Born Again Voters: Seattle Scenesters Organize Anti-Bush Music Festival
By Sandeep Kaushik
An escapee from the notoriously racist small town of Tulia, Texas--backward, bumpkin-filled, blood-red Republican country--35-year-old Capitol Hill resident Natasha George successfully remade herself in a dozen years of blasé blue-state living. From dark sunglasses to ubiquitous lit cigarette, with only a lingering touch of North Texas drawl lengthening her vowels, George today is every inch the typical Seattle hipster, having parlayed a nine-year bartending gig at the Crocodile Cafe into fixture-status in Seattle's Fenders-and-feedback rock scene.
But in imbibing Left Coast cool she passed on politics. The last time she voted was in 1992, casting a ballot for MTV-friendly Bubba-in-Chief Bill Clinton. In the '90s, she explains, it was easy to be complacent, what with seemingly endless vistas of peace, progress, and prosperity in place under a relatively liberal Democratic regime.
Now, however, that complacency is a dim memory, replaced by fear. Not the suburbanites' fear of swarthy terrorists or of criminal libertines from the city spilling out into their Wonder-bread sanctuaries to carjack their SUVs, but of her own government, with its undercurrent of utopian Christian messianism fueling a zeal for wars of choice, its determination to enable the rich at the expense of the poor, its rigidly cosseted notions of Biblical morality.
George describes herself today, with a sly smirk, as a "born-again voter." But her efforts will not begin--or end--at the ballot box. In 2004, with a Massachusetts liberal facing off against President Bush, who for liberals epitomizes dangerously radical--and reactionary--red-state mores, George is transforming herself again, this time into an unlikely, and rather atypical, sort of political operative.
There is her new organization, co-founded with friend and fellow scenester Chris Olson, 34, called No Vote Left Behind, to get off the ground. Time is short: George and Olson's original intention, back in December, was to put on a single rock show to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign. But "it has grown beyond our wildest imagination," says Olson, a product of Wenatchee who once interned for Seattle's liberal lion, Congressman Jim McDermott, and who works at a local nonprofit that provides food to the homeless.
Olson decided he had to do more than just vote when he was caught up in the electricity as he watched Howard Dean deliver his fire-and-brimstone message of liberal empowerment on C-SPAN as the former presidential candidate addressed the California state Democratic convention in early 2003. "I know this makes me sound like kind of a geek," Olson says, "but I started to cry."
Now the group is in the midst of planning a major four-day music festival in Seattle that will run September 23-26, involving 9 or 10 venues, a host of well-known bands, a public art component, and a fundraising appeal to draw money from the city's huge, largely untapped but increasingly politically roused music community to oust George Bush and to support key congressional races in hotly contested swing states. In the long term, the group hopes to nudge the Democratic Party leftward.
And aside from all the grunt work that needs to be done, there are the bureaucratic and administrative challenges to sort out, conversations with the Democratic National Committee to coordinate, a website to build (www.novoteleftbehind.net), and the thicket of federal campaign-finance law to wade through. After two months of perusing Federal Election Commission manuals and other nuts-and-bolts attention to detail, some of that work is already complete. No Vote Left Behind is launching as a political action committee. And the group's board of directors is in place, diverse enough to include Mark Arm, 42, the frontman for Mudhoney, and Professor Jacquelyn Carol Miller, the chair of the history department at Seattle University.
"I felt like I've got to do something," Arm says. "I've voted for the last 24 years but that's it. This is the first year I've donated money, to MoveOn, to John Kerry, once I realized how much money Bush had."
The No Vote Left Behind idea is not new. A host of other groups are treading a similar path of trying to raise the political consciousness of younger adults, who tend not to vote. Music for America, based out of Northern California but whose executive director, Molly Lewis, resides in Seattle, puts on shows around the country with a goal of using music to register new progressive voters. Punk Voter, out of San Francisco, is doing something similar. And more mainstream organizations, like MTV's nonpartisan Rock the Vote, are active again this election year.
As a hard-money-funded PAC, however, rather than a soft-money 527, No Vote Left Behind will have to adhere to stricter contribution limits, but will be free to be as partisan as it wants. And George and Olson intend to be very partisan. "We can say, 'Don't vote for Bush, he's bad.' We want to be concise in our messaging. We think Bush is an evil person," Olson explains.
With the country tilting dangerously to the right, George, Olson, Arm, and their fellow neophyte activists express disgust at the tepidity of current mainstream political discourse. Bush, they believe, is an immanent threat to their cherished way of life, and must be countered forcefully. As the three explain their motivations and their new organization outside Capitol Hill's Top Pot coffee shop, Olson explains that No Vote Left Behind's value will be that it will be able to say things mainstream Democrats can't. Arm wonders why that is: "I thought it was a free country, goddamn it!" But George sadly shakes her head: "It hasn't been a free country since 9/11."