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Why Seattle Still Loves to Hate the Golden State

February 25, 1996|JOHN ARTHUR WILSON | John Arthur Wilson is political editor for the Seattle Weekly

SEATTLE — We were almost cured of our California phobia. Sure, there was a touch of it when the usually hapless Seattle Mariners beat the California Angels in the baseball playoffs. We were even a bit giddy when Steven Spielberg and David Geffen came here to meet with our multibillionaire, Bill Gates. They at least had the Microsoft dress code down--baseball caps, no ties allowed, mandatory khakis.

But then Ken Behring said he was taking our football team, the struggling Seattle Seahawks, packing them up and heading for Los Angeles. Oh, those Californians. Lying, two-timin', sun-fried, real-estate-developing, football-team-stealing Californians.

Suddenly, California phobia was back with a vengeance. "This is a slap in the face of Seattle--the entire Northwest," decried New York Vinnie, as he rallied angry Seahawks fans. Some of those fans tried to block moving semi's hauling the Hawks' training gear to Anaheim and the old Los Angeles Rams' training facility. A local newspaper bannered "Free Behring dartboard!" and copies flew off the newsstands by the armloads. "Nail Bubba to the wall," the newspaper urged.

Behring reawakened all Seattle's suppressed fears and animosities concerning Californians. In fact, Behring himself, while refusing to talk to the local media, bemoaned how they invariably used the term "California developer" as some form of hate speech. "It's the first words put into the newspaper when I came here," Behring told USA Today, "rich California developer." Behring said he was never accepted here.

He's right, of course.

When Behring bought the Seattle Seahawks in 1988, the California invasion was at its height. Californians were blamed for soaring real estate prices, clogged freeways and murderous gang warfare.

Behring bought the team from the Nordstrom family, the icons of Northwest retailing and cornerstones of the community. He was the antithesis of the Nordstroms, who are publicity shy, famous for their customer service and unostentatious.

Behring seemed true to his used-car salesman roots. Like the owner of a cherry vintage Mustang, he loved to admire those fine specimens of muscle and might on his payroll and ogle the Seagals. A sidelines regular at Seahawks home games, he looked like a typical suburban retiree--in beltless slacks and a white golf shirt with the team's logo stretched thinner by his considerable girth. The Nordstroms seldom, if ever, popped up on the field.

In the Northwest, you hide your wealth. Most of Gates' $30-million high-tech home, under construction on the shores of Lake Washington, is buried in a hillside, hidden from view. Behring's Northern California home, by comparison, reeked of conspicuous consumption--29,000 square feet, four indoor waterfalls (using more than 12,000 gallons a day), a 7,000-square-foot ballroom and 10,000-bottle wine cellar. "Just so California," muttered some detractors after he took a Seattle TV station on a Robin Leach-like tour of his manse.

Behring had big plans off the field, too. After picking a site from a helicopter tour of the wooded Cascade foothills, he envisioned one of his California-style developments--posh homes and a pair of golf courses for sports stars, software millionaires and other nouveau riche. Local officials complained Behring was heavy-handed and cared little for local zoning laws. He countered that local officials kept changing the requirements.

By 1993, he gave up his hopes of being a big fish in our small, tree-lined pond without a fight. Even after losing millions, Behring was never accepted in local development circles. One Seattle developer called him a "flaming disaster." Boorish, socially awkward and unconnected to the Northwest, Behring served as a convenient example of why Seattle--and the Northwest--hated high-rollers from the Golden State.

Still, he repeatedly said he wanted to keep the team here. But when the Seahawks were offered at least $150 million to remodel the Kingdome as part of a stadium ballot measure, Behring was curiously missing. "They refused to endorse it," recalls Bob Gogerty, a Seattle public-affairs consultant who masterminded the bond campaign. "They said in order be fair to their fans, they'd be neutral." The package failed by about 1,000 votes.

Nowadays, Behring claims that because of earthquake risks, he can't allow the Seattle Seahawks to play in the Kingdome. This from a guy who wants to move his team to within 3rd and 10 from the San Andreas. Last summer, though, Behring wrote King County officials that "what is needed financially, structurally, aesthetically and marketing-wise is a multiuse, state-of-the-art replacement facility." There was no dire concern voiced about killer earthquakes.

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