A free spirit hopes to land at City Hall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a series of interviews with candidates running for Tacoma City Council. For earlier interviews with contenders Marty Campbell, Jonathan Phillips, David Curry, Marilyn Strickland, Harold Moss, Donald Powell, Jack Pleasant, Lauren Walker, Ronnie Warren, and incumbent Spiro Manthou, visit the Index archives.

If Tacoma City Council candidate Robert “The Traveler” Hill had his way, you would run for political office.

Your friends would run for office.

Your relatives would run for office.

The structure of government would change to invite this level of mass participation.

For many years, he has supported this idea: ranked-choice voting — a system of government that allows voters to rank a first- , second- , and third-choice candidate for a single office. Supporters say it levels the playing field, gets away from a two-party “horse race” election system, and forces candidates to focus on issues rather than opponents.

Locally, Pierce County voters approved a charter amendment in November 2006 that provides that the election of all county officials (except judges and the Prosecuting Attorney) be conducted using ranked-choice voting. The first ranked-choice voting election will be held on Nov. 4, 2008.

“A primary is the process for weeding out candidates,” says Hill. “You don’t get to see [all the candidates] on the general ballot, whatever branch — judicial, executive, and legislative. In most countries in Europe, that is actually what they have been using. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a partisan race. It works for any self-identifying niche of voters.”

He’s as passionate about this issue as he is evasive about other things.

How old is Hill?

“I don’t really know,” he says. “I don’t have personal knowledge. But through hearsay and other documentation, I’m in my thirties.”

In what part of town does he live?

“Wherever I’m standing, that’s where I live,” he says. “I travel from county to county, and city to city.”

Hill is one of three candidates running for Tacoma City Council At-Large Position No. 7. He faces incumbent Councilmember Julie Anderson and perennial candidate Will Baker in the primary Aug. 21.

“A Will Baker / Julie Anderson race wouldn’t have been as exciting,” he explains. “There should be more people running. But there’s the burden of the structure of government that I want more people to look at. More people should be involved in government and familiar with it.”

If you have followed City Council meetings this year, you also know Hill through his appearances at Citizens’ Forum meetings, where he has promoted a female masturbation day annually for the City of Tacoma. He calls it part of his ‘artistic project,’ and plans to share more information about it at upcoming meetings (though he was reticent during our interview). The City says he’s introducting adult content, speaking about things unrelated to the City’s agenda, and raising issues of which the City has no control over. Mayor Bill Baarsma has called Hill’s comments out of line, and has raised his gavel and recessed meetings in protest.

Hill stopped by the Index‘s office downtown to discuss his candidacy.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: You raise a number of issues in the voter’s guide that describes your candidacy. Let’s just start from the top with ranked-choice voting. Why do you support it?

ROBERT “THE TRAVELER” HILL: Well, I followed proportional representation for a number of years. That was one of the things in my statement when I ran 15 — or however many — years ago. I was motivated by Matthew Cossolotto, an activist with the Center for Voting and Democracy. It just made sense. That’s what we need. I was in Libertarian politics during college. You had the minority party. How do minority parties get elected to the Legislative branch? Well, they have thresholds. You have position a, b, c, d and one, two, three, four, and candidates versus candidates. A primary is the process for weeding out candidates. You don’t get to see them on the general ballot, whatever branch — judicial, executive, or legislative. In most countries in Europe, that is actually what they have been using. I think Denmark has had it for 100 years, maybe changing it here and there. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a partisan race. It works for any self-identifying niche of voters. It’s just a way of representing people, basically.

INDEX: You support demolition of the Tacoma Dome. Why?

HILL: The number one reason is affordable housing. You have a multi-modal transportation hub right there, two blocks north. You have Freighthouse Square. I wasn’t here at the time, but I didn’t like it when they cleared out people living there in the neighborhood using eminent domain [to build the Dome]. Let’s just kind of reverse that and put up maybe a dozen multi-story, multi-functional housing complexes. Maybe a couple floors of office, a variety of floors for housing, at least one grocery store. People who work in King County, they could take whatever transit is best for them — Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, or heavy rail — and they could walk to the station and not come from someplace else to park-and-ride.

INDEX: If you get rid of the Tacoma Dome, many people would argue that you get rid of an incentive for visitors to come to Tacoma, spend money in Tacoma, and see the city. The houses and the businesses that move in under your idea, is that enough people and activity to replace the activity of visitors who come in to the city for Tacoma Dome events?

HILL: It doesn’t address that. There are plenty of things to do in Tacoma that don’t have to involve the Dome. Focusing on affordable housing, I kind of support both concepts of providing housing. Build lots of million-dollar condos, and that’s stuff that people living in $500,000 condos say, ‘Let’s move into those.’ That opens up that category to go into the new supply. You have $500,000 condos that are maybe affordable now for $250,000 condominium people. They move out and move in. And then it’s the next layer, and the next layer. So you have, slowly, affordable housing for middle-class people. The other model is to build, right now, affordable housing. I don’t know what developers’ interests in affordable housing are other than if people support it, let’s develop it. And you connect all of them with maybe one big set of grids with solar panels, and maybe the latest generation of modules. There are two or three companies in Washington that produce those. And there’s also a state program for homeowners that allows for a temporary, annual generation credit separate from any credit you get from Tacoma Public Utilities. It would provide something for people to look at as they are coming on I-5. There’s not this little, mostly not clean, round dome that goes up so high.

INDEX: Are you interested or involved in this issue between the City of Tacoma and Clear Channel regarding an ordinance which limits the size and placement of billboards? If so, what are your thoughts on it?

HILL: Well, I’m kind of, in a way, a country boy living in the city. There’s two kinds of people. You’ve got the kind of people that, when they walk by your house, they either frown, snarl, or just walk by and ignore it. There’s the kind that looks at it and says, ‘It looks crappy.’ Well, it’s none of your business how my house looks. It’s just a blight to the neighborhood. It makes the neighborhood look bad. Well, billboards are there in a functional way. If you don’t like them, don’t look at them. They have a right. I don’t like monopolies of that industry. Why one company owns it, I’m concerned about that.

INDEX: You ran for office 16 years ago. What did you run for? Why did you run?

HILL: It was a district race. I felt compelled at the time. I was in college at the time. I didn’t graduate, but I was at the University of Washington Tacoma branch at the Perkins Building. I met this one 18-year-old guy named Craig Egan. He was running for mayor. I lost in the primary because two geezers were running — Bob Evans and Frank Jenkins. They got all the absentee ballots. I’m thinking I can get, between me and Baker, 51 to 49.

INDEX: What efforts have you made in running against the incumbent Julie Anderson? Defeating an incumbent is typically hard to do.

HILL: I’m not running against her. I’m running for the position, which is how it would be in a proportional representation election. Anytime you attack competitors, you just basically dropped. You lose your first-choice vote, second, third, and fourth attacking, not bringing out information about your other competitors that’s helpful. I have been getting my name out and striking a chord with people who agree with what I say.

INDEX: What are some other issues you would pursue if elected to City Council?

HILL: Well, it’s approximately 70 bucks a day to house somebody in the county jail on whatever misdemeanor charge. The war on drug-users is just not a good thing. It’s a victimless crime, whether it’s possessing, selling, or using. If someone is sick, maybe they are taking whatever they are taking because they want to self-medicate themselves. That’s their choice. Even if they say, ‘I’m sick, I need help,’ we don’t put them in jail. We put them in some health treatment place. The city can’t decriminalize [the controlled substance RCW]. But it can follow Seattle’s example, which is to make stuff the lowest enforcement priority. I just think most of the prostitution enforcement needs to be the lowest priority, and all drugs and substance enforcement the second lowest.

INDEX: What other issues are important to you?

HILL: A criminal justice issue — night court. Seattle’s got night court. How come we can’t have it? Instead of three departments, why not have one department be night court starting at 4 p. m. and go until whatever time so we don’t have to take off time from work?

INDEX: What sort of cases would night court handle?

HILL: Contested hearings. Infractions. Maybe misdemeanors. People being able to challenge more stuff. They don’t fight it because they can’t take time off work to fight it. The government knows that. What else did I write in the voter’s guide?

INDEX: There’s the issue of guns — providing guns and gun training to high school and college students.

HILL: The police chief doesn’t offer any firearms safety training classes. The sheriff’s office doesn’t either. That’s a concern to me because a lot of city folks are afraid of guns. They think that if you throw a gun on the floor, if it falls, bang, it’s going to go off all the time. That’s the way guns are made. Whether it’s a pistol, revolver, semi-automatic, semi-manual — guns are dangerous. No, no, no. More people who safely use it and have the confidence that if they need to use it, they can, they will. They don’t want to. Having the fear go away is combined with having a class on how to use it. There’s just nothing. You have to go to a private class and use your own money.

INDEX: Why provide guns and gun training to high school and college students?

HILL: Because the younger you teach something, you get familiar, even if you don’t want to own a gun, you’ve had the training and feel empowered — whether you are a woman or a man.

INDEX: For someone who is thinking about your idea, but also reading or seeing news about shootings at high schools — there was a shooting at Foss High School here in Tacoma — why should they support this idea?

HILL: Well, the “small-L” libertarian in me is not that hot on getting subsidized guns in places to give out or sell at a discount. At the bare minimum, there should be classes. Complete and comprehensive classes. Forty or 50 years ago, high school kids were driving their Chevys or Fords with gun racks, and there wasn’t a gun problem. Everyone knew how to use a gun. It was a cultural change. I can’t fix that. All I can say is I have a right to defend myself. The bad people are going to have guns. I want to increase the ratio of good people who have guns to bad people who have guns. Does that involve bad people not having guns? Yeah. Good people having guns? Yeah. That increases the ratio. If the right kind of people had guns at Columbine or anywhere else, they could have quickly taken care of the problem. You would have had less deaths. Teachers can’t even have their own weapons to defend themselves. If you can’t have them, and you don’t have the use of using them, you’re a little more prone to becoming a victim.

INDEX: You spoke at several Citizens’ Forums this year at City Hall. There has been some controversy over the mayor gavelling you down and, as he describes it, taking control of the meeting. What happened? What was the issue?

HILL: Well, it’s an ongoing artistic expression that I will probably be doing another three or four more months. It was the conclusion of the mayor, presiding chairman of the meeting, that I was violating a rule on advertising, whatever section it was. I’m a little concerned that could be violating my right to free speech. I haven’t contacted the ACLU yet. I am a former board member of the Tacoma-Pierce County chapter, and I have been at the last couple meetings and spoke with Colleen Waterhouse. I still need to summarize to her where they might have an influence on the way the rules are written.

INDEX: What were you talking about and was it relevant to the meeting and jurisdiction?

HILL: Ummm. The Municipal Code, I don’t remember the numbers off-hand. It was a mix of topics.

INDEX: I’ve got to go back to it. What were you bringing up at the Citizen’s Forum that the mayor was gaveling you down about?

HILL: Well, my artistic project.

INDEX: And what is that?

HILL: I can’t really summarize it. I have to do it to express it. I can’t really summarize it. It’s not appropriate for the political story and my candidacy. It’s kind of separate. I could have been talking and squeezing it in, like others have done. That’s something that’s part of my private life that I feel compelled to express in that particular way.

Robert "The Traveler" Hill. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.