A self-described “smart nerdy gay kid from Westport” has grown up to become U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and six other eastern Caribbean countries, an appointment Roger Nyhus celebrated Sunday with a ceremonial swearing-in before dozens of his closest Seattle friends.
Nyhus is a longtime Seattle public affairs consultant who played host to candidate Joe Biden soon after kickoff of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. He took his oath in the living room of the “White House” – his home in Seattle, not the better-known digs in D.C. – where, three years ago, the 46th president held forth at his first campaign fundraiser in the Evergreen State.
Biden needed support here. The fundraiser came at a time when Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were monopolizing the attention of the state’s activist Democrats. “I will come back to this home” when his tour of duty is over, Nyhus told the gathering, many familiar with events and campaigns feted on the premises.
It wasn’t so long ago, in 1997, that Senate Republicans blocked confirmation of James Hormel, a philanthropist and LGBTQ activist, as ambassador to Luxembourg and the first openly gay person to be nominated as an ambassador. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott called homosexuality a sin and likened it to alcoholism and kleptomania. President Clinton deployed a recess appointment to send Hormel to his diplomatic post.
Nyhus was nominated in September of 2022, renominated by Biden last January, and confirmed in November of 2023 by a Senate voice vote. He credited Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for championing his cause, joking: “She dragged me across the finish line.” The ambassadorship includes Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The United States, aided by Caribbean states, invaded Grenada in 1983, deposing a leftist government of the New Jewel Movement. President Reagan acted, he said, out of “concerns over the 600 U.S. medical students on the island” and in response to a formal appeal from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.
Nyhus promises to deploy a different means of engagement. As a “proud Cougar” (Washington State University grad), he promised to load up a suitcase with Cougar Gold and practice “cheese diplomacy” in the Caribbean. A longtime public affairs consultant for Alaska Airlines, he is also anticipating much flying in small planes.
Ambassadorships are plum appointments often given to political allies and donors. There is one home state connection to Nyhus’ new duties. Then-House Speaker Tom Foley and wife Heather vacationed at the Barbados digs of Pamela Churchill Harriman, a Democratic fundraiser who served as U.S. Ambassador to France.
Harriman was once married to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph. She was subsequently a consort of diplomat Averell Harriman, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, Prince Aly Khan, Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli, John Hay “Jock” Whitney, Baron Elie de Rothschild, and Broadway producer Leland Hayward. She married Harriman, an old wartime love, after Hayward’s death.
After an early stint with the Associated Press, Nyhus served as communications director for Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Gov. Gary Locke, and as a senior advocacy officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He founded the successful public affairs firm of Nyhus Communications.
The newly minted ambassador is an enrolled member of the Chinook Indian Nation. He has served as a director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association and headed the Chamber’s Community Development Roundtable. .
He was celebrated Sunday at what Locke, himself a former Ambassador to China, described as an “incredible gathering” and an “incredible occasion.” Locke said Biden has made a “great” appointment. Lieutenant Governor Denny Heck added: “The people of Washington are so proud of him because he is the best of the best.”
Political appointments to diplomatic posts have a mixed record of success. Tom Foley served as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, displaying great appreciation for the country’s culture and smoothing conflicts over the U.S. base on Okinawa. Locke paid a much-publicized visit to his ancestral village. He irritated China’s leaders by offering refuge to Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest. In contrast to China’s aloof leaders, he was photographed being a regular guy at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, buying his own coffee and carrying his knapsack.
Other ambassadors from this state have generated controversy. As U.S. envoy to New Zealand under the first President Bush, Della Newman took issue with Prime Minister David Lange when his government denied New Zealand’s ports to nuclear-armed U.S. Navy ships. Cynthia Stroum served as Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Obama but resigned when faulted by the State Department’s Inspector General’s office for an alleged “confrontational management style.”
Locke, Stroum, and ex-Ambassador to Switzerland Suzy LeVine joined Nyhus for his sendoff, along with U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash. The well-wishers also included former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, infrequently seen since leaving office.
As ambassador, Nyhus vowed to “go down there and do some good,” and told friends: “I look forward to seeing you in Barbados.”