Keith Goehner’s face warms when he talks about pears.
“They say you plant pears for your heirs because it takes a while to get them into production,” Goehner explained before a recent candidates forum at the American Legion in Brewster. “The Bartlett pear, some people like them green some like them nice and yellow. The Bosc is considered a dessert pear and the D’anjou is a winter pear … a really nice pear when it’s ripened.”
Goehner, a Republican with a strong jaw and Mitt Romney-esque jet gray hair, has been growing pears in his orchard in Dryden for more than 40 years. During that time he’s raised three children, been a public school teacher and is a commissioner for Chelan County. Now, he hopes to leverage his county leadership experience for a seat in the Washington state Legislature representing the 12th District.
Goehner follows the Republican party line on most issues — he’s pro-life, supports the Second Amendment, is pro-death penalty and believes in the principles of “personal accountability, smaller government, reduced spending and trying to keep government closer to the people.”
The 12th District is one of the most Republican districts in the state and went strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Goehner’s county-level experience and party affiliation might ordinarily set him up for clear sailing to Olympia.
But this is no ordinary race, and Goehner’s opponent is no typical opponent.
An Independent in the running
Goehner is running against Ann Diamond, an Independent from Mazama, in one of the most expensive and closely watched state house races in the Nov. 6 election. If she’s successful, she’ll be the first Independent elected to the Legislature in state history and the only medical doctor in the state Legislature currently. The candidates are seeking to replace retiring 12th Legislative District Rep. Cary Condotta in Position 1.
In the primary election, Goehner polled about 45 percent of all votes in Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan and Grant counties, which District 12 encompasses, to Diamond’s 30 percent overall. Diamond drew 46 percent of the Okanogan County vote to Goehner’s 29 percent.
Diamond has short, wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes. She’s lived in Okanogan County with her partner and son for more than 20 years and opened her own medical clinic in Winthrop (now Confluence Health) in 2000. She has carefully walked the line between Democrats and Republicans on issues like trade, abortion, gun control and public land access.
“I am running as an Independent because I am one,” Diamond said, adding that she believes that the role of elected officials is to listen carefully to their constituents and represent their best interests in Olympia, not the interests of either party.
“Ann is truly a moderate, centrist independent who is not a Republican or a Democrat. Such things really do exist,” said Chris Vance, former chairman of the Republican state party and co-founder of Washington Independents, a political action committee that has contributed more than $50,000 in independent expenditures on behalf of Diamond.
Vance said it’s not surprising that people have a hard time believing that Diamond is truly an Independent. “It’s part of this mindset that political people have where if you’re gonna be in this game you have to choose a side — Republican or Democrat — and we just reject that,” he said. “Ann Diamond has a right as a citizen to run for the Legislature and not join one of their two street gangs.”
Vance said Diamond has a chance of an upset victory (Goehner has had a comfortable lead in recent polls) in part because the political climate is shifting as more voters become disillusioned with the growing partisan divide in state and national politics.
“Ann Diamond is the pathfinder. There will be more. This movement is only growing,” Vance said.
A national movement
Washington Independents is an affiliate of Unite America, an organization focused on getting more independent candidates into elected office at all levels, across the country. And some recent data show a growing appetite among voters for Independent candidates.
According to Gallup, more than 40 percent of Americans self-identify as politically independent. Between 2004 and 2018 the number of independent voters has grown at three times the rate of Republicans and twice the rate of Democrats, nationally. In Washington state, 75 percent of voters said they’d be open to supporting an independent candidate for state Legislature, according to data from Unite America.
“That said, although a plurality of voters are independent, less than 1 percent of our state and federal legislators are independent,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America. “We aim to close that gap and give independents a voice in government.”
Independents span the gambit, geographically and demographically. However, as the two major parties move toward their ideological extremes, Troiano said young people appear to be particularly drawn to the “people over party” approach that many independent candidates espouse.
Unite America is spending roughly $1 million backing 30 candidates across the country from state house to gubernatorial races.
“Ann is one of the strongest and most viable candidates we are supporting in this election cycle and we’re enthusiastic to do so because we think Ann can be the tip of the spear for a new movement in Washington and across the country of leaders who want to put people over party,” Troiano said.
Voters in the 12th District don’t have a Democrat on the ballot for Diamond/Goehner race, and that’s an advantage, according to Troiano.
“Ann starts off with a base of a lot of Democrats who don’t have a candidate, a lot of independents who are glad to finally have an independent candidate on the ballot and a heck of a lot of Republicans who are dissatisfied with the direction of their own party,” Troiano said. “That can be a winning coalition.”
According to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, Diamond has raised more than double what Goehner has raised in campaign contributions. And, despite the large independent expenditure from Unite America and Washington Independents, the vast majority (more than 95 percent) of her $120,000-plus war chest has come from individuals.
In contrast, just over half of the contributions to Goehner’s campaign have come from individuals. The rest is from businesses, including Premera Blue Cross, and Political Action Committees or PACs, including the Washington Food Industry PAC and several construction and builders PACs.
Diamond’s donors include several wealthy Seattleites with homes in the Methow Valley, including Tom and Sonya Campion, who are major Democratic donors at the national level.
Vance said that is to be expected in a race like this, where liberals are eager to back the less-conservative of the two candidates, even if she is not a Democrat. “Ann Diamond chose to run in this district because it’s her home and it just so happens it’s a Republican-leaning district,” he said.
‘Independent’ as political ideology
Ron and Sandy Morris came to grasp the true meaning of being independent when the Carlton Complex Fire burned along the edge of their property outside of Malott.
The night the fire hit, the couple slept in their truck, parked in the middle of their field, around which they’d dug a firebreak. They put their horses in their horse trailer to keep the burning embers from hitting them. Temperatures were in the triple digits and the wind howled, Sandy Morris recalled, and they could hear their neighbors’ propane tanks exploding in the distance as the fire moved towards them.
“The worst part was we knew we were as safe as you could get but we didn’t know how many of our neighbors were blowing up with their tanks,” Sandy Morris said.
The couple said emergency responders didn’t come to their aid.
“They weren’t even here to save property. It changed our whole way of thinking,” said Sandy Morris. “So we changed everything. Ron plowed roads all the way around our 20 acres and then behind the house and out in the field and we gutted the field so that’s our safety zone.”
“You’ve got to be able to do it yourself. You have to be independent to live here,” Ron Morris added.
The Morrises’ independence extends to their politics. They have voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past — Ron Morris gave money to Reagan and voted for Bill Clinton, as did Sandy. The couple voted for Trump in 2016. Sandy Morris said she doesn’t talk about it much with her friends.
“My thinking is it wasn’t working and he [Trump] thinks more independent,” Sandy Morris said. Ron said it was because he wanted change and he was tired of the entrenched two-party system.
“The parties are more interested in the success of the party than they are of their politics and that’s bad. I don’t care if the party stays there,” he said.
Sandy Morris is not sure if she’ll vote for Trump again in 2020 — she’s pro-choice and not “into organized religion.”
“I’m an independent right down the line,” Sandy Morris said. “I always voted the candidate, not the party, but I was on the liberal side. And now, now you gotta prove to me what you’re gonna do with our dollars because you’ve made promises and it doesn’t happen.”
The Morrises are big fans of Diamond and have traveled to hear her speak at two candidates forums. They both expressed some concern that she does not support the Second Amendment aggressively enough, but they appreciate that she’s an independent thinker who won’t toe either party’s line.
“I think she’s smart and she’ll get the job done,” Ron Morris said. “The other guy, Goehner? Eh. Any guy that combs his hair like that I don’t have much use for.”