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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, September 26th, 2023

Book Review: “What Are You Gonna Do About It?” presents the wisdom of Jolene Unsoeld

No Wash­ing­ton cit­i­zen or politi­cian was ever reviled over so many years, and in so many posi­tions, by the far-right Hamil­ton Cor­ner bill­board just south of Chehalis on Inter­state 5, than cit­i­zen activist, state leg­is­la­tor and Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jolene Unsoeld (D‑Washington).

Unsoeld was of a type on which the right wing loves to ladle with heavy ridicule. She dressed like a Quak­er lady, spoke lucid­ly, embraced caus­es like clean­ing up haz­ardous waste, and defend­ed Native Amer­i­can fish­ing rights. She refused to demo­nize the spot­ted owl for tim­ber har­vest declines at a time when 700 mil­lion board feet of raw logs were being export­ed across the Pacif­ic each year.

There was a deep­er rea­son. The “Gen­tle­la­dy from Wash­ing­ton” was tena­cious. The Unsoeld approach is summed up in a mes­sage to future gen­er­a­tions in the mem­oir: “What Are You Gonna Do About It? Sto­ries of a Hope­less Med­dler,” com­plet­ed after her death by son Krag Unsoeld.

“I hope you learned where we have failed.”

“No defeat is total.”

“No defeat is permanent.”

“Nor is any victory.”

“You live to come back and fight anoth­er day.”

Come to think of it, those are max­ims that align beau­ti­ful­ly with the creed of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute. Activism requires sta­mi­na. Vic­to­ries require advance prepa­ra­tion, but some­times are achieved after years-long effort. There is always blow­back or chal­lenge from a right wing megadonor, or hate talk radio dem­a­gogue, or an entrenched lob­by for entrenched interests.

Tenac­i­ty? Jolene Unsoeld was a pro­gres­sive daugh­ter who won the sup­port of her con­ser­v­a­tive father. She was the first woman to climb the north face of the 13,775’ Grand Teton, in com­pa­ny of hus­band Willi Unsoeld, who would lat­er climb the west ridge of Mount Ever­est with Tom Horn­bein. After the state passed sem­i­nal pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws, she com­piled the fig­ures on influ­ence pur­chas­ing with the mini-book “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?”

She put 2,000 hours work into this mini mas­ter­piece, ran it off on a copy machine, and had an instant cap­i­tal bestseller.

She pub­lished the book “with a keen aware­ness of the sheer gall required to offer such a report to the pub­lic at all.”

Willi Unsoeld (“Bill” to Jolene) would have described this enter­prise to his Ever­green stu­dents as “learn­ing by doing.” She learned about emp­ty threats. “Sen­a­tor Jeanette Hayn­er (R‑Walla Wal­la) had a lawyer warn me that my con­clu­sions about her con­tri­bu­tions could be libelous ‘and an action for which you could be sued’.” No suit was filed, and the next edi­tion, at $3, sold even more.

The book recounts yesterday’s bat­tles but deliv­ers today’s lessons.

Jolene explains the work­ings of the state’s Fair Cam­paign Prac­tices Act. She was local as well as glob­al, recount­ing resis­tance to a Flori­da-based real­ty spec­u­la­tor who tried to sub­di­vide Olympia’s Coop­er Point Peninsula.

Penin­su­la res­i­dents orga­nized ear­ly, hired their own land use plan­ner, and pre­vailed in a series of bat­tles before Thurston Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­ers and Thurston Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court.

She pro­vides a cap­sule his­to­ry of “fish wars” of the 1960s and 1970s, in which indige­nous Pacif­ic North­west­ern­ers used civ­il dis­obe­di­ence to assert fish­ing rights under the Med­i­cine Creek Treaty. They would win in fed­er­al court when Judge George Boldt ruled that treaty tribes were enti­tled to half the com­mer­cial salmon catch. State Attor­ney Gen­er­al Slade Gor­ton fought the rul­ing – Boldt was a Nixon-named judge – and had his brief­case hand­ed to him.

Unsoeld uses his­to­ry, of a sort we need to know, to make a salient point. Over­fish­ing and dam-build­ing had dec­i­mat­ed the salmon runs to which tribes now had a fair share. Non-native and native fish­ers had to heal divi­sions and make com­mon cause, if there were to be any fish to catch. The leg­endary Bil­ly Frank, Jr., became a North­west hero in mak­ing it happen.

Jolene Unsoeld went on to the Legislature.

With action stymied, she coau­thored and helped put on the bal­lot Ini­tia­tive 97, reg­u­lat­ing and requir­ing cleanup of haz­ardous waste. Pow­er­ful busi­ness inter­ests gagged, hired their experts, and put a “com­pro­mise” mea­sure before vot­ers along­side I‑97. The win­ner would be whichev­er got the most votes.

What was the dif­fer­ence? Big.

As Unsoeld explains, “By exempt­ing major oil com­pa­nies from finan­cial lia­bil­i­ty, it seemed rather evi­dent that the Leg­is­la­ture was cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion with no incen­tive what­so­ev­er for the oil indus­try to coop­er­ate in future efforts to devel­op leg­is­la­tion to clean up and pre­vent leak­ing under­ground stor­age tanks.”

Back­ers of I‑97 were mas­sive­ly out­spent. Ex-Gov­er­nor Dan Evans worked for the alter­na­tive, which was backed by news­pa­pers includ­ing my own, the Seat­tle P‑I. On elec­tion day, how­ev­er, I‑97A received 860,835 votes to 676,469 for I‑97B. The law has been this state’s haz­ardous cleanup pol­i­cy for thir­ty-five years.

Back to the Hamil­ton Cor­ner sign.

Unsoeld had been elect­ed to Con­gress by the skin of her teeth in 1988, over­com­ing a Repub­li­can cam­paign backed by the state’s most promi­nent young con­ser­v­a­tives (e.g. Kir­by Wilbur, John Carl­son). The bill­board began to car­ry such mes­sages a: “Jolene Un-Sold­out Our State to the Envi­ron­men­tal Elite” and “Jolene Unsoeld Wants to Save the Owls and Put Log­gers Out of Work.”

U.S. Dis­trict Judge William Dwyer had ordered a halt to the log­ging of old growth trees on fed­er­al land, rul­ing under the Nation­al For­est Man­age­ment Act that the U.S. For­est Ser­vice had failed to pro­tect the endan­gered North­ern spot­ted owl. Our region’s remain­ing ancient forests in nation­al forests, when not pro­tect­ed with wilder­ness des­ig­na­tion, were being logged at a rate of 60,000 acres a year. The land was marked to become tree farms.

Why was this? Because big tim­ber com­pa­nies dis­cov­ered they could make more mon­ey send­ing logs around the mill – to Asia – than through the mill. They had stripped old-growth forests on pri­vate tim­ber land, and on such state-owned land as the Clear­wa­ter, Sul­tan, and South Fork-Nook­sack Riv­er valleys.

Repub­li­cans, notably now-Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton, saw a “wedge” issue.

Unsoeld refused to go along. In a speech at the time, she said: “Had the Rea­gan-Bush admin­is­tra­tion act­ed in good faith to enforce exist­ing man­age­ment laws – laws already on the books to main­tain sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tions of wildlife – we might not be in the mess we are today.”

Jolene took her case face-to-face to the angry loggers.

She would dri­ve up to a meet­ing behind the wheel – Unsoeld liked to dri­ve – with her admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant ner­vous in the pas­sen­ger seat.

She would speak the truth, that cur­rent lev­els of cut­ting were “unsus­tain­able.” She won some respect and sur­vived three terms.

Unsoeld was in 1988 the only woman elect­ed to Con­gress in our state and the region, begin­ning a repop­u­la­tion that flow­ered in the “1992 “year of the women.” She joined sev­en oth­er female lead­ers in a 1991 march on the U.S. Sen­ate to protest the Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Committee’s bul­ly-boy tac­tics direct­ed at law pro­fes­sor Ani­ta Hill, who tes­ti­fied to sex­u­al harass­ment by Supreme Court nom­i­nee Clarence Thomas, now also famous for his lack of ethics.

They were pic­tured on the front page of the New York Times. The group end­ed up dress­ing down Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee Chair­man Joe Biden on refusal to call wit­ness­es ready to back up Hill’s testimony.

Clarence Thomas lied his way onto the high court by a nar­row 52–48 Sen­ate vote. But a new wave of activism brough women to Con­gress, includ­ing Sen­a­tors Pat­ty Mur­ray, Dianne Fein­stein and Car­ol Mose­ley Braun.

The Unsoeld book, once again, pro­vides valu­able back­ground on activist North­west women, from Montana’s Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jeanette Rankin – a paci­fist who vot­ed against U.S. entry into both world wars – to Fusae Ichikaawa, who would become a mem­ber of Japan’s Diet.

Jolene Unsoeld lost her House seat in the Repub­li­can land­slide of 1994, defeat­ed by Lin­da Smith, a prod­uct of Phyl­lis Schlafly’s far-right Eagle Forum.

Smith was the sort of per­son who began a Kel­so Cham­ber of Com­merce speech with the words, “This is your meet­ing. I want to hear from you”, and then talked for forty-sev­en min­utes. It became a jour­nal­ists’ game to count first per­son ref­er­ences in her speech­es. (Smith was hand­i­ly dis­patched by Pat­ty Mur­ray in the state’s 1998 U.S. Sen­ate con­test, and left pub­lic ser­vice after that loss.)

Just before leav­ing Con­gress, Unsoeld was the lone Demo­c­rat in Washington’s del­e­ga­tion to vote against the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment. She took with her such caus­es as oppo­si­tion to drift net fish­ing, in which Japan­ese, Chi­nese and Russ­ian boats were destroy­ing sea life at the bot­tom of the ocean.

The 1994 defeat may have extend­ed her life. Unsoeld was a noto­ri­ous night owl, work­ing late on her vast cor­re­spon­dence, and dog tired when she had to rise for ear­ly U.S. Capi­tol break­fasts. She con­tin­ued her activism, as a fel­low at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment, ACLU board mem­ber and as a guber­na­to­r­i­al appointee to the Wash­ing­ton Fish & Wildlife Commission.

The old boys nev­er got used to her or for­gave her. The Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate refused to con­firm her to a full term on the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Per­haps they couldn’t endure such Unsoeld opin­ions as: “When I was in Con­gress, women tend­ed to be prob­lem solvers and to be issue ori­ent­ed. Men tend­ed to be inter­est­ed in acquir­ing pow­er and mov­ing up the lead­er­ship ladder.”

Jolene Unsoeld died on Novem­ber 28th, 2021, just short of her nineti­eth birthday.

Today, eight of twelve mem­bers of Washington’s con­gres­sion­al del­e­ga­tion are female. So is the Speak­er of the State House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. There is a female super­ma­jor­i­ty on the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court.

Unsoeld had to vis­it Japan to get an abor­tion – she was already the moth­er of four – while today our laws strong­ly sup­port repro­duc­tive free­dom. Our pub­lic dis­clo­sure laws have been enforced against a grifter, Tim Eyman, as well as a pow­er­ful Wash­ing­ton, D.C., lob­by, the Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers Association.

Some peo­ple talk change, Jolene helped make it happen.

It requires an awful lot of work, per­sis­tence and vig­i­lance by indi­vid­u­als and by orga­ni­za­tions like this one, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Institute.

How do you get this book? From Krag Unsoeld. Krag kind­ly gave me a copy to read and review at Tom Hornbein’s memo­r­i­al ser­vice. You can pro­cure your own copy by reach­ing out to Krag through LinkedIn.

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