Around these parts, many of us then called it the “Contract on America.”
When Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich was crowned Speaker of the House as a reward for leading the Republican Party takeover of Congress in November 1994, he quickly took full advantage of the opportunity to promote the so-called “Contract with America,” a GOP agenda allegedly aimed at balancing the U.S. federal budget.
As 1995 unfolded, the Contract soon revealed itself to be as much about weakening the American social safety net as it was about “fiscal responsibility,” with critical cuts to social welfare and higher-ed student aid programs “balanced” by tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals.
Thus, by the date in focus here, when Gingrich came to Seattle to help raise re-election funds for Washington state’s GOP congressional delegation and pontificate on the budget stalemate then crippling basic government functions in “the other Washington,” the controversial House Speaker had become enough of a flashpoint in American politics to attract a hefty crowd of protesters — both liberal and left-of-liberal — to Westlake Center.
Gingrich began his one-day Seattle stopover by energizing the local GOP voter base at a sold-out rally and press conference at the DoubleTree Suites in SeaTac, where some 1,800 supporters, alerted to the event by local right-wing talk-radio personalities, paid $5 each to hear him speak. Later in the evening, conveniently shedding his daytime populist skin, Gingrich appeared at a $250-to-$1,000-a-plate reception and fundraising dinner at the ultra-posh Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle.
It was the Westin appearance — so close to Westlake Center, Seattle’s traditional locus of civic protest at least since the Vietnam War era — that was bound to attract a public display of dissent and, inevitably, counter-dissent. And, of course, an anti-Gingrich crowd did indeed appear, estimated in number at the time by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at “as many as” 700 and by protest organizers at closer to 3,000, along with a group of pro-Gingrich counter-protesters at least 300 strong.
Earlier in the day, Washington state Democratic Party leaders, including Governor Mike Lowry, King County Executive Gary Locke, and Mayor Norm Rice, gathered to decry proposed Republican cuts to federal social services during a noontime “soup kitchen” rally at the Carpenters Hall in Belltown, attended by more than 800 people.
That evening’s more freewheeling anti-Gingrich protest would prove much less subdued, indeed, than the Belltown Democratic affair. The rally began in Westlake Center around 6 p.m., and eventually, once its numbers were strong enough, proceeded down Fifth Avenue towards the Westin, with marchers chanting, “Give Newt the boot! Give Newt the boot!”
The Westlake marchers were met outside the Westin by the Gingrich supporters, some of whom screamed, “Get a job, hippies!” among other inspiring messages — including an amusingly ironic round of “Give Newt a chance,” cleverly sung to the tune of John Lennon’s classic 1969 protest song “Give Peace a Chance.”
Teams of monitors from both groups kept the respective anti- and pro-Gingrich contingents several feet apart, which kept the three-hour-long shouting match from becoming a more physical melee. Towards the evening’s end, as the contentious crowd began to dissipate around 9 p.m., eleven anti-Gingrich protesters — seven men and four women — were arrested after attempting to noisily disrupt the fundraiser from inside the Westin.
The Seattle anti-Gingrich protest would prove to be the first of a succession of similarly dissentful events at Gingrich appearances across the nation throughout 1996. It also arguably marked the beginning of the end of Newt’s day in the political sun, as the man once crowned as TIME magazine’s 1995 “Man of the Year” would eventually descend into adultery-fueled scandal, and possibly karmic political impotence, by the end of the decade.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Gingrich flies in tonight for GOP fund-raisers,” Lynne K. Varner, The Seattle Times, January 10, 1996, p. B1; “Newt Gingrich to rally Republican support in Seattle,” Jen Sullivan, University of Washington Daily, January 10, 1996, p. 1; “Gingrich puts blame on Clinton,” Joel Connelly and Ellis E. Conklin, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 11, 1996, p. 1; “From streets to soup line, emotions run high,” Joel Connelly and Ellis E. Conklin, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 11, 1996, p. 1; “Gingrich rallies area faithful,” Lynne K. Varner, The Seattle Times, January 11, 1996, p. B1; “Standoff in the streets as Gingrich speaks,” Dee Norton, The Seattle Times, January 11, 1996, p. B2; “Anti-Gingrich protest takes Westlake Center,” Zach Works, University of Washington Daily, January 11, 1996, p. 1; “Gingrich gives battle cry of the Republicans,” Jen Sullivan, University of Washington Daily, January 11, 1996, p. 1.