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Grassroots politics in Seattle hits the big screens

A political tale of the little guy going up against the establishment that happened in Seattle more than a decade ago is now on the big screen in movie theaters.

The film Grassroots tells the mostly true story about former monorail champion Grant Cogswell running against incumbent Richard McIver for a seat on the Seattle City Council in 2001.

Cogswell believed extending the monorail throughout Seattle was the answer to traffic congestion. McIver was for a light rail system. Cogswell was known as “that alternative guy,” who got Seattleites to vote YES four times to extend the monorail throughout city neighborhoods.

The unlikely challenger to McIver and the unconventional campaign Cogswell ran with his friend Phil Campbell is laid out in Campbell’s memoir, Zion Check for President. This is what the movie Grassroots is based on.

Campbell says seeing his personal story being read by other people was difficult enough, watching the book being adapted into a screenplay was strange experience.

“The more versions of the script I read I started to detach myself and just say, okay this thing has it’s own life. So I’m just going to go for the ride and see what happens.”

The film is co-written and directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, who also happens to be the father of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Mr. Gyllenhaal says he was drawn to the story about two people having to grow up.

“It’s what I feel about politics in general, this is a contact sport, politics, grow up! That’s what the characters discover. They are human and they are brave! That they can take on things that they didn’t even know they could take on when they started.”

It’s no accident this movie is being released in 2012, a presidential election year, a time when multi million dollar super packs are driving agendas. Gyllenhaal wants us to think, well if someone like Grant Cogswell can be a real threat to people in power and be heard, maybe I’d have a chance?

“As much as we can after every showing of the film in the theaters, we will have a grassroots candidate talk for 5 minutes. And then have that candidate go off to a nearby coffee shop and continue the conversation with the audience and do that again and again. If we can do this right this movie will be about spotlighting grassroots candidates.”

Former city councilman Richard McIver who suffered a stroke last year, loves the idea of getting people off the couch and involved in local politics.

“Even if it’s wrong, do something! Don’t sit and criticize your government and not offer changes or ideas or participation, or an alternative candidate. Most people just sit there and complain about government.”

As the film production started to get underway in Seattle where everything was shot, the real Grant Cogswell soon realized noting was going to be an exact reproduction of what actually happens.

“What actually happened is a slippery animal to get a hold of.  I think a spirit endures through the film and no matter what anybody thinks this is how what happened 11 years ago will is going to be remembered.”

Grassroots stays fairly true to the real life events, but as is the case with most screen adaptations, timelines are shortened, characters are larger than life and the ending is a little happier.

But oh, if you are inspired by the idealistic spirit of this movie to get involved in local issues proceed with caution, the ride can be rough.  Cogswell gave McIver a good run for his money, but ended up losing by 10 percent.  And as you’ve probably figured out by now, the monorail was never built.

Today Cogswell and McIver are friends, but Cogswell considers his political efforts a lost a decade of his life. Now he calls Mexico City his home and runs an English only used bookstore. As for Grassroots, Cogswell likes it. He calls it  ‘a lovely dance’. He even has a small roll, playing what he never was able to become: a member of the Seattle City Council.

Jennifer Wing is a Producer for our weekly show, Sound Effect.