The old-fashioned ‘new politics’ of civic activist Jack Delay  - Salish Current
June 23, 2023
The old-fashioned ‘new politics’ of civic activist Jack Delay 
Sati Mookherjee

Keeping up, on the go: even aboard a train traveling across England, activist Jack Delay kept up with the news. (Patricia Decker courtesy photo)

June 23, 2023
The old-fashioned ‘new politics’ of civic activist Jack Delay 
Sati Mookherjee

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

The first email I ever got from Jack began in all-caps: “PLEASE KNOCK OFF THE CAPITAL ‘L’ in my name!” 

“My name is ‘Delay’,” he went on. “My family is completely unrelated to the family that uses ‘DeLay,’ and I am deeply offended to be associated with that infamous Southern family of crooks and subversives who would gladly throw our history and constitution out the window to advance their personal agenda.”

In one crackling sentence, Jack told me everything essential about him: his devotion to a code of ethics (unlike those “crooks and subversives”), to an American ideal established and iterated in “our history and Constitution,” and contempt for those who would use the hallowed town square to “advance their personal agenda.” And — alongside those — a prickling impatience with cognitive sloppiness. 

I was running Dan Pike’s first Bellingham mayoral campaign at the time. Jack started out the data guy, wielding software he himself had developed, and quickly became a trusted advisor. 

“Jack was a systems maestro,” said Kim Lund, longtime Bellingham community advocate. “He understood leverage points within systems, the places that you have to push on to enact change.” 

Jack’s brand of changemaking had three features: (1) expectation that government leaders make informed, data-based decisions ; (2) the belief that good strategy understands and aligns with community values; and (3) the old-fashioned notion of human relationships as central to civic engagement.

Jack had a colorful history of activism when we met, beginning in the 1960s, when he was a fixture in Seattle’s civil rights counterculture.  He’d run the iconic Bookworm and Id bookstores; started The Brothers, a social services organization; written for Helix, Seattle’s first alternative newspaper; and co-founded Open Door Clinic, Seattle’s first community health clinic. Walt Crowley’s book “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle,” describes him as “built like a pitbull terrier” but with “the sweet disposition of a slightly manic Labrador.” 

Communitywise Bellingham (CWB), the nonprofit he founded with wife Patricia Decker three years after Mayor Pike’s election, was among his most remarkable achievements. 

In 2010, multinational corporation SSA Marine proposed building North America’s largest coal export terminal at Cherry Point. The project would send 450 additional coal cargo ships through the Salish Sea annually, and 18 additional, longer coal trains each day through dozens of communities, including ours. 

Our local community polarized: environment versus jobs. Jack and Patricia saw a false binary and also realized local leaders would be considering the proposal in a political environment fraught with emotion and propaganda, but very little actual data. CWB set out to inform Bellingham’s conversation around the coal terminal with facts, to bring, as Patricia put it, “light, not heat.” 

Jack and Patricia invited me to be a founding board member. Our core working group seemed to embody Jack’s theory of change. I was connector, bringing in two people I believed perfectly suited to the complexity of the project: Shannon Wright and Kim Lund. 

Shannon, now executive director of RE Sources, was strategist and tactician, while Kim and Jack dove deep into the data. They rigorously analyzed thousands of pages of technical appendices, economic analyses and coal export contracts.  Jack and Patricia’s living room filled with whiteboards, flip charts, spreadsheets. CWB worked to surface the noise, economic, environmental and health impacts of the proposed terminal, clarifying the project’s full and true costs, a question its proponents were side-stepping.

The outcome of this David-and-Goliath story is well known. Lummi Nation opposed the coal terminal and petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit, as the anticipated coal ship traffic violated the tribe’s treaty rights to fish in usual and accustomed areas. The Corps agreed, and denied the permit on May 9, 2016. 

“Jack Delay was one of the most important people you may never have heard of,” Shannon said.

I believe his legacy is this community’s high expectations of its elected leadership, and how we understand our own capacity for strategic activism. Jack relished the sport of politicking, but he understood it as a team sport. In Jack’s world view, “winning” has nothing to do with personal achievement and the prize is advancement of community good. 

Any reminiscence of Jack is incomplete without mention of his sparkling joie de vivre and cheerful hospitality. He and Patricia gathered people around their dining table and on their deck, overlooking Patricia’s lush garden. He was community-organizer, but also community-maker.  

Jack Delay championed grassroots American democracy at its most coherent, creative and optimistic. I hear his words in his distinctive intonation, at once pinched and gravelly, and in my mind his voice sounds clear as day:

“What we do in our own backyard is, as always, the real yardstick of what we might be able to accomplish as a people. We have here in Bellingham an enormous opportunity to demonstrate a new politics.”

[Ed.: Jack Delay died on Dec. 28, 2022. His life is being celebrated this weekend in Bellingham. Sati thanks Kim Lund, Shannon Wright and Ted Wolf for assistance with this piece.]

— Contributed by Sati Mookherjee

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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