He is Washington state's hottest political consultant, a little-known figure with a big hand in molding policy — even changing the way we live and die.
photographed by Benjamin Benschneider
MEET CHRISTIAN Sinderman and you might wonder. The hair sticks out every which-way, bits of beard still stand after shaving, and his deep aversion to ironing is written all over him. Then there’s the lime-green tux.
“Who is this slob?” Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess recalls thinking when he first met the man.
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Mark Sidran jokes he paid Sinderman to run his campaign for attorney general to show he was “prepared to hire the homeless.”
His “sartorial negligence” notwithstanding, Sinderman happens to be the state’s hottest political consultant, a little-known figure with a big hand in molding policy — even changing the way we live and die.
Gov. Chris Gregoire says “he will forever be a mentor to me.”
In less than 10 years, Sinderman has climbed to the top of a hypercompetitive field. He’s helped elect Gregoire, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and a majority of state Supreme Court justices and Seattle City Council members, not to mention the state treasurer, lands commissioner, Seattle city attorney and 30 legislators, including House Speaker Frank Chopp.
Through ballot initiatives he’s played a part in expanding light rail and allowing assisted suicide.
The list goes on: He’s campaigned to increase Seattle taxes for affordable housing, new fire stations and Pike Place Market renovations. He’s been anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s chief adversary. He even helped Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn create a nonprofit by drawing up an idea on a napkin.
In a time of increasing political shrillness, in a subculture full of glambitious former student-council presidents, Sinderman seems refreshingly goofy and genuine.
There’s a whiff of cool and generational change about him. At age 41, he straddles the line where geek meets hip. He croons cheesy songs on his karaoke machine at home and busts out that lime-green tux for special parties. He gets excited about using 1980s hair-band Night Ranger on his Facebook profile (“Isn’t it classic?”) and texted a client while riding a chairlift.
Not so much a kingmaker — you can’t say a consultant “made” someone with Gregoire’s resume — he’s more the matchmaker, a likable fellow who’s able to get the electorate to like what he likes.
Even Republican foes respect his standing as the “big dog” and “premier guy” among consultants. But they say he can thank George W. Bush for much of that.
And, as successful as he is, it’s not uncommon to see Sinderman pacing the floor, phone to his ear, his other hand raking his hair. A lot of challenges — angry voters, new voters, campaigns against friends — loom.
POLITICAL CONSULTING is a mix of art, science and skulduggery.
Sinderman makes most of his money from producing direct-mail brochures, though his preferred role is adviser. “I view my job as part-strategist, part-therapist,” he says.
He only works for Democrats and says he has to feel a rapport with candidates. “When they’re stressed out at 10 p.m.,” he says, “do you want to take their call? There’s definitely a personality connection involved.”
He’s lost his share of races, including Sidran’s bid for attorney general and John Ladenburg’s run for the same office four years later. Twice he failed to unseat Republican state Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn. And he couldn’t get Seattleites to approve a plastic-bag fee.
But he wins much more than he loses.
Some say it’s because he’s fearless, creative, dogged and freakishly knowledgeable.
“Every time we had a conversation about certain counties it was like opening an encyclopedia,” says Robb Miller, a leader of 2008’s statewide initiative to allow assisted suicide. “It’s kind of scary.”
But what keeps coming up are two other qualities: his knack for storytelling and his network of connections.
Two inexperienced candidates who Sinderman guided to overwhelming victories can attest.
When Sally Bagshaw launched her Seattle City Council campaign last year she had a couple potential problems. A former King County prosecutor, Bagshaw had given money to Republican candidates, a blemish in blue Seattle. And, her personality was so irrepressibly sunny that she was at risk of seeming a lightweight.
Just hiring Sinderman helped. He gave her instant credibility, she says, with key players in labor, environmental and Democratic Party circles.
But she hadn’t gotten comfortable as a candidate and was fighting her natural optimism, feeling she needed to learn everything about everything and show “a deeper, more serious side.”
Don’t you dare, Sinderman urged. Be yourself. He basically encouraged her to run as the nicest candidate in Seattle.
“He helped me see that what I had to bring was the positive energy and optimistic spirit,” says Bagshaw. “He said let that genuine spirit out of the box . . . Once I got that through my head, the campaign became so much easier. I didn’t have to be stiff and pretend I’m something I’m not.”
She went on to trounce her opponent (helped by the fact she spent three times more than the other side).
When Tim Burgess ran for the first time in 2007 he interviewed four consultants. Only Sinderman brought a list of reasons Burgess could win — and why he was on a path to lose.
As former chairman of the city’s watchdog ethics commission, Burgess hadn’t been very active in Democratic politics. More troubling, the ad agency he partly owned had done work for a Christian conservative group some saw as homophobic.
Sinderman peppered Burgess, who supports gay marriage, with questions, convinced him he had to address the ad-agency issue, and encouraged him to reach out to his gay and lesbian friends. Sinderman also introduced him to Democratic activists. A lot of them.
Burgess calls Sinderman the kind of “connector” author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in “The Tipping Point.” Connectors, Gladwell said, are “people with a special gift for bringing the world together . . . a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability and energy.”
By the time his opponent attacked him as a Tom DeLay-clone, Burgess had already locked up endorsements from gay and lesbian leaders, environmentalists and key Democrats. “Who are you going to trust,” Sinderman asks, “a negative mailer or people with reasonably informed opinions?”
Burgess won with 64 percent. Like several clients, he stays in touch with Sinderman, seeking his advice on other politicians and issues in Olympia.
“With candidates like Tim and Sally who are slightly out of the orthodoxy,” Sinderman says, “you know the person is truly progressive but had a position or two that was out of step. You want to run out in front of it instead of pretending everything they did in the past didn’t happen. The public has a good BS filter.”
IF SINDERMAN were to tell his own story, it would go something like this:
He grew up in Jackson, Mich., “a sad little town” where factories had closed, jobs were scarce.
In high school he was a “skinny geek with dorky glasses” who shot photos for the yearbook and was president of the band club.
After an “awkward Ayn Rand stage” at Kalamazoo College, he committed himself to environmental causes, moving to Washington, D.C., to lobby for endangered species, a “naive hippie” with hair halfway down his back.
He spent a semester at Washington State University, which led to a summer job in Seattle’s Discovery Park.
In the city of grunge, Sinderman says, “I finally found my people.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt later hired him with one task in mind: unseating U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
Armed with polling data, Sinderman tracked down Maria Cantwell outside her office at RealNetworks. He argued that someone with her experience — a high-tech executive and pro-choice former congresswoman — could beat Gorton.
Cantwell agreed. She hired Sinderman to handle communications under chief consultant Ron Dotzauer.
Sinderman got an education. He tended to be overly cautious until Dotzauer — a “swashbuckler” who wears a cowboy hat and boots — taught him to trust his gut.
Cantwell hammered home a message Sinderman still passes on to interns: “Be an advocate; go get what you want and find somebody who can help you.”
Cantwell won, giving Democrats 50 seats in the Senate.
“Lacking any meaningful job skills,” Sinderman says, he set up his own company, Northwest Passage Consulting.
His next big break came when the Washington State Council of City and County Employees hired him to stop Eyman’s 2001 tax-cutting initiative, I-747. Sinderman didn’t succeed. He did uncover something big, though.
While poring over Eyman’s financial disclosures he noticed large transfers of campaign money to another account run by Eyman and his wife. While he couldn’t prove it, Sinderman’s gut told him Eyman — who billed himself as a populist watch salesman — was profiting handsomely from campaign contributions.
Sinderman peddled the story to reporters who questioned Eyman’s finances. Tearfully, Eyman admitted he had diverted more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal use — and had lied in denying it.
Sinderman struck gold. The union put him on retainer, and he’s remained under contract ever since. He ran a successful campaign last year against Eyman’s Initiative 1033.
Republican consultant Alex Hays points out the irony: “No one has made more money on Tim Eyman than Christian Sinderman.”
Sinderman says he’s learned a lot from Eyman about campaign discipline and staying on message.
Eyman returns the compliment. “He always went for the jugular. That’s an admirable quality . . . In the midst of a pitched battle you’ve got to grab them by the balls and squeeze as hard as you can.”
Another GOP consultant, Todd Myers, says the only criticism he’s heard is that Sinderman is spread thin because he has too many clients.
AT HIS OFFICE in Fremont, Sinderman doesn’t even have a desk. His staff named a potted plant “Christian” because it’s more of a presence than he is.
He spends a lot of time between meetings sitting in his car outside cafes, taking advantage of their Wi-Fi. He worries someone will think he’s a pervert.
This year Sinderman’s dance card will include 15 to 20 state legislative candidates, Supreme Court challenger Charles Wiggins, and state Sen. Craig Pridemore, who’s running for Congress. He’ll also make his first foray into Oregon, advising Rex Burkholder, a candidate for president of Metro, the Portland area’s government.
He increasingly enjoys initiative campaigns because the rewards can be more tangible. “Politicians come and go,” he says, “but hopefully light rail and affordable housing are forever.”
There’s only one reason, Sinderman says, he got to the top of his business. He sleeps less than his rivals. It’s not unusual, longtime deputy Beth Lindsay says, in the homestretch of a campaign for Sinderman to call her at 1 a.m.
“He’s the big-picture guy,” she says. “I’m the work-wife who keeps the trains running on time.”
There’s much for the two to worry about.
With the Tea Party movement raging, the outlook for Democrats this year is sober, if not grim.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance says Sinderman’s luck may be about to change: “Democrats were not winning because Christian Sinderman is a genius. They were winning because suburban voters decided they didn’t like George Bush.”
If current polls hold up, Vance says, angry voters will give Democrats hell.
And you can argue Sinderman is part of the gridlock that inflames their ire.
He talks about wanting to work for candidates who are collaborative problem-solvers. But he’s a passionate partisan. He’s paid to perpetuate conflict between parties.
As a “Democratic hack,” Sinderman acknowledges he’s part of the problem. But the other side has a bigger megaphone, he says, and he’s not willing to “unilaterally disarm.”
Adding to Sinderman’s stress is his quest to stay relevant in the digital age.
The new-generation citizens are radically different from their elders, who get information from newspapers, evening newscasts, TV ads and direct mail. According to University of Washington professors Lance Bennett and David Domke, these new citizens — roughly under 35 — don’t trust traditional media. They live online, informed when they want, by sources they want.
Above all, they see through cynical image-making and crave authenticity. For that, they rely on word-of-mouth, much of it from the virtual water cooler of social networking.
He could learn a bit, Sinderman says, from Seattle music promoter Dave Meinert.
Livid over former City Attorney Tom Carr’s crackdown on nightclubs, Meinert led club owners, performers and patrons into the political arena. He energized voters seen as important in the election of new City Attorney Pete Holmes and McGinn.
Meinert is “a real change agent,” Sinderman says, “because he found a way to engage the most traditionally unengaged group, bar crawlers.”
It’s not netizens or tea-partiers, though, who cause Sinderman the most angst. It’s working in Democratic primaries, which have put a frost on friendships and even cost him a baby-sitter. This year’s primary in southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District is a painful example. Pridemore called in early December, and Sinderman agreed to work for him. Then longtime friend Denny Heck jumped in the race.
When he started his business, Sinderman thought he’d quit after 10 years. But not now. It’s too satisfying. And, growing up with chronic unemployment in Michigan, he says he’s going to make hay while he can. If the recession of 2009 taught us anything, he says, it’s that’s our prosperity is fragile.
“He never stops, never takes a breath,” Gregoire says. “When you’re like that you’re a little disorganized in your attire or paperwork. But don’t let anybody be fooled. This guy knows what he’s doing.”
Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest staff photographer.