Take a breath: He’s in your face – with respect

You have to admire a guy who starts a story with a confession.

“He tried to talk me out of it,” says Tim Hazelo with a smile. “I did it anyway… probably should have listened…”

The “he” Hazelo referred to was Bill Brook, chair of the Skagit County Republican Party, who advised Hazelo that he might not be the right guy to run for Congress in 2020 against incumbent Rick Larsen. In hindsight, Hazelo sees what an imposing target he picked in Larsen.

“I already knew Rick,” says Hazelo. “I’d been to his office to talk military and government contracting, and I thought at the time I could win.” But in spite of earning more votes than any Republican ever had against Larsen, Hazelo came up short of the mark.

He doesn’t regret the experience. It was another step along a path he had started just a few years earlier.

After a Navy career that brought him to Oak Harbor, Hazelo signed back on as a military contractor and spent a bit over three years on the ground in Afghanistan. When he came home in 2015, “I looked around and realized how polarized we’d become as a nation.”

Hazelo‘s years of service, both active duty and as a contractor, left him detached from a full picture of where our nation was going. He thinks this is common in the military, especially for those deployed on foreign soil.

“You have important work to do, it takes all your focus, you pretty much keep your head down and don’t think about anything else. Then I came home, started paying attention to the news, and… wow.”

Hazelo grew concerned about the economy, about racial divisions he didn’t know existed, and about trends that seemingly politicized every topic in the news. He didn’t know what caused it, but he wanted to be part of the solution. He joined the Island County Republican Party, taking the leap into the ring as a candidate. Two years later he ran for county commissioner and came up short again. Undiscouraged, Hazelo now serves as chair of the ICRP.

Hazelo’s visible partisan advocacy over recent years has pegged him as an extremist in some circles. He has avid supporters. He’s been called a lot of bad names. He’s used to it. But there is more to the man.

“Sure, I ran on a MAGA agenda. I believe Donald Trump had good policies. And, yes, my style is more aggressive. I can be in your face sometimes. But that’s not a bad thing. If we don’t agree, I still want to hear what you have to say. We should still treat each other with respect.”

Hazelo acknowledges there’s a hazard in his passionate style, and he tries not to cross the line into insulting people on the other side. But he sees plenty of examples throughout the political spectrum of people offended simply because someone disagrees with them.

“What’s wrong with reasonable analysis, facts and observations? We all have to be able to analyze ourselves and our beliefs, instead of getting entrenched in them.”

While working for victory at the polls, Hazelo acknowledges something more important. He wants all Americans to be successful regardless of who wins an election. And, on a local scale, he wants Whidbey Island to be the best it can be.

“The extremes make the news,” he says. “So speak up! Silence from sensible people equals capitulation, and it allows the extremes to rule us.“

This talk of capitulation brings up another fine line Hazelo is careful not to cross. “Listening is great. We hear a lot about listening when we talk about civility. But we can’t just listen respectfully and leave it at that. We can’t let people run over us in the name of civility. We can’t capitulate.”

Asked to define the ideal leader here on Whidbey to bring us together and find common ground, Hazelo thinks for a minute and winces. Maybe he’s not that guy. He’s partisan and makes no bones about it. But ironically his next few words evoke a Jesse Jacksonesque lyric.

“Communicate… don’t aggravate. Raise a good point but don’t put anyone down. Have a calm, soothing personality. Lead without condemnation, without being a dictator. Encourage every citizen to get involved. Make it worth the effort for the regular citizen. People give in if they don’t think it’s worth trying. And extremists come to power when regular, sensible people give in.”

Hazelo’s up-front intensity masks a deeper understanding that he’s playing the long game. He struggles to find the space for politics between a job at NASWI and time with family on his small farm, so he relishes small victories on the political front. Every little effort is part of a much bigger plan, whether it’ s race relations or any other divisive issue. “It took us generations to get here. It’s going to take more generations to solve these problems.”

Asked what motivates him to continue that long game as a political leader, especially after two unsuccessful campaigns for office, Hazelo shrugs and makes another confession.

“Y’know I’d rather just keep to myself and be out there with my pigs…”

The natural question comes back at him: Well then, why don’t you?

“…But I can’t capitulate. I can’t let go. This is more important. If I walk away from this struggle, my kids will suffer. All of our kids will suffer.”

Agree with his politics or not, Hazelo makes a vital point. Listen, respect, but be clear about beliefs you hold passionately. Speak up, take part in the process, let your voice be heard. Be part of the game. And don’t complain about the outcome if you choose to sit on the sideline.

William Walker’s monthly “Take a Breath” column seeks paths to unity on Whidbey Island in a time of polarization. Walker lives near Oak Harbor and is an amateur author of four unpublished novels, hundreds of poems and a stage play. He blogs occasionally at www.playininthedirt.com.