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.