By Jerry Cornfield, Herald wWriter
Keep the message, lose the messenger.
That’s what the leader of the state Republican Party was seeking this week when he tried to put the kibosh on a public service television ad aimed at voters because its star, Edmonds travel expert Rick Steves, is a backer of Democratic candidates and liberal causes.
GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur on Aug. 1 formally asked King County elections director Sherril Huff to stop running the ads, saying Steves’ appearance is tainted by his role with two high profile campaigns this year.
Steves signed a fundraising letter for Jay Inslee, a Democratic candidate for governor, and has contributed $350,000 to passage of Initiative 502, which would liberalize the state’s marijuana laws.
“I find it completely inappropriate that someone who has taken a very public stance in trying to influence voters for both a candidate and an initiative now be on television teaching people how to vote on their ballots,” Wilbur wrote Huff.
But Wilbur didn’t get his wish. Huff decided Aug. 2 to continue airing the 30-second ads on cable and network stations in Snohomish, King and Kitsap counties through the election.
Steves, who writes a syndicated column published by The Herald, is one of several celebrities involved in the multi-county voter education campaign under way on television, radio and online, she wrote Wilbur in a letter. Others taking part are chef Tom Douglas, Seattle Storm basketball players Katie Smith and Tina Thompson and radio talk show host John Carlson, a Republican candidate for governor in 2000. The campaign is costing $500,000 and is paid by state and local election offices as well as grants. Snohomish County paid $25,000 for the effort.
“On-air talent is not identified by political party preference and voters have no reason to believe that the talent’s pro bono appearance in a public service announcement promotes any particular candidate or support of a political position,” she wrote.
Steves, who is in Germany working on a new TV show, didn’t expect a tempest from his half-minute role.
“I didn’t consider that my involvement would do anything more than get people’s attention and help strengthen our local democratic process,” he wrote in an email.
The ad in question focuses on voters who will see two congressional races on their ballot.
Inslee’s resignation from Congress to run for governor against Republican Rob McKenna prompted the need for a special election to fill the seat for the final month of the term. Voters in the current boundaries of the 1st Congressional District will be making the selection.
As a result, ballots for tens of thousands of voters will contain the short-term contest and a race for a second congressional district depending on where they live.
Election officials from King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties brainstormed how best to explain the situation and found the well-traveled Steves a willing volunteer.
“When I see Rick Steves I honestly don’t think of him and his politics. I associate him with traveling,” said Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel.
Steves is the author of several guidebooks and the ad plays off this talent.
“Following directions gets me where I need to go,” he says in the spot. “Same thing when I vote.”
Steves’ understands the situation as his ballot in Edmonds contains two races — the short-term for the 1st District and a regular election in the 7th Congressional District.
“I was asked to help people better understand a confusing situation with the two congressional terms to vote for. I was confused, too, so I figured it was important to contribute to clarifying this,” he said.
“I am busy supporting my church, the YWCA, our local symphony and public television. Certain people would find offense in each of these areas too,” wrote Steves, who donated $1 million last year to the Edmonds Center for the Arts. “Does that disqualify me from helping encourage our electorate to take their right to vote responsibly?”
Wilbur said it’s nothing personal as his wife has “helped make him rich” by buying his guidebooks.
He would have stayed silent had Steves not inserted himself into the governor’s race and initiative campaign. That’s why Wilbur doesn’t object to the involvement of Carlson.
“If (Carlson) had given $350,000 to John Koster or if he had signed a fundraising letter for Rob McKenna, it would bother me,” he said.
Watch the PSAs
Edmonds travel expert Rick Steves is one of several local celebrities who are appearing in a series of public service announcements aimed at voters. To see the videos, go to http://kingcounty.gov/elections/news/psa/2012.aspx.