No Washington citizen or politician was ever reviled over so many years, and in so many words, by the far-right Uncle Sam billboard just south of Chehalis on I-5, than citizen activist, state legislator, and former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.).
Unsoeld was of a type on which the political right loves to ladle heavy ridicule. She dressed like a Quaker lady, spoke lucidly but could lecture, embraced unpopular causes like cleaning up hazardous waste, and defended Native American fishing rights. She refused to demonize the endangered Northern 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. She 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.”
Activism requires stamina. Victories are achieved after years-long effort. Jolene Unsoeld definitely had tenacity. She was the first woman to climb the north face of the 13,775-foot Grand Teton, in company of husband Willi Unsoeld, who would later climb the west ridge of Mt. Everest with Tom Hornbein. She was witness to a musty, crusty horse-trading Legislature whose ways of operating were under challenge by reformers (of both parties).
After state voters passed seminal public disclosure laws, Jolene compiled the figures on influence purchasing with the mini-book Who Gave? Who Got? How Much? She put 2,000 hours work into this lively informative work, ran it off on a copy machine, and produced 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 State College students as “learning by doing.” She learned about empty threats. “Sen. 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 workings of the state’s Public Disclosure Law. She is 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 treaty Indians 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 him.
Krag Unsoeld uses history, of a sort we need to know, to make a salient point. Overfishing and dam-building 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. Billy Frank, Jr., became a Northwest hero by making it happen.
Jolene Unsoeld went on to the state legislature. With action stymied, she coauthored and helped put on the ballot Initiative 97, regulating and requiring cleanup of hazardous waste. The business lobby 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 author 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-Gov. Dan Evans worked for the alternative, which was backed by newspapers. On election day, however, I-97 received 860,835 votes to 676,469 for I-97B. The law has been this state’s hazardous cleanup policy for 35 years.
Back to the notorious Uncle Sam 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 Uncle Sam 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-Sen. 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 199’2’s “year of the women.” She joined seven other “gentle ladies” 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.
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 brought women to Congress, including Sens. Patty Murray, Dianne Feinstein, and Carol Moseley Braun.
The Unsoeld book, once again, provides valuable background on activist Northwest women, from Montana’s Rep. 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.
Unsoeld drew much ire from liberals on one front: She was an opponent of gun control. The National Rifle Association supported her, bolstering a right flank with “Another Sportsman for Jolene” bumper stickers. That issue worked against her in 1994, when a gun safety advocate siphoned away 6,000 general election votes.
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 47 minutes. It became a journalists’ game to count first-person references in her speeches.
Just before leaving Congress, Unsoeld was the lone Democrat in Washington’s delegation to vote against the North American Free Trade Agreement. She took up 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 ’94 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 28, 2021, just short of her 90th birthday.
Today, eight of twelve members of Washington’s congressional delegation are what Dwight Eisenhower called “of the female persuasion.” So is the Speaker of the State House and there is a female majority 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 choice. Our public disclosure laws have been enforced against a grifter, Tim Eyman, as well as a powerful Washington, D.C., lobby, the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.
I can still remember a late afternoon get together with Jolene Unsoeld in Washington, D.C., soon after her election to Congress. She was tired following a day of meetings. I picked up some beer and brought it to the House office she was borrowing. Washington state had just adopted recycling while waste was the way of life in D.C.
Finishing my beer, I moved to chuck it in the office waste basket. A firm hand grabbed my wrist. The Congresswoman-elect confiscated the beer bottle and triumphantly took it to a special receptable for recycling. She could do that to you, and some folks never got used to it.
How do you get this book? The only way I can think of is by reaching out to Krag on LinkedIn. The www.unsoeldstories.com website is not yet up.
(A version of this post appeared in NPI’s Cascadia Advocate of the Northwest Progressive Institute.)