After nearly half a century of service to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its online successor, seattlepi.com, my friend Joel Connelly today clocked out for the last time as a full time employee of Hearst, the P‑I’s owner since 1921.
As a consequence of his retirement, there is no longer anyone left at the P‑I who worked for its print incarnation, which ceased publication in 2009.
It thus truly is the end of an era.
Few journalists around these parts have a record of service or a legacy of good works as long and as significant as Joel’s; he is a league of his own.
With Joel having filed his last story as a Hearst employee, it’s fitting that his many contributions to the Pacific Northwest as a P‑I reporter and columnist be recognized and lauded. Whether covering federal, state, local, or even Canadian politics, Joel has consistently helped a lot of people make sense of the issues of the day with meaningful analysis and memorable metaphors.
Joel’s long career at the P‑I began in the early 1970s. As he related in an interview with fellow Notre Dame alumnus J.P. Hickey:
My dream to go into academia was interrupted, between my M.A. and Ph.D. by a summer replacement gig at the Seattle Post Intelligencer. It changed my career path abruptly. Two weeks into the job, I wrote a story that helped block a land exchange at Larrabee State Park, where I had worked summers. The exchange would have taken Chuckanut Mountain out of the park, after which its trees would have been clear cut and shipped off to Japan.
The exchange died of newspaper exposure within forty-eight hours. The power of the press helped define my permanent vocation.
The state’s second largest newspaper hired me full time and gave me “tenure.” We were a union shop secured by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, which on occasion would drive me nuts.
Nevertheless, Joel persisted, and after starting with weekend work, he eventually became a widely regarded and well known member of the staff.
“I would write endlessly of wilderness battles in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska,” he told Hickey. “Three years of my life were consumed by sloppy handling of nuclear waste at Hanford, and a nuclear plant construction program of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, immortalized as Whoops.) Its cost overruns threatened to melt down the Northwest’s economy.”
Joel’s work covering WPPSS (whoops!) would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
That body of work is so authoritative, in fact, that if you pick up a book about WPPSS — like Daniel Pope’s Nuclear Implosions — you will find citation after citation of articles that Joel wrote for the P‑I during the 1980s. They are present in a manner not unlike roadway mile markers at the bottom of the book’s pages.
WPPSS’s nuclear ambitions eventually collapsed, resulting in what was, at the time, the largest municipal bond default in the history of the United States. (The consortium later chose to rebrand as “Energy Northwest” in the 1990s.)
Later that decade, Joel would go on to cover federal politics for the P‑I in Washington, D.C., working out of Hearst’s offices on the other coast.
“I was the paper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent for four and one half years in the late 1980’s, the high tide of Ronald Reagan, the Iran-Contra mess, and first year of the Bush I administration,” Joel recalled. “Hearst had its bureau at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, a two-minute walk from the White House.”
As the 1990s approached, the Pacific Northwest beckoned.
“Back home, I was a national correspondent and then a columnist,” Joel explained. “My heroes were two Canadians — House of Commons Speaker John Fraser (the green Tory) and Seattle University grad Dave Barrett, the first socialist premier of British Columbia — and, House Speaker Tom Foley, from Eastern Washington. [He] symbolized a pre-Gingrich Congress in which members were civil, and disagreed – even passionately – without being disagreeable.”
Joel’s In The Northwest column was a must-read.
As a teenage activist, I got a subscription to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in part so that I could enjoy it over breakfast with my oatmeal. I began corresponding with Joel in the mid-2000s and we quickly became fast friends.
On the day of the watershed 2008 presidential election, I stopped by the P‑I newsroom to talk with Joel about the history that we were living through.
Just a few months later, as the Great Recession wore on, Hearst decided to cease publishing the Seattle P‑I’s print edition and transform it into an online-only publication after failing to find a buyer for the newspaper.
While this move resulted in many of Joel’s colleagues retiring or leaving Hearst, Joel stayed in harness at “San Simeon Online”, and took primary responsibility for the P‑I’s political beat, covering three more presidential election cycles (2012, 2016, and the still-in-progress 2020), plus everything in between.
seattlepi.com simply won’t be the same without Joel and Joel’s thoughtful reporting, as every P‑I aficionado and former subscriber can attest.
Most of the P‑I’s archives are not readily accessible on the open web, but here is a sampling of the columns and stories Joel wrote in his last decade or so at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that I regard as some of his finest work.
2009 | I‑1033: An initiative that could turn Washington into Mississippi
“We all grumble about government, but need it. What is growth without infrastructure? What is economic recovery without a brains-based economy and brains trained to work in it? Could a state government, operating on starvation rations, respond to an unexpected emergency — a moderate or major earthquake, or maybe another eruption from one of our five active volcanoes?”
2010 | The amazing Patty Murray does it again
“Unlike some of Washingtonian’s winners — often, lawmakers who worshiped at the altar of their own unappreciated brilliance — Murray gets stuff done. She finds allies. If one path is blocked, she finds another. She doesn’t toss around acronyms about federal medical research programs. As a Senate neophyte, however, she gave a speech about seven friends who had died of ovarian cancer — and helped get money for long-neglected women’s diseases.”
2011 | Michele Bachmann for President — off, but running
“A Theodore Roosevelt Republican, she ain’t. But Bachmann’s most ferocious prose is reserved for health care reform, which she describes as ‘the government takeover of health care … the American version of socialized medicine’ — even though Congress rejected a European-style, single-payer system.”
2012 | Mossyrock cop: State’s new conservation hero
“As worthy programs get slashed in the Great Recession, the Wildlife and Recreation Coalition has survived and garnered bipartisan support in Olympia. Numerous of the state’s blue herons owe their survival to beaches and lagoons it has saved. A lot of kids use play fields it has underwritten. And the Coalition’s future is looking bright.”
2013 | Coal trains, pipelines, climate: British Columbia vote mirrors U.S.
“The election is being fought in 85 ridings around the province. Clark, Dix and leaders of the Green and Conservative Parties are all running for seats in the British Columbia Legislature. The party that wins a majority forms the government. Its leader becomes Premier, with powers that a U.S. governor can only dream about.”
2014 | Eastside Catholic and Archbishop Sartain: A case for connecting
“The Archdiocese of Seattle is no easy flock. Its parishoners are not about discipline and dogma, and will not be docile. They made the Vatican back down when it tried to strip popular Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of his authority. Parishes balked at cooperating in the referendum campaign against marriage equality.”
2015 | Bernie Sanders draws 15,000 people at UW, state’s biggest political crowd since 2010 Obama visit
“President Sanders? The East Coast pundit class cannot grasp that a self-identified ‘democratic socialist,’ from a tiny state, who has been preaching against corporate power in his Brooklyn accents for 50 years, could possibly mount a credible bid for the White House. Tens of thousands of people, turning out at rallies across the country, beg to disagree.”
2016 | Bill Bryant and Donald Trump: Silence is not golden
“Bill Bryant is an impressive candidate, a successful businessman whose heroes are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. He is mounting a needed, legitimate challenge to the Democrats’ 32-year grip on the Governor’s office. He is, however, on the spot. Donald Trump has put him there. It’s not enough to have voted for John Kasich in the primary. Bill Bryant is, to borrow Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase, a man in the arena. Silence is not golden.”
2017 | Ferguson delivers the laundry bill: Grocery Manufacturers told to pay $1.1 million
“The Grocery Manufacturers Association was ordered Wednesday to pay $1.1 million in legal costs and fees to the State, on top of an $18 million judgment for laundering money in a 2013 Washington initiative campaign. The legal costs represents the latest victory by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson over the influential Washington, D.C., lobby. The state’s litigation against the food lobby group is turning into perhaps the largest laundry bill in recorded history.”
2018 | The summit of Mauna Kea: Hawaii heat to Hawaii heavens
“The summit is an other-worldly place. The sun casts shadows on land, lights up the clouds, and casts pink alpine glow colors on the sides of eight telescopes at the summit. All this, with the sun setting and cinder cones changing colors, unfolded to sounds of Yo Yo Ma from Hawaii Public Radio.”
2019 | Why do pundits of the right fear young climate, gun activists?
“The loudmouths of Fox News inhabit TV studios. They witness almost nothing happening in the world around them. They pander to a sclerotic audience that demands they deliver the party line. Once critical of Donald Trump, they have been transformed into his amen corner. The ‘kids’ are also new media savvy and a step quicker.”
And here’s a few of those great print columns:
- It’s up to voters to pass judgment on gutter politics (2004)
- Different route, but scenery is still nice (2005)
- Alaska’s politicians to blame for image (2006)
- Church’s new leader tells of her mission (2007)
- Lower ballot races not getting attention they deserve (2008)
If, like me, you have been a loyal reader of Joel’s journalism and will miss his contributions to the P‑I, I have good news. Joel is joining NPI as a regular contributor to the Cascadia Advocate, occasionally covering topics like the looming contest between Jaime Herrera-Beutler and Carolyn Long in the 3rd Congressional District, the region’s most competitive federal level race this cycle. Our staff looks forward to working with Joel to helping keep you informed about the contests and issues that matter in this epic election year.
Thanks for everything, Joel, and here’s to the next chapter.
POSTSCRIPT: Senator Maria Cantwell has offered a lovely tribute to Joel on the floor of the United States Senate. If you’d like to watch, here it is. Just click play!