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Activist Marlyn Derby tackled uphill battles, took on Foley

Marlyn Derby was a persistent figure in local party politics.
Marlyn Derby was a persistent figure in local party politics.

Democratic congressional candidate Joe Pakootas struggles from time to time with people mispronouncing his name. It’s not difficult when you learn the trick, that the two O’s in the middle sound like the single O at the end of “go,” not the double Os of “moon” or “book.”

But Pakootas probably won’t have anywhere near the problem that previous congressional candidate Marlyn Derby had. Her name should have been easy to pronounce and spell, on its face. But she was regularly misidentified in print, on broadcasts and in introductions.

Marilyn Derby. Marilyn Darby. Maryann Derby. Mary Lynn Derby. Maureen Darby.

She was one of the most persistent aspirants to the job of 5th Congressional District representative as well as the most mispronounced. She would explain “Marlyn, like Brando, not Marilyn like Monroe. Derby, like the hat” and took to wearing a pearl gray derby, which may also have made her one of the more sportingly dressed congressional candidates in the Eastern Washington district since the straw boater went out of style. She was, however, among the more unsuccessful.

Derby was a registered nurse, married to Spokane obstetrician Al Derby; she was active in the local anti-abortion movement and at one point president of the National Pro-Life Nurses Association. In the mid-1980s, she joined the picket lines on the sidewalk outside the Sixth Avenue Medical Building, which had a couple of offices for doctors who performed abortions as part of their medical practices.

A couple of the doctors went to court to limit where the protesters could stand with their signs or share their anti-abortion literature. Willard Zellmer, a visiting judge from Lincoln County, caught the case – probably to the great relief of Spokane County judges – and after much debate and some deliberation he ordered them to keep their distance from the front of the building. The protesters appealed, alleging an infringement of their rights of free speech, but in the meantime some of them violated Zellmer’s order. Derby was the third protester to be jailed for contempt for violating the order and was in the thick of the protest that raged through the spring of 1985.

The protesters appealed Zellmer’s order as far as the state Supreme Court, but lost the next year. By then, Derby and some of the others were moving from picketing to politicking, becoming active in the Spokane County Republican Party. In 1988, supporters of the Rev. Pat Robertson wrested control from the GOP old guard at the precinct caucuses, and Derby was a Robertson delegate to the Republican National Convention. That year she also made her first foray into electoral politics, describing herself as “mad housewife running for Congress” against Tom Foley, who was then the House majority leader.

In those days, the Republican establishment considered Foley so unbeatable they had trouble finding a candidate. Derby said she didn’t plan to be just a “sacrificial lamb” for the election, but she couldn’t campaign full time until late August because of her commitments as a convention delegate. Her call for the nation to have citizen statesmen earned her about 24 percent in the primary, a straight-up contest with Foley under the state’s old blanket primary system. That percentage didn’t improve in the general.

Two years later, no Republican filed against Foley, so Derby staged a write-in campaign in the primary and got nearly twice the 1 percent of votes needed to make the November ballot. That 1990 race was notable for the one face-to-face meeting the two candidates had. It was a joint appearance before the Spokane Downtown Rotary Club because Derby said she didn’t feel comfortable in a formal debate with an experienced debater like Foley. True to form, the moderator introduced her as “Mrs. Darby.”

She lost that race by a 2-to-1 margin, but there was one notable footnote. She beat Foley in Dusty, St. John and Wilcox, where farmers were unhappy about agriculture programs and low wheat prices. Some saw it as a fluke, others as a harbinger of things to come.

Derby ran a final time in 1992, but finished third in the primary behind Foley and John Sonneland, who led or came close to the incumbent in eight of the district’s 11 counties. Two years later, she stayed out of a wild primary with four Republicans that saw Spokane attorney George Nethercutt get the nomination and ride the GOP wave that swamped Foley and the Democrats who had ruled Congress for 40 years.

She stayed active for a while in local party politics but never ran again for elective office. She died in 2002.

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