DEEP RIVER — On Wednesday morning, Krist Novoselic, the 44-year-old former bassist for the wildly popular Seattle rock band Nirvana, stepped into his old Volkswagen Beetle and rumbled up a rural highway to Cathlamet, where he filed to run for the office of Wahkiakum County Clerk.
Novoselic, who lives in a secluded farmhouse near the Deep River, said he has registered to run as a member of the “Grange Party.”
The trick is, there is no Grange Party, and Novoselic says he has no interest in becoming the county’s clerk. He said he’ll vote this fall for his competitor, incumbent Kay M. Holland, who was appointed in January.
By filing to run for public office, Novoselic said he’s trying bring attention to what he sees as a flaw in the state’s election system. He is taking issue with a provision of the so-called “top-two” primary, which voters approved in 2004. Novoselic said he doesn’t have a problem with the top two vote getters in a primary advancing to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation, as this system allows.
The issue, he said, is that candidates can declare their own party on the ballot, regardless of whether they’re truly Republicans or Democrats. They can also file under a fictitious party, as Novoselic did this week.
That’s a horrible way to run a democracy, he said.
“It’s complicated. It confuses voters and it disenfranchises voters. And we should think about a settlement that speaks to the needs and values of Washington voters.”
Novoselic acknowledged Wednesday that his election filing amounts to a “publicity stunt.”
“It would be absurd for me to deny that,” he said.
But he said he merely wants to demonstrate how candidates can game the state’s primary system. “It’s not about the office of clerk,” he said, adding that he’ll resign if voters elect him this fall.
This might be the last thing you’d expect from an internationally known rock star. But Novoselic, who grew up in Aberdeen, Wash., has been involved in politics for years. And, in settling in Wahkiakum County, he seems to have returned to his roots.
On Wednesday, Novoselic, who has become well-known in political circles, discussed the problems with the primary system as he sat on a newly-built deck overlooking a koi pond at his home. Chickens roamed the property. Signs for the local farmer’s market leaned against a nearby barn. And a golden retriever and Pomeranian, which Novoselic said had wandered out of the woods in recent years, tried to steal fresh-baked cookies off a plate.
“You can see my cucumbers growing behind there,” he said. “I’ve got some potatoes growing behind there.”
Nirvana was the flagship band of the Seattle “grunge” scene during the 1990s, selling millions of albums and producing sometimes controversial music, including a song titled “Rape me.”
The three-member band put out three full-length albums and a couple of live records before its lead singer, Kurt Cobain, killed himself in his Seattle home in the spring of 1994.
Novoselic began living full-time in Wahkiakum County about five years after the band’s breakup. He is chairman of the Wahkiakum County Democratic Central Committee and the master of the Grays River Grange. He spoke warmly Wednesday of how the organization had just donated a 1960s-era bingo machine for use at the county fair. He also said he was painting signs for the local farmer’s market, which he helps organize.
“One of the best things that ever happened to me is that I joined the Grange,” he said Wednesday. “It’s very sincere and it’s very beautiful. … A lot of culture is crass, crude. There’s a lot of white noise out there, political opinion. The Grange is an oasis from that.”
Novoselic said he was probably looking for a similar oasis when he bought his Deep River home in 1992. Nirvana was still going strong and touring the world at the time. In those days, Novoselic said, he spent about six months out of the year at the farmhouse.
“I was taken by the physical beauty. It’s just so beautiful,” he said. “And then I fell into the community.”
He said he recorded an album with the seminal San Francisco punk band Flipper in a studio above his garage. Lately, he’s been listening to test pressings of Nirvana’s albums, which are being re-released on vinyl, “to make sure they sound dynamite.”
Novoselic also flies a Cessna 182, writes a Seattle Weekly column and is the chairman of FairVote, an organization promoting transparency and fairness in elections.
“He’s just extremely civic-minded,” said Wahkiakum County author and naturalist Bob Pyle, who is a member of the Grays River Grange and had been listening to Novoselic DJ on Astoria radio station KUMN Thursday afternoon. “He’s brought quite a bit of youthful energy to the community. … He’s been a real breath of fresh air.”
Novoselic said he got involved with politics in the 1990s to fight a law that barred minors from attending rock shows. As Nirvana became more popular, Novoselic said, organizations began asking him to use his influence to inspire young voters.
But he decided: “You know what? People aren’t going to vote because some bass player’s going to tell them to go vote. So I started looking into things, our system. … Why not have a competitive, compelling democracy?”
He published a book called “Of Grunge & Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy!” in 2004.
Novoselic said he decided to take on the state’s primary system because people use the parties listed on the ballot as a guide for how to vote. Some voters will see the fake “Grange Party” next to Novoselic’s name and vote for him simply because, like him, they are members of the local grange, he said.
“So I’m actually using the grange to promote my candidacy, when I really shouldn’t be,” he said.
He said he plans to offer an alternative at a meeting of the state Grange in Longview later this month. Instead of allowing candidates to list whatever party they choose, he will propose making it illegal for them to claim a made-up party, or to claim to be affiliated with an existing party unless that party consents.
The state Grange sponsored Initiative 872, which put the top-two primary in place in 2004. Asked if it was ironic that he spoke so warmly of the organization but challenged one its major initiatives, he said, “You don’t have to march lockstep with the Grange.”
He said he never imagined he’d end up running for clerk in a rural county to prove a political point. But he said it’s easy to draw a connection between what he’s doing today and what Nirvana was about in the 1990s.
“Nirvana came in, and you had this music industry that is predictable. And people weren’t buying rock music and they weren’t listening. Nirvana, as part of the whole alternative grunge movement or whatever, brought vitality back to the music scene.”
“And so maybe that’s in the same thread as trying to shake things up a little bit and just think about things.”
Krist Anthony Novoselic
Born: May 16, 1965, Compton, California
Education: Gymnasium (Middle School), Zadar, Croatia, 1980; J.M. Weatherwax High School, Aberdeen, Washington; graduates with the Class of 1984; attended Grays Harbor College, Aberdeen
Musical career: Founding member of seminal Northwest “grunge” band Nirvana, 1986; fi rst album, Bleach, 1989; second album, Nevermind, 1991; third album, In Utero, 1993; member, Sweet 75 (1995-1999); Eyes Adrift (1999-2003); part-time with Flipper (2006-2008)
Instruments: Bass, guitar, accordion, Farfi sa organ
Notable events: Nevermind achieves No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart on Jan. 11, 1992; Nirvana appears on MTV’s “Unplugged” in New York on Nov. 18, 1993; Novoselic profoundly saddened by the suicide of his friend and bandmate Kurt Cobain, 27, on April 8, 1994; Nirvana disbands
Author: “Of Grunge and Government: Let’s Fix This Broken Democracy,” RDV Books, New York, 2004
Married: Shelli Ann Dilley, 1989-1999 (divorced); Darbury Ayn Stenderu, 2004
Other activities: Political activist; helped found Joint Artists & Music Promotions Action Committee (JAMPAC), 1995; Chairman, Wahkiakum County, Washington, Democratic Party, 2008; Chairman FairVote, 2008; Worthy Master, Grays River Grange No. 124, Wahkiakum County, 2008-2009; blog columnist, The Weekly, Seattle, 2007-2009; FAA licensed pilot, radio host, fi lm-maker
Other Languages: Fluent in Croatian, conversant in Spanish, some Russian
Source: The Washington State Legacy Project
“Instead of just rushing from blog to blog and complaining about it, I’m just like, ‘Let’s do something about it!’ You have to go out and work with people. That’s what politics are. It’s just people.”
— Krist Novoselic, in an interview for The Washington State Legacy Project, www.secstate.wa.gov/legacyproject, a series of oral histories with the state’s notable and unique residents.