Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Cautionary Chapter in Washington State Public Power

Charles Goldmark, his wife Annie and two children were murdered in their home on Christmas Eve of 1984. The man that killed them did so because he believed that Goldmark was head of the regional communist party. He was found sane and convicted for first degree murder. The murder was the result of one man's efforts to bring reasonably priced electricity to rural areas in Washington State in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
John Goldmark, Charles' father was an Okanogan rancher elected to the state legislature in 1956. He was a champion for public power. With Grand Coulee Dam just south of the Okanogan as well as other large hydro projects built on our rivers, Goldmark was frustrated that the rural folks and farmers in his district as well as elsewhere in Washington State were unable to obtain affordable electricity. He worked towards expanding public power in Washington State so that farmers and other Washington citizens could have access to affordable electricity. Goldmark raised the ire of Washington Water Power Company, a private electrical utility started in Spokane. The power company heavily funded a campaign against Goldmark during his 1962 reelection campaign. The same company had strenuously opposed Grand Coulee Dam. This effort included essentially buying the local newspaper and accusing Goldmark of being a communist. Goldmark lost the election, but he also felt he had lost his reputation in the community due to the lies that had been planted by the newspaper. He sued the newspaper for libel and won a jury verdict.

The lies told about John Goldmark in that campaign combined with toxic rhetoric regarding issues in the 1980s and led to the murder of his son Charles, Charles' wife and children more than 20 years later. Neither John Goldmark or his son Charles had ever been communists, but the lies that had been spread in the Okanogan Valley funded by a corporation opposed to public power for monetary reasons had confused a member of an anticommunist group years after the fact to commit a senseless murder. The rabid rhetoric of that group further inflamed the killer.

Timothy Eagan in The Good Rain related how the killer's defense attorney attempted to portray the killer as mentally ill and easily influenced by talk that most people would consider irrational. "The extreme right wing did not cause his illness," said Savage. "But his illness provided fertile ground for their philosophy."

Twenty years later, Peter Goldmark, John's son and Charles' brother was elected as State Lands Commissioner. Besides managing large swaths of forest land, grazing lands and tide lands owned by the State of Washington, Peter Goldmark also heads the Department of Natural Resources and is charged with overseeing forest practices in Washington State. His election to this statewide office was at least in part driven by a series of extensive landslides that took place on timber lands in southwest Washington State. In an interesting twist, Peter Goldmark has opposed the crossing of State lands by a proposed power line in Okanogan County by a public power company.

The story of John Goldmark and the killing of his son provides a cautionary tale. One that it seems is hard not to repeat itself. The tone of political dialog combined with and insanity can be a dangerous mixture. Having known the Goldmark story, I know that I had concerns about the safety of people I love as our recent political rhetoric heated up the past couple of years. Those in politics know that the mentally ill are part of politics. The frequency that politicians encounter the mentally ill exceeds the rate of most professions, and it is not always in a controlled environment.
During my eight years of holding elected office I had my share of encounters with people that were struggling with mental illness. In most cases, I did not feel threatened. However, during a portion of this same period my company had an office located in the old federal building. At that site, I saw and met numerous mentally ill people that were a cause of concern. It did not help that our office was across the hall from the FBI office. But our office was also the former location of the office of our local U.S. Congress person. We would routinely have people walk in that were far from OK.

It is way too early to tell if there is any real link between the tone of the political rhetoric and the shooting of a congress woman and numerous other people in Arizona. It is too early to tell what role mental illness played in this particular shooting event. But those that have and still express concern about the words and posturing that has been showing up in our political discourse should not be dismissed. There is a history behind those concerns that ought not to be overlooked.

1 comment:

Dana Hunter said...

I've read a lot on the Giffords shooting, and this is one of the most powerful pieces. I have chills.

Thank you, Dan!