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Springsteel's candidate forum deserved an audience | Editor's Notebook
POULSBO — It was every candidate’s worst nightmare.
The forum was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. The table was set up with a chair for each candidate. Audience chairs were lined up neatly. In the back, cookies and cupcakes and tea.
The clock ticked – 7:05, 7:10, 7:15, 7:20 – and the candidate sat alone, waiting, talking to the lone reporter and doodling in a notebook.
While it would have been easy to be embarrassed for Fred Springsteel, there seemed to be more reason to respect his courage.
Springsteel, a write-in candidate for Poulsbo City Council, has taken his fair share of lumps this campaign. Arrested on suspicion of DUI. Dismissed from his position at the Eagles lodge for his use of a racial epithet (for which he later apologized). Seemingly disavowed by a watchdog group that he helped form.
And yet here he was, putting his credibility as a candidate on the line to host a candidate forum, creating an opportunity to talk to fellow candidate Gary Nystul and the public about the issues.
He took out an ad, sent out a press release and emails, mailed 900 campaign brochures, and paid $37.50 to rent the downstairs meeting room of the Poulsbo Library on a cold Monday evening.
And no one showed up.
Blame it on the evening chill, or Halloween, or inadequate promotion. The event gave some insight into Springsteel’s character – insight that is as worth reporting as his flaws.
He handled it all with humor. He had lined up only six audience chairs, and quipped, “I thought we’d get better attendance than a City Council meeting.”
He talked about his personal life: Father of one, grandfather of two, retired computer science professor, book collector, donor of time and money to local causes. And – a risky yet delicious revelation – a sometime karaoke singer at Sian Palace on Viking Avenue.
He talked about the things that shaped him as a citizen and an academic: growing up with a Socialist Democrat father and an anti-communist Polish-American mother in the 1940s and ’50s, studies at Notre Dame and UW during the political and social tumult of the 1960s, seeing centralized state power in action against individual liberty while studying in Prague.
And he segued, somehow but successfully, to today: The need for more public engagement in local government. He said he’s running for council because many Poulsbo residents do not feel heard by their city government, because citizen watchdog groups have been forced to organize in order to be heard.
He’s concerned about apathy, with low public attendance at City Council meetings being an example. The sight of one man sitting alone on a Monday in Poulsbo Library, a man who just wanted to talk to neighbors about issues, seemed to underscore those concerns.
Fred Springsteel deserved an audience, at least because he’s a candidate for office. Agree or disagree with him, Springsteel has concerns about issues worth discussing: traffic impacts of Safeway and the Edward Rose master-planned neighborhood, erosion on Anderson Parkway, a proposed stoplight on a blind curve at Big Valley and Bond roads and what that means to motorist safety.
Gary Nystul, the only candidate on the ballot, could argue that his notification of the forum was last-minute; he learned of the forum four days earlier when called by the Herald. But much of campaigning and politics is last minute. And Nystul, a former Kalispell, Mont., city councilman, knows that.
At 7:45, Springsteel started to close up. He had joked about language on the debate sign he made: “Fred Springsteel vs. Gary Nystul.” “It sounds like a boxing match,” he said. It seemed metaphorical: In this ring, with Nystul a no-show, Springsteel was the only man standing.
As I turned to wave good night, Springsteel was silhouetted in the doorway, an image of the constituency he hopes to represent — citizen voices wanting to be heard.