Farming, family and faith have shaped the politics of Republican John Koster, making his third run for Congress in the state's newly drawn 1st District.
When their mom died in 1972, John Koster and his brother turned to a coin toss to decide who would get the family farm. The flip, in an instant, made Koster a dairy farmer.
His next career also began by happenstance when, 20 years after getting into the dairy business, Koster drove from his Arlington farm to the Snohomish County Courthouse to complain about new environmental restrictions that required him to build a manure lagoon he didn’t want.
In a meeting, Koster told then-County Executive Bob Drewel that regulations were harming his business. The lagoon was intended to reduce water pollution; his old method of spreading manure on the fields tainted runoff.
Drewel shook Koster’s hand and gave him his first political appointment, a seat on the county’s Agricultural Advisory Board.
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Now Koster is making his third run for Congress, this time in the newly drawn 1st Congressional District, which runs from Redmond north to the Canadian border.
Koster, a Christian conservative Republican, former state legislator and member of the Snohomish County Council, is in a tight race against a former Microsoft vice president, Suzan DelBene, who until recently ran the state Department of Revenue.
Those same regulations that got him into politics help explain Koster’s latest try for Congress. He is plain-spoken about his black-and-white, conservative views.
Koster opposes higher taxes and wants to shrink the size of government. He wants to limit environmental and growth regulations that he thinks interfere with private-property rights. He is against abortion rights, even in cases of rape and incest, touting his “100% pro-life voting record” on his campaign website. He does not support gay marriage.
During a 2010 election bid for Congress against Rep. Rick Larsen, Koster was asked on a questionnaire if he wanted to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and if he supports U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations. He said yes to both.
This year, he left the question about the U.N. blank on the same questionnaire, and he says he no longer believes it is practical to do away with the IRS.
In both campaigns, he has spoken at tea-party events.
“It’s inherent in his DNA. It (conservatism) is not something that he learned after he became a legislator. That foundation was ground into him before he ever took office,” said state Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, who co-founded the Washington Conservative Caucus with Koster in 1996.
Farming and faith
Koster’s parents moved to the dairy farm in 1951, the year he was born, and raised three sons to be hardworking people of faith. Their church was so strict it forbade dancing.
Koster was a high-school football star. He met his future wife, Vicki, at a church youth meeting when he was 14. They married five years later, and Koster started community college and pumped gas at a Marysville service station, planning to become a chiropractor.
But soon after their wedding, Koster’s mother died of leukemia at age 41. Her loss devastated the family, especially his dad.
“That’s when I learned that women are the glue that holds families together, how important women are,” Koster said, wiping away tears.
Koster was seen in the farming community as tidy and diligent, known to show up with his sons to help get a neighbor’s hay under cover before the rain. He led a Bible study at his church, and Vicki Koster worked at the Christian school their four children attended, to help cover tuition.
He had never considered running for office until state lawmakers began implementing the Growth Management Act. Koster became increasingly angry about land-use rules he believed were a threat to private-property rights. The act protects wetlands and farmland, which in Koster’s rural area meant once-valuable land could not be fully developed and was suddenly worth much less.
“I was constantly approached by him saying I ought to run for office,” said Gary Graber, a beef rancher and old friend of Koster’s. “I said, ‘John, you got the right idea, but the wrong person. You will run for office one day, and you will be a great servant of the people.’ “
In 1992, Koster hand-painted signs and ran a low-budget campaign for state Senate. He lost in the primary. On his second attempt in 1994, he won, sweeping in with a national Republican surge to represent the 39th District in the state House.
During six years in Olympia, he founded and led the “conservative caucus,” to push for “changing the way we do business,” he said.
Koster was well-liked by his colleagues, and he worked with Democrats and less-conservative Republicans on a streamlined welfare-to-work program and regulatory reform.
His record also shows a steady streak of conservatism: He voted against five of six budgets and introduced legislation to allow a group of people in northern Snohomish County to secede and form a new county, “Freedom County.” He co-sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, and he co-sponsored a bill to allow medical insurance to deny coverage of abortions.
Koster said his views on social issues are not the focus of this congressional campaign because the country’s economic problems are more pressing. But he doesn’t shy away from his positions.
“I am who I am,” he said. “I understand, for some people, these things are a litmus test, and for those people, they’re just going to have to take it at face value.”
The campaign hopes more moderate voters will appreciate Koster’s straightforward style, even if they don’t agree with him on everything.
“People are going to know what John is like,” said Vicki Koster. “He’s not going to waffle on them. He’s not going to be one of those that the powers that be are going to mold him into what they want.”
Larry Stickney, Koster’s campaign manager and an old friend, put it this way: “Our campaign is going to be bold colors.”
A county leader
In the mid-’90s, when their children were grown, the Kosters sold the dairy and moved to a comfortable house outside of Arlington, with a sunny patio and a sprawling lawn for the grandkids.
He resigned from his state House seat to run for Congress in 2000. He lost to Democrat Larsen.
In 2001 he switched gears, ran for the Snohomish County Council and won.
Koster has coasted to re-election to the County Council twice in his rural district.
At the county, where he is now the council’s sole Republican, he has been the most reliable vote against tax increases and growth regulation, although he has sometimes crossed the aisle to vote for Democratic proposals. In 2002, he supported a sales-tax increase to pay for a new county jail.
“He’s a great person to work with, a man of integrity, and he worked very hard for his constituents,” said Kirke Sievers, a longtime Democratic council member before he was elected to his current post as county treasurer.
But in a growing county dealing with a lot of land-use issues, Koster often found himself at odds with Democrats, especially when it came to the state’s Growth Management Act, which he has sought to repeal. During a protracted fight over whether automobile dealer Dwayne Lane should be allowed to build a car lot at Island Crossing, near Arlington, Koster called the Growth Management Hearings Board a “kangaroo court.”
Koster fought for the Lane car lot for years, and while it was never built, Lane gave thousands to his election campaigns, as did other land developers.
Koster’s positions against land-use rules have put him at odds with environmental groups, said Kristin Kelly, of the environmental group Futurewise. “He votes consistently on the side of developers and against the public good,” she said.
To win the election, Koster will have to move beyond his traditional constituents and convince high-tech suburbanites and social moderates in parts of the new district that his economic vision is best.
In campaign speeches, he’s careful to mention the women in his life — a defense against the national political dialogue that some say pits conservative Republicans against women. His wife even vouched for him in a note she wrote to women and posted on his website.
Even as he tries to broaden his appeal to voters in the southern part of the new district, Koster easily lapses into his jeans-and-cowboy-boots persona.
In Arlington, Koster was able to pass on to his own kids the deep roots he grew up with, the same sense that the farm, family and church are all intertwined. In a lot of ways, that forms the vision he has for the country.
That sounds simple, but it’s enough for many. Consider Rick and Michele Poortinga, the couple who bought the old Koster dairy.
“He’s a good Christian guy with good Christian values, and he takes that into his politics,” said Rick.
Standing in the doorway to the red farmhouse, Michele added: “People feel like he’s one of us.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.