Local elections are crucial to our democracy and in Renton it can be particularly demonstrated by who voters decide to elect with low turnout. Our country remains more polarized than ever coming out of the last presidential election, with some colloquially referring to QAnon for any conspiracy, as they are a widely-known extremist media group promoting some of them. Renton this year has been mired with extremism being promoted by business organizations, community leaders, and candidates, and even closely linked with police officers who remain on the force.
Ben Johnson for Renton Council
Our journey will begin with candidate Ben Johnson, who managed to make it through the general with sitting councilmember Angelina Benedetti close behind him and candidate Carmen Rivera taking the lead. Ben Johnson’s voter pamphlet, like most candidates’, was limited by word count and limited in information. However, Ben Johnson is known for his local activism and prolific commenting on Randy Corman’s blog where he uses the username “rentonben”.
Many of his comments are typical for what we find from individuals influenced by far-right media. Comments demanding strong immigration enforcement, wishing for criminals to receive police brutality, and shaming attempts by Renton to outreach to historically excluded communities. In October of 2008 he says, “What the hell is an ‘ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON DIVERSITY?’ I imagine it’s a bunch of do-gooders who sit around pretending to me [sic] more ‘open’ than the next person… I’m thinking we could cut their budget.”
The blog itself features many posts like local Facebook groups and Nextdoor posts do, largely focusing on crime. The comments to these might be described as particularly egregious and remind us of a dark history in the US of white communities violently pursuing and criminalizing communities of color. In April of 2008 replying to one of these blog posts, Ben Johnson writes “Maybe I’m missing it but where in this article do they give a decent description of the thugs who beat this guy up?… Because the Times *doesnt* mention race then one could make some wild PC guesses.“
The posts range in their vulgarity and how inflammatory they are, in one example he even uses a word close sounding to the n-word to anger the “do-gooders” concerned about diversity. The posts can also range in extremity, with some that seem violent. Ben Johnson comments in September of 2009, “the noble purpose of firearms is to keep our government from going nuts,” later over the Fairwood annexation in December he writes, “After Rentons tanks crush the rebellion on her east flank, we’ll be greeted as liberators. Only after we purge the cancer will then both Renton and Fairwood be free.“
Unfortunately, the connections to extremism and hate in the current local election cycle do not stop at Ben.
James Alberson for Renton Council
James Alberson is a candidate for city council. In 2019 he ran against Valerie O’Halloran and was close behind her, in 2020 he was considered for the seat that is currently held by Angelina Benedetti. In the 2019 race he received the endorsement of the King County GOP, and in 2021 attempted to receive an endorsement from the King County Democrats (the position is officially nonpartisan). He also is on the board of the Renton Chamber of Commerce who has had their own set of extremist controversies this year. Alberson’s own endorsements may shed light more on how these conspiracies are taken seriously by some of Renton’s leaders.
Many of his endorsements are established community members with decent backgrounds. However, they also include Randy Corman, whose blog Ben Johnson made these comments on. Some are also on the board of the Renton Chamber of Commerce who have made no statements denouncing the extremist tweets promoted by their account, like one claiming Joe Biden did not win the election. There are also some individuals featured who have promoted conspiracies on their own.
Marcie Palmer served on the Renton City Council from 2004 until she withdrew from her race in 2015. Her Twitter account has many likes promoting far-right conspiracies, similar to the Renton Chamber’s incident. These include anti-masking conspiracies, pro-Trump politics, and many other extremist opinions. Outside of her online activism, in the last year she has played a role in pushing against housing programs and demanding stronger criminalization of vulnerable communities.
The 2020 elections still live on in Renton in a community divided and polarized by contemporary issues facing the nation. Hate and extremism are circulating close to Renton’s leadership while QAnon-like conspiracies have wormed their way even into the Renton Council races, raising the stakes of a normally quiet local election. But, if the primaries are any indication, voters have not heard or paid attention and low turnout may result in extremists and extremist sympathizers continuing to hold influence over an increasingly diverse region. Local elections matter.