Right-wing conspiracy theory politics grip Sequim, a small Washington coastal town
A political firestorm was provoked in Sequim, Wash. last year, shortly after the town got a new mayor, who turned out to be a promoter of right-wing QAnon conspiracy theories.
This year, one of the mayor's main backers – a Q conspiracy apologist named Donald "Donnie" Hall – is working with a slate of candidates on the northern Olympic Peninsula.
Hall is a self-styled political kingmaker and Clallam County Republican. He co-founded a group in 2019 he called the Independent Advisory Association, which recruits and trains conservative-populist candidates, including Sequim Mayor William Armacost.
Hall said his main goal for the Independent Advisory Association is to give like-minded candidates the campaign basics they need to compete. But online and in interviews, he also offers rationalizations for QAnon and advocates like Armacost.
Earlier this year, Armacost backtracked, claiming he’d never endorsed QAnon. But last summer on a local radio segment called “Coffee with the Mayor,” he called QAnon “a truth movement that encourages you to think for yourself.”
Armacost also encouraged people to check out QAnon conspiracy videos, which warn of a hidden war going on between patriots like Donald Trump and a Satan-worshipping cabal that supposedly runs almost everything, including an international child sex trafficking ring. Unlike groups that draw attention to trafficking, Q believers claim there's a vast conspiracy that includes celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks, and every president since Ronald Reagan, except Trump.
Armacost declined to be interviewed for this story. But Donnie Hall was willing to talk about QAnon, and the candidates he’s helping and backing this year.
Hall said he’s not a conspiracy theorist. But last year, he posted an essay on social media called “Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory,” in which he relied on a different conspiracy theory to discredit QAnon’s critics, claiming the “conspiracy starts with an FBI Report.”
Hall also argued QAnon’s claims have a basis in fact.
“When a group like QAnon comes along and says: ‘Hey, there’s these [international child sex trafficking] rings out there. You have to be careful.’ That makes sense to me,” he said.
This election season, Hall’s helping a slate of candidates on the Olympic Peninsula run for office, including a man named Mike Pence (not to be confused with the former vice president).
The Sequim-based Mike Pence worked as a municipal employee in Oklahoma and Missouri before moving to Sequim in 2019. He was appointed to the Council last year.
KUOW uncovered an email that Pence once forwarded to Mayor Armacost. In it, the author — who identifies as a QAnon supporter — claims a “Storm is Coming,” calls for a QAnon gathering in Sequim, and thanks Armacost for saving children who have, “suffered so at the hands of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.”
Why did Pence forward this QAnon email to a mayor who had recently promoted QAnon to the community? That's unclear. Pence did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Pence has competition. Vicki Lowe is running for Pence's seat. She's a lifelong resident, who describes herself as “descended both from pioneer families and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.” Currently she heads the American Indian Health Commission of Washington State and also serves on the Sequim planning commission.
Like many others in Sequim, Lowe is worried about the conspiracy theories, and said they’re having a real impact on local politics.
One of the most persistent in the area is that Seattle is “giving bus tickets to homeless people to come over here and be homeless,” Lowe said.
"This is classic redistribution of misinformation as a political tactic — a conspiracy around large numbers of outsiders coming in to disrupt the community,” said Devin Burghart, who studies the far right for the Seattle-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which he also runs.
Burghart calls QAnon a "catch all" for a variety of conspiracy theories like the one about Seattle exporting homeless people.
While Burghart said support for specific QAnon prophecies has diminished because they didn't come true, his research indicates that the underlying support for conspiracy theory politics is spreading throughout the country, including here in Washington state.
According to Lowe, the misinformation about Seattle and busing got going in Sequim a few years ago over opposition to a Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) clinic being built by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. According to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the facility will only serve residents of Clallam and Jefferson counties, where there's a well-documented, homegrown problem with drug addiction.
Nevertheless, conspiracy theories about addiction, homeless people, and the MAT facility are familiar to many in town, including a Trump supporter named Karen Holley.
“Once they start busing in the heroin addicts to Sequim, we're going to be screwed,” she said.
Larry Amos rolls his eyes when asked about this theory, which he’s heard many times.
“People read this, and they read that, and they mix it together and add a little imagination and cook up this rumor,” Amos said.
There are some programs to help people experiencing homelessness travel home, but there's no evidence to suggest many are traveling from Seattle back to Sequim. King County has a "family reunification" travel program, for example, but according to the county, in 2020 "requests for relocation were few," and there is no record of anyone receiving a bus ticket to Sequim (or anywhere else in Clallam County). And surveys indicate the vast majority of homeless people in the region are local.
One of Lowe's top campaign pledges is to work on the city’s affordable housing crisis, where — like many places — prices have skyrocketed in recent years. This spring, home prices hit an all-time high and supply was the tightest it’s been for nearly two decades.
It’s a complicated problem that will be difficult to solve. But Lowe said when false information persists and the focus of politics turns to conspiracy theories, it's difficult to debate, let alone address, the real issues, including affordable housing and homelessness.
In Part II of this story next week, we look at how conspiracy theory politics are playing out this year in nearby Port Angeles
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