NPI remembers L. Jay Pearson
NPI remembers L. Jay Pearson

The punch-in-the-gut phone call came mid­day last Sat­ur­day from friend Jeff Smith. We had lost Jay Pear­son, a friend since he turned out young can­vassers for Sen­a­tor George McGovern’s 1972 pres­i­den­tial campaign.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, due to the accursed pan­dem­ic, there can be no gath­er­ing of friends, lift­ing cups togeth­er and telling sto­ries. Zoom is no substitute.

Instead of griev­ing, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and remem­bered Jay’s role as builder/nurturer of Washington’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty for almost half-a-century.

The book­ends of Jay’s involve­ment began with cham­pi­oning Sen­a­tor McGovern’s anti-war can­di­da­cy as a Young Demo­c­rat in Everett, home­town of Sen­a­tor Hen­ry “Scoop” Jack­son, McGovern’s hawk­ish rival for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. The final time Jay tuned in was on a Zoom call with friends cel­e­brat­ing Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden.

The 1972 Demo­c­ra­t­ic race saw a con­fronta­tion between old-school Democ­rats and the insur­gent McCarthy-Kennedy-McGov­ern wing of the party.

With state con­ven­tion shenani­gans, Jack­son forces pre­vailed here. “Lone­some George” car­ried the day at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Convention.

The rivals of spring had to work togeth­er that fall. Wash­ing­ton was a tar­get state for McGov­ern. Lone­some George paid us four vis­its, run­ning mate Sar­gent Shriv­er was here twice, and Eleanor McGov­ern watched her hus­band speak on Viet­nam at a low-bud­get fundrais­er in a school lunch­room at Blessed Sacra­ment parish.

Jay Pear­son was the McGov­ern coor­di­na­tor who put boots on the ground and decid­ed where to deploy them. He gift­ed a sense of humor to the ten­sion of set­ting up can­di­date events, notably when a grumpy Jack­son was thrust into intro­duc­ing McGov­ern at a Seat­tle Cen­ter rally.

Sen­a­tor War­ren Mag­nu­son was tit­u­lar chair of the cam­paign here. When it was over, Maggie’s aides recruit­ed Jay to work on the senator’s 1974 campaign.

Mag­nu­son was run­ning for a sixth term.

He didn’t walk very well. Still, it was Jay who sug­gest­ed how he would run: “Young, lib­er­al and for the peo­ple.” Mag­gie had come out for an end to the Viet­nam War, was oppos­ing the anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile. He mum­bled wicked­ly fun­ny jokes about Nixon. Mag­nu­son was reelect­ed in a walk.

The liberal/activist wing was ascen­dant in the King Coun­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Jay was embarked on a thir­ty-five year col­lab­o­ra­tion with coun­ty (and future state) Chair Karen Mar­chioro. Jay moved on and up, man­ag­ing Jim­my Carter’s 1976 cam­paign in the state. Two years lat­er, Jay was man­ag­ing the shoe­string cam­paign for Con­gress of for­mer Belling­ham broad­cast­er Al Swift.

Swift was an under­dog, to Jackson’s press sec­re­tary Bri­an Cor­co­ran in the pri­ma­ry, and to Repub­li­can John Nance Gar­ner, who had near­ly knocked off retir­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lloyd Meeds.

The cam­paign was run out of the back of a bar­ber­shop. Its min­i­mal tele­vi­sion bud­get was spent on “60 Min­utes.” A big boost came when Jay leaked (to the Post-Intel­li­gencer) a Gar­ner “game plan”. It treat­ed the can­di­date as a ser­vant of his man­ag­er, with such instruc­tions as nev­er hold­ing a drink in his right hand.

Why not? To avoid a “wet and clam­my handshake.”

Jay became Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Swift’s dis­trict direc­tor, at a time when the 2nd Dis­trict stretched from the Cana­di­an bor­der to the Olympic Penin­su­la. A coun­ter­part, work­ing for Tom Foley, once defined the job as “keep­ing the boss out of trouble.”

Jay took the oppo­site approach, keep­ing Swift ahead of any trouble.

A self-described “great indoors­man,” Al became a major archi­tect of the 1984 Wash­ing­ton wilder­ness bill. Per­pet­u­al­ly dis­sat­is­fied Bel­lling­ham activists found Mount Bak­er, Noisy Diob­sud and Bound­er Riv­er Wilder­ness Areas in their back­yards. Al Swift’s first hike was through mag­nif­i­cent cedar forests of the Boul­der Riv­er. Arriv­ing at the trail­head, Al asked: “Do you have a sedan chair?”

Swift was kept out ahead.

He voiced doubts about Puget Power’s (now Puget Sound Ener­gy) giant pro­posed Skag­it Nuclear Project, just before UW sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered an active earth­quake fault in the area. Swift came out against Seat­tle City Light’s pro­pos­al for a fourth dam on the Skag­it Riv­er, which would have wiped out salmon spawn­ing habitat.

The 1980 elec­tion was a disaster.

Swift was reelect­ed, but Carter lost. Mag­gie lost.

A Repub­li­can was (for the last time) elect­ed Gov­er­nor in Wash­ing­ton State.

The Repub­li­cans took over the Legislature.

The night after the elec­tion, Pear­son was at The Pines Tav­ern in Everett, telling dis­con­so­late young vol­un­teer Kevin Hamil­ton that this, too, shall pass.

Today, Hamil­ton is one of the Democ­rats’ crack nation­al elec­tion lawyers, work­ing on the par­ty’s behalf to scru­ti­nize the Biden-Trump recount in Georgia.

The Democ­rats, with Mar­chioro as state chair, came back – big time.

They retook the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 1982, retook the Governor’s office with Booth Gard­ner in 1984, defeat­ed Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton in 1986, and car­ried the state for Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Michael Dukakis in 1988. The state hasn’t elect­ed a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor since 1980, and it has­n’t vot­ed for a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date since 1984.

Jay could lift his cups at The Pines, or lat­er after work at the New Orleans Café in Pio­neer Square, with Mar­chioro and par­ty exec­u­tive direc­tor Jeff Smith.

Away from work, how­ev­er, Jay had a life. He was a gourmet cook.

He would duck down to Ash­land, Ore­gon, for Shake­speare performances.

Jay was state direc­tor for the 1992 Clin­ton-Gore cam­paign, nur­tur­ing two more future tal­ents – Josh Drew and Rick Des­i­mone – and hand­i­ly car­ry­ing the state.

With a new admin­is­tra­tion in office, young Democ­rats of the 1970s entered gov­ern­ment. Jay became Region 10 direc­tor of the Gen­er­al Ser­vices Admin­is­tra­tion, Gretchen Soren­son went to work for the U.S. Depart­ment of Com­merce as region­al boss of the Small Busi­ness Administration.

Jay immersed him­self in build­ing man­age­ment, learned that the GSA could do a lot to ease stress­es on fed­er­al employ­ees, and improve work­ing con­di­tions for fed­er­al judges and juries. A cap­stone came when the SBA offered a small busi­ness export assis­tance cen­ter in Seattle.

Who should show up but Repub­li­can U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jack Met­calf, who had called for abo­li­tion of the U.S. Depart­ment of Commerce?

“(Jay) not only made mul­ti­tudes of friends among his staff and also among the fed­er­al work­ers through­out the North­west, espe­cial­ly among the fed­er­al judges who sat on the courts here,” said Jeff Smith.

The Supreme Court’s post-2000 elec­tion deci­sion gave us Pres­i­dent George W. Bush. Still, Rick Larsen recap­tured Swift’s old U.S. House seat, and Maria Cantwell sent Sen­a­tor Gor­ton pack­ing a sec­ond time (with assis­tance on pro­vi­sion­al bal­lots from super lawyer Kevin Hamil­ton). Jay Pear­son took on anoth­er task, as man­ag­er of con­stituent ser­vices for Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell.

He did his job too well. Cantwell’s office became the go-to place for knot­ty immi­gra­tion dis­putes and prob­lems of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans stuck in for­eign coun­tries. Jay had one more, unspo­ken, role. The Sen­a­tor is a demand­ing boss.

“(Jay) was my every­day calm, steady-Eddie in Cantwell’s office, and just a beau­ti­ful soul,” remem­bered cowork­er Bill Dunbar.

In retire­ment, Jay host­ed annu­al Swift staff reunions, set­ting a splen­did table.

A friend dat­ing from 1972, Tere­sa McMahill, noted:

“A sim­ple but won­der­ful Jay-the-gourmet cre­ation I’ll always remem­ber is his Grand Marnier with blue­ber­ries and can­taloupe salad.”

Jay’s was a life well-lived, from which activists can take lessons.

He hung in there work­ing off great vic­to­ries, and the occa­sion­al shel­lack­ing (1980, 1994, and 2010). He helped rebuild and regain lost territories.

He nur­tured young talent.

He nev­er lost per­spec­tive and o sense of humor, even get­ting Al Swift to laugh off a bloop­er in which Mag­gie referred to the con­gress­man as “your man Al Smith.”

I can well remem­ber Jay inter­ven­ing to break up a furi­ous argu­ment over the pro­posed Gate­way Pacif­ic coal export ter­mi­nal, pit­ting a pro-coal port labor leader against a green Belling­ham envi­ron­men­tal activist. The coal port was killed thanks to oppo­si­tion from the Lum­mi Indi­an Nation.

A final sto­ry: Mar­chioro, Smith and Pear­son were enjoy­ing a liba­tion at the New Orleans Café. A King Coun­ty Cour­t­house con­tin­gent arrived, full of itself. At vot­ers’ direc­tion, the King Coun­ty Coun­cil was being reduced from thir­teen to nine seats. The cour­t­house insid­ers were chuck­ling that they’d just drawn bound­aries to elim­i­nate the dis­trict of a first-term Demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­cilmem­ber who’d backed the shrink­ing of the Coun­cil, a mea­sure cham­pi­oned by the jail guards’ union.

Karen, Jeff and Jay lis­tened to talk at the neigh­bor­ing table, adjourned one by one to the next room, and hit the phones.

They tipped off off a friend in the press, called pro­gres­sive activists they knew, and got word to the tar­get­ed councilmember.

That coun­cilmem­ber was Bob Fer­gu­son. He moved, unseat­ed a sup­pos­ed­ly pro­tect­ed incum­bent, and picked the New Orleans Café to cel­e­brate his reelection.

The rest is history.

Karen, Jeff and Jay rec­og­nized tal­ent. They had fun doing good.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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5 replies on “Jay Pearson, 1948–2020: Mellow manager of Democrats’ victories and comebacks helped build Washington’s governing party”

  1. What a great remem­brance! I’m real­ly sor­ry for your loss, but I’m hap­py that he got to see that nor­mal­cy will be restored to the oval office.

  2. As his youngest niece, he had retired before I could form mem­o­ries. I nev­er got to see much of this side of him; though it seems we’ve always shared our strong polit­i­cal beliefs, I always enjoyed the few times we were able to talk about them as it appears the rest of the fam­i­ly would rather not. I could tell he was actu­al­ly lis­ten­ing to me and cared about my opin­ions rather than just agree­ing to pla­cate me. I wish he had shared more sto­ries of his past with us but I am grate­ful for what he did share and for the sto­ries I’ve been able to hear of him late­ly. To me he was always just my Uncle Jay, a kind — some­times grumpy — man who loved plays, food, and pol­i­tics. He had mel­lowed out a lot these last few years and it will always mean the world to me that he was will­ing to take the time to under­stand me and actu­al­ly change his mind about spe­cif­ic things in my life, espe­cial­ly as — being a Pear­son — we can be rather stubborn!
    If any­one cares to share I would love to hear more about who he was in the past and I’m sure the rest of the fam­i­ly would too. 💜

  3. I met Jay while work­ing at GSA! I will always remem­ber Jay as the smil­ing admin­is­tra­tor. Jay made a point to know names and always asked about your life. Lat­er Jay was men­tor of Loaned Exec­u­tives for Unit­ed Way and I became to know a more per­son­al side of him. Jay cared about peo­ple and I’ll always remem­ber his soft side. Rest in peace!

  4. I worked for Jay in the 1976 Carter cam­paign. I had known him since 1972 but had not worked close­ly with him. That 1976 adven­ture remains a high­light of my life. I’d orga­nized the precinct cau­cus­es for King Coun­ty, so assumed King would be my assign­ment. Jay gave me “West­ern Wash­ing­ton out­side of King Coun­ty”. I had nev­er been to Wahki­akum, or many of the oth­er coun­ties in that huge area. He opened my eyes to our whole west­ern state. I had worked with Karen at the KCDCC HQ and remem­ber meet­ing Jeff Smith for the first time when he brought in the Vashon cau­cus doc­u­ments one morn­ing. About 5 that after­noon I real­ized he was still there! He’d set­tled down to help record cau­cus data and “nev­er left”. Karen, Jeff, Jay were a spec­tac­u­lar team.

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