It was late in the afternoon on a Wednesday in October, and this reporter was parked in the driveway of a single-family home in Shoreline, confirming the address to which I’d been dispatched. Dark clouds and stiff, cold breezes indicated a break from the mild weather the Seattle area had enjoyed so far in fall of 2017, but the occupants and I were concerned about a different kind of season.
Inside, in a warm (suspiciously clean) kitchen with orchestral Star Wars theme music playing softly out of a wireless speaker, sat mayoral candidate Thor Michaelson and campaign manager Tiffany Pitts. Pitts prepped Michaelson, a mutt dressed conservatively in a bowtie and harness in demure colors that blended into his black and brown fur. Both greeted me warmly at the door before returning to their exercises.
Michaelson spoke through Pitts, who wears many hats on the campaign including but not limited to campaign manager, interpreter and housemate. She’s the natural choice. The author-cum-political operative has known Michaelson since he was only a few months old; he grew up alongside her two children.
It was Pitts who encouraged Michaelson to run in the first place.
The 42-year-old (in dog years) never showed political ambition, but Pitts felt that after the bruising 2012 presidential campaign that ultimately re-elected President Barack Obama, people needed something better, more civil. They needed a candidate they could believe in. Maybe one who didn’t carry decades of political baggage, or have a known penchant for grabbing non-feline pussy.
They needed Thor Michaelson.
During the 2016 election, Pitts went online and designed Michaelson’s first yard sign with white letters on a royal blue background that read “Thor Michaelson says no to vacuums: They’re loud and they freak him out.”
It was a bold move, advancing a vulnerable, relatable message on a topic that no one else in the election cycle could speak to: a personal fear of the unknown and the automation of jobs with benefits, like cleaning the floor after a messy family dinner.
“I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this,” Pitts said. When the signs came, her child noticed them and promptly became the second official volunteer on the Thor Michaelson campaign. The team went out at 10 p.m. and posted the signs in the darkness before returning home to wait for what the morning would reveal.
Other signs read, “Thor Michaelson votes yes to walkies. Right now. Let’s Go. Hurry up.” And “Thor Michaelson wants to know, are you going to eat that? Because he will if you’re not hungry.”
Electing the Duke
Canine-elected leadership is rare in the United States, but it is not unheard of.
Far from the coastal elites is the township of Cormorant, Minnesota, and its mayor, Duke.
Twenty-one people live in the village that Duke calls home. A ring to the historical society — open only on Wednesdays, but they check messages — got me contact information for Duke’s owner, Dave Rick, and publicist, Karen Nelson.
Nelson has been doing publicity for Duke since his first election in 2013 (he’s now served three, one-year terms as mayor of Cormorant). He’s never faced real opposition, although one year a villager named Olivia proposed running her cat. The media loves Duke, a great white giant at 63 years young (in dog years) with soulful eyes. He once flew with Nelson to Los Angeles where he met Paris Hilton and her little dogs and made an appearance on the Steve Harvey Show.
Duke’s responsibilities seem to be mostly ceremonial, including community fundraisers and parades where he rides in a convertible, but he gets all the trappings of the mayorship. He has honorary status as a member of the Girl Scouts and Lion’s Club, with a sash of badges and a pin to prove it.
Duke promotes literacy, despite the fact that he himself cannot read. Nelson says he’s taken a personal interest in story time — where he “reads” to small children at the library. He’s featured in a book called “The Pet Talker,” and signs copies with a special stamp made to mimic his paw.
Initially, the Cormorant Daze elections were meant to raise money for the festival. But Duke sets the standard for well-behaved politicians, and is more than just another elected official, Nelson said.
“It’s been quite fun, and brought the community together,” Nelson said.
In Seattle, Michaelson’s truth spoke to people, Pitts said.
Neither he nor Crawfish B. Crawfish — a crustacean that filed papers with the Federal Election Commission with the simple goal of getting more votes than former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — fared well that cycle, but it became clear that Michaelson was no one-off candidate. He was part of a movement, and one that could change Seattle’s politics-as-usual.
Seattle has a “type” when it comes to elected officials. They tend to be well-off homeowners whose politics range along the blues in a 64-piece Crayola box. Mayor Tim Burgess: periwinkle. Councilmember Kshama Sawant: navy.
Thor Michaelson is different. He sees things in shades of gray — literally.
His platform stands apart from either of his opponents. He advances programs to end childhood hunger, an innovative plan to tackle food waste or anything that violates the five-second rule, an anti-vacuum campaign and a steak-for-dogs initiative.
Homelessness? Michaelson doesn’t like it. He believes everybody should have a couch and a warm blanket.
Public option health insurance? Michaelson’s for it. He sustained a nasty injury at day care that left him unable to sit like a good boy for days. He still holds emotional scars from the time spent in the cone of shame. Forcing him to pay hefty medical bills would have added insult to injury, but the day care covered the cost.
Guns? Michaelson’s views on the topic are nuanced. Own them, fine. But don’t fire them in the house. Especially if they’re Nerf. He really doesn’t like Nerf.
Squirrels? This is the most controversial plank in Michaelson’s platform: Say no to squirrels.
Like his opponents, Michaelson is active in the community. He walks Meridian Avenue every day, keeping an eye on things like a one-unit neighborhood watch. While on his strolls, Michaelson hears constituent issues, which he then contemplates from his preferred chair in the living room.
His quiet attentiveness — and quirky good looks — earned him a social media following and hundreds of friends and followers on Facebook.
“He knows more people than I do,” Pitts said.
Despite his online presence, Michaelson trails far behind Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon when it comes to name recognition. Difficulty fundraising and participating in verbal candidate forums have hindered his ability to participate in events (Michaelson understands some English, but speaks none).
Despite his low profile, Moon’s campaign has taken notice. Asked for comment on Michaelson’s campaign, Moon distanced herself from his anti-squirrel rhetoric, asserting squirrelly rights to hang out in trees and in parks. She even got a little personal.
“I have the focus, vision and detailed plans to address our city’s biggest challenges, while Thor seems to be easily distracted by balls, vacuum cleaners, cats, previously mentioned squirrels and doorbells in TV commercials,” Moon said in a statement. “Seattle voters know that Thor is beholden to special interests — he’s been seen lying at the feet of, and even rolling over for, anyone with a check or a treat. When I’m elected mayor, I will welcome Thor to join other stakeholders at the table, or in this case under the table.”
Durkan’s campaign did not respond by press time.
Michaelson’s candidacy has met resistance — and some suspicion — in Seattle circles. First, they point to the vast amount of time he spends at a Shoreline address, despite residency requirements. They also worry about his more conservative and autocratic impulses.
Michaelson does not have time for the lazy. He demands that his people keep their noses to the grindstone, accompanying him on his door-to-door walks, doing interview prep or throwing balls for his daily exercise. He keeps a tight schedule, reminding Pitts about bathroom breaks, meal times and walks. His position on squirrels rubs some as discriminatory, and his “Soft on cookies, Ruff on crime” stance could worry police reform advocates.
The role of mayor may not be the best fit for a candidate like Michaelson, said Brett Hamil, local comedian and political pundit.
“Because of their loyalty and dependability, dogs tend to do better in support roles like deputy mayor or chief of staff,” Hamil wrote in an email, noting that he would be preferable to some of the prior mayoral candidates. “However, I have no doubt that Thor would be a better mayor than either Harley Lever or Alex Tsimerman.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Election 2017: Seattle Mayor, Jenny Durkan vs Cary Moon
Election 2017: City Council Position No. 8, Jon Grant vs Teresa Mosqueda
Election 2017: City Attorney, Pete Holmes vs Scott Lindsay
Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full October 25 issue.