the Eastside that includes Issaquah, Sammamish, and Redmond, had signed off on an ad that depicts her opponent, Sarah Perry, as a marionette. She’s controlled by Lambert’s progressive council colleague, Girmay Zahilay, who backed Perry in the District 3 race. The mailer calls Zahilay a “Seattle socialist” who “wants to defund the police,” positioning him next to Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Kshama Sawant. Its header tries to explain the curious assembly of these local and national pols. “Sarah Perry would be a socialist puppet on the Eastside pushing their agenda,” it reads.
In a series of tweets, Zahilay, the son of Ethiopian refugees and a first-term council member who unseated Seattle civil rights icon Larry Gossett in 2019, condemned this display of dog-whistling politics. “Given that every police-related policy I’ve supported has had majority Council approval, I wonder why she singled out and used her only Black colleague’s face for fear mongering on the East Side,” Zahilay wrote. “Some might say it’s because I endorsed her Democratic opponent. Actually, six of CM Lambert’s colleagues endorsed her opponent. And yet, of those six, it’s only my face in a big red bow tie and my name in red boogie man letters that she chose to distribute to thousands of voters.”
South Seattle Emerald columnist Glenn Nelson observed that Zahilay’s get-up evoked Nation of Islam imagery and thus “Black extremism.” Zahilay believed his background played into this implication of dangerousness. “Painting the Black elected official with a foreign-sounding name as an enemy to suburban and rural values is nothing new,” he tweeted.
In short order, everyone from Washington senator Patty Murray to the Seattle Mariners decried Lambert’s mailer. A majority of King County Council members, a normally civil, somewhat sleepy governing body, came out against it. But Lambert didn’t see anything wrong with the flyer. “I do a lot of work in Africa, so if I had something against him because of his color, I wouldn’t be doing the work I do in Africa," she said of the criticism to KING 5, reciting an earlier defense of her record on race...here in the U.S. Somewhere, a Bad Art Friend prepares to copy-paste.
Lambert would eventually apologize on her campaign page after pullbacks of donations and support. The sincerity of her contrition was almost immediately questioned, and, even in an era of handwringing over apologies, she’s done little to assuage concerns about her accountability since. “Discussing taking me off committee chairs is clearly not about race but about political opportunity to damage my reelection campaign,” she said at last Tuesday’s council meeting. In the aftermath, she went on the conservative Jason Rantz Show to air her grievances. “If they can use the race card to wipe out anybody, and make sure that everything that they don’t like is racist—okay, that picture was maybe not the best picture, but it isn’t enough to get away with calling it racist and calling anybody else racist,” Lambert said, adding that if she had to do it over, she “may have taken a couple of the pictures out of the top banner of that flyer.”
The politician wasn’t acting alone. As The Seattle Times reported, political consulting firm 1892 LLC was behind the mailer. The Lambert campaign paid the Tennessee-based company nearly $20,000 in 2021 for surveys, polling, and research, as well as management and consulting counsel. “That does not go out the door without the campaign manager, campaign consultant[s], and candidate seeing that at minimum,” says Crystal Fincher, a local political consultant.
The founder of Fincher Consulting adds that top donors and the candidate’s political party may also have a look in certain situations. Vendors, too. Lambert’s campaign, for instance, doled out thousands of dollars to Detail Marketing of Kirkland for mailing services (the company did not respond to requests for comment).
Still, the candidate always has the final say, according to Fincher. That Lambert would opt for a dog-whistling message about a colleague took even a veteran of local politics aback. “You don't usually see them throw people who they are working with every day under the bus like that,” she says. “That was a 'wow' moment.”
Unlike in some past elections when she ran unopposed, Lambert has faced stiff competition this cycle from Perry, who was only four points back from the incumbent in the August primary. While Lambert continues to point to her past efforts to keep kids out of the justice system and protect domestic violence survivors, Fincher says the mailer represents a certain insecurity about her chances. “That's the type of thing you do, especially from within a campaign, where you're having trouble connecting with your own message. So you attack the other's.”
On Tuesday, a Lambert campaign staffer stressed that the incumbent will “absolutely” remain in the race. Whether voters will side with someone whose council colleagues have voted against her remains to be seen. “I'm sure her campaign is concerned,” says Fincher. “But she made her bed.”