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Spin Control: Facing allegations of racism, local Democrats should look back to controversy in the ‘90s

Patrick Wai-Meng Ng was the president of Sun International Hotels & Properties Inc. which owned the Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. He is shown here in the lobby of the hotel in November 1993. In 1992, a Spokane County Democratic Party official referred to him using a racial slur, sparking a long controversy within the party.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

The latest internal strife over allegations of racism within the Spokane County Democratic Party stirred memories of another controversy of some 30 years ago – as well as the adage repeated then and occasionally since.

“When Democrats arrange a firing squad” the saying goes, “they form a circle.”

The controversy of 1993-94, sometimes called the “racial slur” incident, is a far enough journey down memory lane that it may need some ’splaining for many readers.

In late 1992, on the heels of huge Democratic victories – the White House for the first time in 12 years, a U.S. Senate seat, eight of nine Washington congressional seats, another four years in the governor’s mansion, big majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and two Spokane County commissioner seats – the county party leadership got together to plan a celebration.

Newly elected Gov. Mike Lowry was hoping to come over for a second inaugural ball and they were looking for a place big enough to hold this shindig. At the gathering someone suggested the Davenport Hotel, which at that time was not open for overnight guests in its upstairs rooms, but still rented out its ballrooms and meeting spaces. The Davenport had recently been purchased by a Hong Kong businessman, Patrick Ng, and there were questions whether he would continue the hotel’s longtime practice of using union workers in the bar and restaurant if he was able to put together a plan to renovate the old landmark.

As the suggestion came up, someone in the back of the gathering said pro-union Democrats shouldn’t be giving business with Ng, but instead of using his name referred to him using a racial slur.

Some party leaders didn’t hear it and some may have quietly blanched at such language, but the discussion continued without recriminations to the offending party. Because it was uttered in the back of the group and possibly under one’s breath, it wasn’t completely clear who said it.

But word spread – as it always does in these situations – and a month later when the newly elected precinct committee officers met for their first county central committee meeting, enough people were angry about the use of the slur that they called Margie Davis, the alleged utterer, to account.

Davis was the sometimes tough-talking head of the local Hotel and Restaurant Workers union, a longtime Democratic activist who served as the county’s state committeewoman, an important post in the party hierarchy. When asked about it, she sort of ’fessed up, but didn’t do herself any favors.

She said she “probably” used the term but added “I must be dumb because I did it and I’m not sorry I did it.”

After that non-apology, some precinct officers asked Lowry and the state Democratic Party to investigate racism in the Spokane party and Davis backtracked. “At one time in my life I probably did use it,” she said in an interview, “but not at the meeting” to discuss the victory party.

The controversy seemed to pit the old guard against the new blood in the local Democratic Party. Some of Davis’s longtime compatriots came to her defense, saying that while she doesn’t mince words and rarely backs down she’s not a bigot. Others, however, pointed to her seeming admission at the central committee meeting and enlisted noted civil rights attorney Carl Maxey to push for an investigation.

After the state party’s executive director said there was nothing it could do as it wasn’t in the business of enforcing “political correctness,” the county party convened a special panel to look into the incident. That panel concluded that someone other than Davis uttered the racial slur. They wouldn’t initially say who; when they later pointed to John Workland, another union official, he also denied it.

But at least two people who were present at the meeting – including one who had mentioned the racial slur during the central committee meeting when running unsuccessfully against Davis for the state committeewoman slot – said they were sure Davis said it.

At one point, Davis did apologize – to the central committee, for losing her temper. But not to the city’s Asian American community.

The controversy continued through 1993 and into 1994. One of Davis’ longtime allies, in discussing the incident with a member of the Asian American community, bowed to him in anger, which she later described as giving him the finger. The Japanese American Citizens League wrote letters of concern over anti-Asian racism in the Spokane party to members of Congress. The calls to Lowry continued and eventually he appointed State Party Chairman Charles Rolland to investigate.

Rolland eventually said Davis and Workland should both resign. They didn’t. In response, the state party, which had scheduled the state Democratic Convention for Spokane, moved that biannual meeting to the Tri-Cities, angering downtown businesses that were looking for a boost from lodging, restaurant and bar business.

In July 1994, Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm said that Davis should resign. When she refused – with words not printable in a family newspaper – he said the party should force her out.

She can’t participate in any national Democratic Party functions, Wilhelm added. Davis continued to deny using the slur, adding she didn’t do anything with the national party, anyway, just the state party.

Washington Democrats lost big in 1994 – seven U.S. House seats, the U.S. Senate race and control of the state House of Representatives. Turnout was down in some of Spokane’s more Democratic leaning precincts. While it would be hard to blame all that on the “racial slur” incident, it certainly didn’t help. The controversy lingered and for several years giving extra ammo to some West Siders inclined to disparage Eastern Washington anyway.

So what might today’s Democrats learn from that incident? That controversies can come when you least expect them, blow up quickly and drag on longer than the issue that begets them. The Lowry celebration was held at the Davenport. A spokeswoman for Ng said he wasn’t opposed to working with the union, although that became moot because he never managed to renovate the hotel.

In the vein of the admonition to stop digging when you find yourself in a hole, Carl Maxey offered some advice shortly after he was hired that, unfortunately for Democrats, went unheeded: “The whole thing could probably be taken care of with an apology that was sincere.”

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