Fifteen years ago, Thom Gunn wrote a column for the Seattle Times musing that if he were “king” he’d save Whidbey by making growth pay for itself. He’d also, with a few common sense exceptions, outlaw commercial fishing in Puget Sound. And rural character he’d preserve with highway reform.
Today, the journalist/politician/activist/adventurer/cancer survivor is again envisioning what it would be like to wear a crown and save a community he loves. But, this time he’s setting his sights higher. Gunn, a college dropout with a resume that includes titles such as president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, assistant director of campaign in the western states for President Jimmy Carter, newspaper founder, restaurant owner and mountain climber — he’s summited all of Washington’s major peaks, including Rainier and Baker — is running for mayor.
The 70-year-old, who many know as a longtime Greenbank resident, is one of more than 20 candidates seeking the seat. It’s a big list, one that includes political heavyweights like former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Jenny Durkan, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and activist and urban planner Cary Moon, to name a few. Gunn’s response:
“But, none of them are like me,” he told The Record during a recent interview.
That’s almost certainly true. Coupeville resident Fran Einterz, who ran an unsuccessful bid for Whidbey’s congressional seat in the late 1990s with Gunn working closely on the campaign, described him as a true Don Quixote, a passionate man with his own compass and bearing.
“One of the first things I’d say about Tom is he plays by his own rules,” Einterz said.
“He’s one of the more unique people you’re ever going to meet.”
For starters, he’s got a propensity for speaking his mind. Gunn once told his fifth grade teacher at the now-closed Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle to “go to hell” for docking him 20 points for neatness on a writing assignment. It earned him 20 “swats.” The lesson didn’t stick. Years later he was among those who were tear gassed by police on the steps of the federal courthouse following the 1970 student march down Interstate 5 that protested Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia.
He was a speaker and organizer of the event.
“On my campaign, it was always Thom was going to be the reason we’d win or he’d be the reason we’d lose,” Einterz chuckled.
Gunn grew up in Seattle, beginning in Seward Park and later on Mercer Island. His heroes included drivers of Slo Mo Shun, the 1950s hydroplane of Northwest legend, and men like John F. Kennedy and the Roosevelts. An avid reader who shuns television — “it makes you stupid” — one of Gunn’s great loves is journalism. His work has been in publications ranging from dailies like The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer to small community papers.
He covered the Tour De France for several years after surviving throat cancer, once got fired from the Everett Herald for testifying in Olympia on an issue he was covering for the paper, and has walked away from reporter jobs because of stories unreasonably molested by editors.
Gunn is big into editorial autonomy, even leading him to found his own paper in 1972, The Seattle Flag. He did it for the freedom to write the stories he believed were important, as did the reporters who worked for him for $35 a week, he said. For Gunn, that story was “the Californication of Washington.”
It ran, but the paper wasn’t so lucky. It closed about one year after the first edition.
“The Flag went down in flames,” Gunn said with a grin.
The experience and others led him to politics. He worked on Carter’s campaign for president, and assisted Charles Royer in his road to the mayor’s office in Seattle, helping him beat the late Paul Schell in his first bid for the job. Royer turned out to be a disappointment, he said, not tackling any of the big growth issues that were near-and-dear to Gunn’s heart.
“He was a really bad mayor, and I realized that everything had a price tag on it,” he said.
From that defeat came the Whidbey Fish Market and Cafe in Greenbank. He described it as “the hardest” thing he’d ever done, that he had wet feet for eight years. But, it was also a huge success.
At the end of a busy weekend, he recalled kitchen tables piled with stacks of cash. That venture sunsetted with the news that he had terminal throat cancer, the result of smoking “dope” and large amounts of salmon, he said.
With his then-wife, Jan, the business was refocused on pies and Gunn focused on his health. He survived, thanks in part to heavy doses of radiation.
“I got as much in three days as Hiroshima,” he said.
Healthy again, he revisited journalism with a vengeance, working at papers in Seattle and covering the Tour de France in the Alps, washing dishes in a hotel along the way to help pay the bills.
Gunn returned to Washington enlivened and focused on Seattle. He still has a home in Greenbank, but Seattle is his primary residence.
He’s just as passionate about issues he says matter, and just as ready to wade into the waters of contention. He’s still against commercial fishing, saying it’s more important than ever. He’d start with Dungeness crab.
“I would trade the Seattle Seahawks for the fishing we had as a boy in a New-York second,” Gunn said.
Growth remains a hot-button issue for Gunn, saying that it’s long past time to make city developers pay their own way. Harley Davidson motorcycles are too loud, and guns — kiss them goodbye. A lifelong hunter, and a member of the Holmes Harbor Rod &Gun Club, he says people shouldn’t have to worry about being shot over a heated conversation. He’s the only “Gunn” that belongs in Seattle, he says.
He’s got a few controversial views about Whidbey too.
“Oh, and by the way, I think we should close the base,” Gunn said, referring to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
When asked to explain, he backed up and said what he really wants is for the base to transform itself into a better community partner.
His views on national politics? Trump he called an “idiot, draft-dodging fool who is corrupt to the core.” He’s the “logical result of a Realtor and developer who has gotten everything he wanted,” said Gunn, kinda like those who are busy ruining Seattle.
“I fear if he came Seattle, he might resign his position as president so he could join the others in the trough,” he joked. “If I were mayor, I would do everything I can to prevent him from coming to Seattle.”
Those familiar with the city’s political landscape don’t give Gunn much of chance. Joel Connelly, a Langley resident and longtime reporter/columnist for the Seattle PI, described him as a “Whidbeyite” who’s out of touch with the city he once knew.
“I cannot see how he would figure at all in the race for Seattle aside from a few sentimental references,” Connelly said.
“The high point of his life here came 50 years ago, in a very different era,” he added.
Connelly said Gunn did have a great restaurant though and credited him with beating cancer.
Gunn admits the road to Seattle mayor is a “real long-shot,” but he disagrees that he’s irrelevant. In fact, he argues that it’s his challengers who are out of touch. Beating them would be the “greatest political upset in Seattle’s history,” he said, but it’s not impossible.
They don’t have his experiences, they haven’t seen what he has, and they don’t “see the path.” It’s just that simple, he said.
“Basically, I just know so much more than they do.”