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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Semi Bird challenging Dave Reichert for GOP nomination for WA governor

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Semi Bird has been elected only once before — to the Richland School Board. And voters booted him from that position in an August recall.

He’s been pressured by prominent Republicans to drop out of the governor’s race and get behind former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert. He lags in fundraising behind other major candidates.

But Bird isn’t budging. He’s trying to flip the script.

He argues that he — not Reichert — has a better shot of breaking the Republican Party’s decades-long losing streak in governor’s races.

“I am seen as the grassroots candidate. Dave Reichert is looked at as the left-moderate conservative,” Bird said in an interview. “He cannot win in King County, nor can he win in Eastern Washington. The only way Dave Reichert can win the primary is if I am not in the primary.”

While a longshot by any traditional metric, Bird, a decorated military veteran who runs a leadership training firm, is appealing to the same Republican base that chose Loren Culp to challenge Gov. Jay Inslee in 2020.

Culp, a small-town police chief who had never previously held or run for elected office, went on to lose to Inslee. He has endorsed Bird in the 2024 race.

Like Culp, Bird keeps up a frenetic social media presence and is crisscrossing the state for in-person events and distributing giant yard signs. He has already been endorsed by a dozen county Republican Party organizations, including in Spokane and Clark counties.

“I like his chances versus Reichert only because he is winning people over and he is going into communities that Republicans have typically never gone into,” said Matt Brown, chair of the Yakima County Republican Party, which has also endorsed Bird.

On the campaign trail, Bird is a charismatic speaker who projects a sunny optimism — he calls himself an “Ameri-CAN not Ameri-CAN’T” and says his ideas are “not political,” just common sense — mixed with grievance toward the Democratic and Republican establishment, selling T-shirts with the slogan “Give Olympia the Bird.”

At a recent Friday night fundraiser in Graham, Bird received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 125 after a speech recounting his military service and a question-and-answer session in which he boasted of his vote on the Richland School Board to flout the state’s COVID-19 mask mandate — the action that got him recalled by voters.

Bird also called for an independent audit of all state spending and said if elected governor he’d create a public rating system to call out judges and prosecutors deemed soft on criminal defendants. He said he would look for ways to “go after” such judges and prosecutors and remove them from office, citing similar actions taken by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida.

The matchup between a recalled school board member from Eastern Washington and a former six-term congressman, who also served as the elected King County sheriff, might seem like an obvious choice for Republicans. A recent poll commissioned by a Democratic Party-aligned nonprofit group found Reichert with 31% support, compared with 10% for Bird.

But here’s why this could get interesting.

Bird is maneuvering to land the state Republican Party’s endorsement at a convention set for next April. In a new process for the party, delegates to that event, who will be picked at caucuses in the coming months, will vote on which candidates get the official GOP endorsement. The expectation is that candidates who lose out on the endorsements unite behind the party’s pick.

While the GOP can’t actually force a candidate off the ballot, a Bird endorsement could create headaches for Reichert, whose campaign is aware of the looming fight.

Bird’s candidacy is at least enough of a concern that Reichert and his allies have tried to get him to stand aside.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, met with Bird at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel in early August and made that request in person.

“She poured honey in my ear about how articulate I am,” Bird said, saying McMorris Rodgers encouraged him to be a team player and step aside.

Raul Garcia, a Yakima doctor and Republican, took a similar hint and dropped out of the governor’s race as soon as Reichert got in. Garcia is instead running for the U.S. Senate, challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Driving home after leaving the Davenport Hotel meeting, Bird got a call from Reichert asking him to run for lieutenant governor or some other office.

Bird described the meeting and the phone call as cordial, but declined to step aside. He says he also bucked similar pressure from some state legislators.

“When I am called to serve I cannot be swayed by money, power or deals,” he said.

Reichert’s campaign confirmed the phone call and meeting. Since announcing his candidacy in July, the former congressman has been focused on a presumed matchup with Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Jeff Harvey, Reichert’s campaign manager, said in an emailed statement that the response to Reichert’s campaign has been “very encouraging.” He noted Reichert trails only Ferguson in fundraising and has outpaced Bird in individual contributions.

“National pundits have also taken notice of Dave’s chances to win and quickly moved the Governor’s race from solid Democrat to battleground within weeks of entering,” Harvey said.

If elected, Bird would be Washington’s first Black governor. Either he or Reichert would be the state’s first Republican governor since John Spellman left office in 1985.

Bird, 62, was born in East Oakland, in California, one of seven kids of a single mother. He grew up in Seattle, dropped out of high school after his junior year and enlisted in the Marines, where he said he later received his high school diploma, fulfilling a promise to his mother.

Bird was court-martialed in 1984 after striking a sergeant he says called him a racial epithet. (A brief article in a Hawaii newspaper reported that Bird was demoted from lance corporal to private and sentenced to six months’ confinement at hard labor.) He finished out his service term and says he received an honorable discharge in 1985.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., Bird, then in his 40s, enlisted in the Army National Guard, later deploying on an active-duty sniper team and serving as a Green Beret. As a staff sergeant, he received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for combat action in 2006 in Iraq.

He ended his Army service in 2014 and went on to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees and work for the federal government. He has more recently led an organizational leadership training company.

Bird was elected to the Richland School Board in 2021 as part of what the Tri-City Herald described as a wave of conservative candidates upset by mask mandates, COVID vaccines and alleged teaching of “critical race theory,” among other issues.

On Feb. 15, 2022, Bird and two other board members voted to make local schools “mask optional.” Bird made the motion at the meeting, arguing that Inslee’s executive order imposing the mandate was “not a law” and saying “effective immediately we vote to go to mask choice.”

School Board member Rick Jansons objected, saying such a vote would amount to “willfully and knowingly violating the law” and their oaths of office. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also had warned the action would be illegal.

Nevertheless, Bird and fellow board members Audra Byrd and Kari Williams went ahead and voted to end the mask mandate.

In response, the school district immediately announced an emergency school closure. Two days later, the board majority backed off its mask-optional stance after threats to the school district’s funding.

Fed-up Richland voters quickly organized a successful recall campaign — a rare political development in Washington. Their petitions cited alleged violations of state law, including the Open Public Meetings Act.

On Aug. 1 that year, more than 54% of voters approved recalling Bird. His two colleagues were recalled by similar margins.

Sara Watson, a Richland parent and one of the recall organizers, said voters there hadn’t been paying much attention to the School Board, and were woken up by the disruptions caused by Bird and his allies.

She cited other acts by the board majority, running an “ultraconservative playbook” including discussions of banning LGBTQ+ pride flags in classrooms.

“It’s just been this big drama and most people around here are really done with it and want to move on,” Watson said.

“He and his supporters are in an echo chamber. He does not listen to anyone who objects to what he says or even really disagrees with what he says,” she added, saying that Bird has blocked critics on social media.

Bird, who already had announced he was running for governor by the time of the recall vote, used the recall results to ask for money for his campaign.

He has doubled down on his actions, saying he was standing up for the children of the school district who had struggled with mental health issues, and even suicide, as the pandemic and masking requirements dragged on.

“In hindsight and in my heart, I did the right thing to step up for children,” he said.

Among Republicans, criticism of COVID vaccine and mask mandates and closures of schools and businesses during the pandemic has continued to be a rallying cry both nationally and in Washington state.

Bird is tapping that vein of discontent — and it’s one way he’s seeking to draw a distinction with Reichert.

In an interview with KOMO News this summer, Reichert said he gave Inslee “some credit” for his handling of the unprecedented situation, saying it was “not an easy thing I suspect for him to do.”

At the Graham event, Bird said he would not grant Inslee any such credit.

“You will never hear Semi Bird say that I thought this governor did an OK job when it came to the response to COVID… So you have a choice to say is this the guy I want to represent me?” he said.

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