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Politics

As Sequim votes, conspiracy theories and far-right politics swirl in the background

Sequim City Hall with Washington state flag and U.S. flag out front.
Will James
/
KNKX
Sequim City Hall

A little more than a year has passed since the mayor of Sequim, Washington, supported the false QAnon conspiracy theory on a local call-in radio show.

William Armacost, in a response to a question from a caller, called the baseless, pro-Trump narrative a “truth movement” and encouraged listeners to watch a video about it. Armacost said he now regrets those comments.

But, for many Sequim residents, they were a revelation: the first sign their mayor, who was until then known mostly as the owner of a beauty salon, was the product of an organized effort by Republican activists to elect and appoint conservative, populist candidates to local offices on the northern Olympic Peninsula.

Since then, the Sequim area has seen some of Washington state’s fiercest opposition to vaccine mandates and mask rules during the pandemic. Several locally run Facebook groups blast false, conspiratorial posts about the coronavirus to thousands of followers. Online threats against Clallam County’s health officer, Dr. Allison Berry, spilled into real life on Sept. 3, when several dozen protesters entered a courthouse in Port Angeles seeking to confront her at a COVID-19 briefing. Law enforcement officers stopped them in a hallway.

Local elections on Nov. 2 are the first since these forces came to dominate politics on the northern Olympic Peninsula. Observers of political extremism say the elections might provide information about how tightly far-right, conspiratorial politics have taken hold in the area — and clues as to how strongly Trump-esque political appeals still resonate in rural areas ahead of national and statewide elections in 2022 and 2024.

“At the end of the day, the election results will just be one data point in this larger question about what’s going to happen in communities like Sequim,” said Devin Burghart, who monitors extremism as executive director of the Seattle-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

“It is a marathon rather than a sprint to define who and what we are as a nation in the 21st century — what we want our communities to look like and how we're going to be able to engage in those questions for the future,” Burghart said.

Armacost is not on the ballot this year, but three of his allies on the City Council are. Sarah Kincaid, Keith Larkin and Mike Pence vote with the mayor to form a four-member majority that has shaken up Sequim city government, including firing the city manager this year and replacing him. This election, they’re seeking to maintain their majority and expand it by adding two new allies, candidates Patrick Day and Daryl Ness.

All five candidates, who are running as a ticket, either ignored or declined requests for interviews. “I have nothing to say to you,” Kincaid said when approached at an Oct. 19 rally in Sequim protesting Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state employees. She held a sign that said “My body, my choice,” referring to the choice to get vaccinated.

Though the City Council race is officially nonpartisan, the ticket has energized conservatives.

In September, the mayor and his allies passed a proclamation in a 4-3 vote that criticized vaccine mandates and expressed support for workers who choose not to get vaccinated.

“As an American, we’ve always had freedom of choice,” Pence, a council member aligned with the mayor, said at the meeting. “That was the biggest thing in our Bill of Rights. And now we’re being treated as sheep, just told what to do.”

Armacost, reached by phone, said he stands by his record on the council.

“We're in support of small businesses,” he said. “We look at those who are less fortunate, that are disenfranchised and how we can give them a hand up. I am not a product of a hand out because it just creates dependency that does not create self-worth, nor does it contribute to society.”

The mayor said he regrets his statements about QAnon but does believe “we are living in an information distorted and manipulated society.”

“I am a very strong supporter of our Constitution,” he said. “And I encourage everyone, including yourself, to seek truth and fight for freedom because that's what made America great.”

Chadley Klinger, who organized the Oct. 19 rally against the vaccine mandate, said she supports the mayor and his allies not because of specific local issues but because they’ve signaled they’re on the political right, like her. She stood at a Sequim intersection holding a red, white and blue sign that said “Fight for freedom,” soaking in supportive honks from passing drivers.

“They are freedom-loving people,” said Klinger, 42, a public sector employee who declined to say what part of the government she works in. “They want to keep Sequim the way it is. They’re conservative in values, and they stand for the values that I’m looking for.”

Klinger said the mayor’s pro-QAnon statements don’t factor into her decision.

“He can believe what he wants to believe,” she said. “If he believes in those, then that's part of freedom. It's not influencing the job that he does. And if he believes in something strongly conservative, then let him believe it. That's what America is about.”

Voters in Clallam County, where Sequim is, have the longest-running bellwether streak in the U.S., voting for the winning president in every election since 1980. Elections are often close in the region, where tourism to the mountains and the coast has slowly come to replace a waning timber industry.

Sequim, a slice of the peninsula known for its unusually sunny weather and its concentration of retirees, leans more liberal than the county as a whole. Sequim voters went for Clinton in 2016, when the county went for Trump. In the past two gubernatorial elections, Sequim has voted for Inslee, a Democrat, while the county has voted for Republicans Bill Bryant and Loren Culp.

But, over the past several years in Clallam County, a group of Republican activists has led a successful effort to elect and appoint candidates they deem “populist,” including the Sequim mayor and the candidates aligned with him. Organizers of the Independent Advisory Association recruit and train what they call “citizen candidates” and, on their website, rail against “establishment elites.”

Jim McEntire, one of the group’s organizers and a former county commissioner and former Port of Port Angeles commissioner, declined to comment. Donnie Hall, another organizer, when contacted by KNKX, posted the reporter’s cell phone number and email address on several right-leaning Facebook pages. He declined an interview.

Many of their candidates remain untested. Armacost was appointed to the City Council in 2018 and was elected in an uncontested race in 2019. His three allies on the council were all appointed to fill vacancies within the last 18 months.

Burghart, who studies extremism, said he’s less interested in the candidates and more interested in the online movements backing them.

“In a lot of ways, Sequim has become a microcosm for what a lot of communities in the Pacific Northwest are dealing with,” he said. “Really for the last couple of years, but particularly during the pandemic, we've watched a kind of transformation of the far right in the community.”

That transformation has been visible on Facebook. It started two years ago, when a proposal for an addiction treatment center dominated politics in Sequim. Residents formed a group called Save Our Sequim to oppose it. The group’s Facebook page filled with stereotypes about people with substance use disorders and those who are homeless.

Two years later, the page has swelled to more than 2,400 members and it’s morphed into something else: a clearinghouse for false information about COVID-19 and anti-government conspiracy theories. In the past month, members have shared posts promoting three baseless stories of shadowy groups controlling world events: QAnon, “The New World Order,” and “The Great Reset.” The Anti-Defamation League says all three conspiracy theories have roots in anti-semitism.

One Save Our Sequim member promoted a far-right, anti-government group called People’s Rights. Others compared government officials to Nazis and posted about a “Satanic agenda.”

Burghart said Save Our Sequim’s trajectory is an example of how Facebook has sped up the radicalization process on the right, especially during the pandemic. Residents might join a group because they’re angry about a vaccine mandate or the sight of homelessness and then quickly get exposed to conspiracy theories.

“Once they step on to that conveyor belt, they're quickly drawn down the radicalization path,” Burghart said. “What used to take months for people to become radicalized around these issues, or even years, now can take days because there's such an inundation of conspiracies and other far-right ideas on some of these Facebook groups.”

Save Our Sequim organizers and members include some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the mayor and his allies, frequently sharing posts promoting them. The Save Our Sequim organizers KNKX could track down either declined interviews or didn’t respond.

One of Save Our Sequim’s founders, Virginia Sheppard, is running for Sequim School Board on a platform that includes keeping “critical race theory” out of schools — a wedge issue, often based on exaggerations and misunderstandings of how race is taught in schools, that has energized conservatives around the country in local elections. She did not respond to requests for an interview.

Save Our Sequim members have falsely labeled a slate of five City Council candidates running against the mayor’s allies “communists” and “Marxists.”

At least one of those candidates, Brandon Janisse, is a Republican. A U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, he said he split with the mayor and his allies over the role of local government. Votes like the proclamation against vaccine mandates make him feel the majority strays beyond the City Council’s role.

“Are we just going to pass a proclamation or resolution about everything we don't like?” Janisse said. “You’re burdening government. You’re wasting time when we could be dealing with issues that actually matter.”

Vicki Lowe, another one of those candidates, said the name-calling on Facebook has made campaigning feel less safe.

“I did go out canvassing by myself once and came right back home because I didn't feel comfortable,” said Lowe, a descendant of the local Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe who works as executive director of the American Indian Health Commission of Washington State.

“It's not the same city or town I grew up in, you know,” she said. “The people are saying really scary things. … If we are looking at another country, we would say that they are radicalized.”

Lowe said one reality of campaigning in Sequim this year is trying to fight disinformation and halt the radicalization process.

“I think you can't really change people's minds once they've really bought into the nationalist, the whatever, the radicalized way of thinking,” she said. “But there are people who've heard that stuff and they don't know. And that's kind of who I'm looking for when I'm canvassing.”

Burghart said this election will test efforts to organize against far-right politics in places where they’ve taken hold.

“It’s an attack on the very foundation of reason and democracy with a kind of conspiratorial approach,” he said. “I think that is far more worrisome than any single one election that's going on — that the ramifications of this long term could be far more dramatic.”