The Town That QAnon Nearly Swallowed

The Town That QAnon Nearly Swallowed

Right-wing demagogues tried to take over a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s how concerned citizens stopped them.


Dr. Allison Berry sits at a table at the Rainshadow Café in downtown Sequim (pronounced “Squim”), a 110-mile drive northwest of Seattle, describing the tsunami of hatred that has come her way during the pandemic. She’s young, smiles a lot, wears woolen sweaters and scarves, and has been the health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties since 2018; before that, she was a doctor at a local clinic run by the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe.

To be able to sit indoors at the café, customers have to show proof of vaccination. The mandate was pushed by Berry this past September following Washington state’s reopening. A subsequent Covid surge had swamped the two local hospitals, put all elective procedures on hold, and led to a fearsome wave of intubations and deaths. Until the emergence of the vaccine-dodging Omicron variant, the mandate meant that diners in Clallam County, on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula, could eat and drink in relative safety.

But it also meant that Berry—who had already attracted the ire of anti-shutdown advocates in the summer of 2020 when she asked the county to postpone fully reopening businesses by two weeks—became a lightning rod for anti-maskers, anti-government militias, and QAnon conspiracists. Unfortunately for her, these included Sequim’s QAnon-supporting mayor—a hairdresser and motorcycle aficionado named William Armacost—as well as a majority of the city council, three of whose six members had been appointed during Armacost’s mayorship when sitting councillors died or resigned. This past September, hundreds of demonstrators began showing up outside the county courthouse in downtown Sequim. The council stood on the sidelines, finally passing a nonbinding resolution condemning Berry’s public health mandate.

“People called for my public hanging,” Berry says quietly. This wasn’t, to say the least, what she had signed up for when she joined the department three years earlier. “It was insane.” When Berry implemented the vaccine mandate for indoor dining, right-wing websites started focusing on her and the little town of Sequim. “We started getting calls and threats from way outside the county. We became a rallying cry for anti-government forces. People were threatening to kill me on Facebook, tried to find my address to go to my house.”

Berry was receiving hundreds of threatening phone messages and e-mails every day. One text read: “Sleep with one eye open. I’m coming for you.” Much of the bile aimed at her, she recalls, was “really misogynistic. Think of your most colorful misogynistic language—that’s what came my way.” Young men in souped-up pickup trucks flying American flags would cruise her neighborhood—her address was kept private, but her enemies knew what part of the county she lived in. “My daughter couldn’t go outside, because we didn’t want people to see us,” she remembers. “I was so scared I wasn’t sleeping. I’d keep it together during the day and cry at night.” Eventually, fearing for both her safety and her mental well-being, Berry and her young daughter left the county.

Shortly afterward, though, she returned, defiant. With the additional staff she’d hired earlier that year, she continued her push for mass vaccinations and other pandemic mitigation measures. Dr. Berry’s story was one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle. Over the past few years, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of underlying political schisms, Sequim had spiraled into crisis.

As with Port Angeles, Port Townsend, and the other picturesque, historic port cities of the northern Olympic Peninsula, Sequim has a cute old downtown and clusters of houses—surprisingly affordable despite the recent appreciation in real estate values—built on the windswept, rainy hills surrounding the center of the city. Its main thoroughfare, Washington Street, is lined with restaurants, high-end cafés, art galleries, and shops. It’s the sort of place where retirees and tourists alike come to find a refuge from high-stress urban living.

Sequim seems an unlikely setting for a last stand against a local wannabe strongman. Yet, in fact, it’s bitterly divided politically, as is the rest of the county. The political headline for the region in the aftermath of the last presidential election is that Clallam County holds the distinction of being the longest-running presidential bellwether county in the United States.

Going into the 2020 election, there were 19 counties in the nation that had voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1980, when Ronald Reagan was first elected. Eighteen of those counties, all rural, lost their bellwether status in 2020 by going for Trump. Clallam County became the sole holdout by narrowly supporting Biden. That the mostly rural county would trend blue in 2020 seemed as improbable as the existence of Sasquatch, the legendary creature that lurks in the shadows of the dense rain forests of the peninsula but is somehow never clearly captured in photographs.

The results of the 2020 election hid a profound ideological and cultural divide in the remote, watery region that abuts the 96-mile-long windswept Strait of Juan de Fuca, which divides the US from Canada. In rural areas, signs were hung among the trees with wording like “Trump won the election. Wake up, sheeple.” Pickup trucks could be seen with flags urging fealty to the “Trump Revenge Tour 2024.” What was happening in America as a whole, as the country fissured under, and after, Trump’s presidency, was happening in microcosm in Clallam County.

William Armacost was first appointed to the city council in 2018, was elected unopposed to a four-year term in November 2019, and was finally appointed mayor by his colleagues in January 2020. After he became mayor, he was caught on camera pushing a shopping cart at a Costco wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Stars and Stripes–painted skull and the words “THIS IS THE USA. We Eat Meat. We Drink Beer. We Own Guns. We Speak English. We Love Freedom. If you do not like that GET THE FUCK OUT.”

Armacost ignored multiple requests to be interviewed for this article. When I caught up with him at his hair salon, Changes, late one afternoon in mid-December, he flatly stated that he had no time and wouldn’t agree to an interview either then or at any other time. All of his allies on the city council and in local conservative organizations either ignored my interview requests or, when reached by phone, declined to comment. All told, upwards of a dozen conservative activists, political figures, and lawyers in Sequim and the surrounding area ignored repeated attempts to get them to tell their side of this story.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Armacost turned up at official city functions wearing a pin on his lapel featuring the Marvel Comics character the Punisher, a coded shout-out to vigilantism that he claimed simply demonstrated his support for law enforcement. As the pandemic raged, he logged on to Zoom council meetings while sitting under a large cross at his home—inserting religious iconography into what should have been a secular setting. He ended one meeting with the cryptic rhyme “Jesus is the reason for the season.” According to Marsha McGuire, a former Library of Congress researcher now living in Sequim, Armacost reposted and retweeted messages in which hostility to George Soros morphed into anti-Semitic rants. When motorcyclists gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Sturgis, S.D., in the summer of 2020, Armacost made the pilgrimage and refused to self-isolate afterward despite the fact that the event was the source of major Covid outbreaks around the country. When public health officials urged caution in the face of the Delta variant, he appeared at an October 2021 “Coffee with the Mayor” Zoom meeting and stated his opposition to more mandates, claiming to have access to better medical advice than did the county public health officer. At his hair salon, located in a semi-residential area just off Washington Street, a neon-pink sign on the door advertised “sexy” haircuts. Inside, the mayor, whom I saw working without a mask, attended to his equally unmasked clients.

During street protests, the mayor’s supporters weren’t averse to getting into physical tussles with opponents, those opponents allege. His ally on the city council, the aptly named Mike Pence, was caught on a hot mic at the end of an April 2021 Zoom council meeting having a discussion with his wife, in which she referred to a female opponent, the outspoken 72-year old progressive organizer Karen Hogan, as a “cunt.”

But perhaps Armacost’s most egregious act was orchestrating the forced resignation of the popular—and extremely competent—city manager, Charlie Bush, after Bush criticized him for urging the listeners of a local radio show in August 2020 to check out the QAnon conspiracy theory.

What ostensibly sealed Bush’s fate was that he had followed city rules on zoning and permitting, and as a result hadn’t nixed the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe’s efforts to build a medication-assisted treatment center for opioid addicts—an important intervention in a county that posted some of the highest addiction and overdose rates in the state. Opponents, marshaled by a nurse named Jodie Wilke—who lived not in Sequim but in a nearby town—into a group named Save Our Sequim, or SOS, argued that the treatment center was part of a conspiracy by Seattle and other big cities to dump their homeless and addicted populations into small communities like Sequim. Backed by the mayor and several other councillors, they descended on council meetings to air their views. (Wilke ignored multiple interview requests for this article.)

On SOS’s Facebook page, opposition to the tribe’s plans frequently degenerated into barrages of racial slurs. Vicki Lowe, the executive director of the American Indian Health Commission for Washington State and a recently elected Sequim city councillor, who traces her lineage to tribal ancestors as well as to pioneer stock, recalls hearing phrases such as “Indian idiots” and “playing cowboys and Indians.” She once called out SOS at a council meeting by holding up a series of cardboard signs displaying racist phrases uttered by the group—discarding them one by one à la Bob Dylan in the music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

For two years, Armacost ran Sequim like his personal fiefdom, at one time subjecting people who called his city council phone line to a recorded message advertising herbal remedies (“in a capsule or gummy form”) that he was selling on the side. Armacost’s power was magnified by the Independent Advisory Association, a local group run by two longtime conservative operatives, Donnie Hall and Jim McIntire, with a Roger Stone–style take-no-prisoners approach. The IAA claimed to be nonpartisan, but locals recall that it would turn local political events into spectacles by red-baiting opponents and accusing critics of being outside agitators. When city council seats opened up, as they did three times in the early days of the Armacost mayorship, the IAA reportedly groomed potential appointees to be selected by the mayor and his colleagues. As the pandemic intensified, it tapped into public anger over lockdowns in order to Trumpify government offices along the peninsula.

When I visited Sequim, both members of the IAA team either declined to be interviewed or ignored my attempts to contact them. But I know that they received my messages: Shortly after I reached out to them, they or their allies doxxed me, posting my e-mail address, phone number, and photograph on Facebook, noting when I was in town, and urging their supporters to call and tell me exactly what they thought of me and The Nation.

After I e-mailed Hall for comment, he sent a long message explaining why he would not agree to be interviewed. He argued that the IAA was just “two guys and a website” and that the organization only wanted to promote independent, nonpartisan candidates for office. I suggested in response that there was a power struggle taking place on the peninsula, of which the IAA was a part. “I can’t stop laughing,” Hall wrote back. “Your premises are so out of alignment with reality.”

Yet a power struggle there most assuredly was. Armacost’s ascent to the mayorship was a red flag. All around Sequim, residents—whether they had previously been apolitical or had long been involved in political organizations and protests—reacted in horror to his bullying persona and far-right antics. “It was so raucous, and some of the statements were so ugly,” says Lisa Dekker, a member of the local chapter of Indivisible. “It shocked the progressive community.”

In the spring of 2021, several concerned residents formed the Sequim Good Governance League (SGGL) with the initial goal of defending City Manager Charlie Bush from Armacost’s plan to force his retirement. Once that ship had sailed, they expanded their focus to fielding qualified candidates and exorcising the QAnon demons from their midst.

“All these conservative people snuck onto the city council when nobody opposed them,” says Ron Richards, a rugged 77-year-old onetime Clallam County commissioner who lives in a ranch house at the base of the Olympic Mountains and regularly hikes miles up into the snows for exercise. “And then they appointed their friends to government. It resulted in the most right-wing people you could imagine running the city of Sequim.” Horrified, Richards got involved in the SGGL.

“It became apparent we had a city council that needed to be replaced,” says Dale Jarvis, a retiree from the Seattle area who relocated to Clallam County three years ago. “We needed to get them out. We started organizing.”

Clallam County’s fissures were a long time in the making. The region contains some of the most beautiful, dramatic landscapes in the United States. Its mountains—inhabited by bears and cougars—and coastline draw retirees from around the country, as well as a constant stream of day tourists and backcountry hikers looking to explore Olympic National Park. At the same time, it is home to many impoverished families, blue-collar residents who used to work in the Northwest’s thriving timber industry until a combination of overharvesting and stricter environmental protections drove the industry into the ground in the 1990s.

The county’s small cities all have charming old downtowns that draw in tourists from around the country and the world. New arrivals look to set down roots in a place where, behind the cold, misty veneer, there is natural beauty in abundance. There are many huge ranch-style houses, their picture windows offering spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains, snow-covered for half the year. It’s no wonder so many retirees—many bringing with them liberal political priorities from states like California—have moved into the region over the past decade.

But in recent years, Clallam County has gained a reputation for having some of the highest rates of opioid use and overdoses in the state. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that between 2006 and 2012, Clallam County residents popped 37,838,060 pain pills, which averages out to a staggering 76.6 pills per person per year. Between 2012 and 2016, the yearly opioid overdose rate in the county was 16.5 per 100,000 residents.

These catastrophic numbers led the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe to propose building its drug treatment clinic, which was modeled on a similar clinic opened up by a nearby tribe, the Swinomish, in 2017. “It was very successful,” Vicki Lowe says of the Swinomish clinic. “So, of course, Jamestown was like, ‘We want to do that too.’” In 2019 and 2020, the tribe went through all of the correct permitting processes and ended up getting approval for the project from the city manager.

But this triggered the Save Our Sequim–orchestrated backlash led by Wilke, as well as a slew of racist tirades against the tribe at council meetings and protests. “They posted things on Facebook every hour, trying to keep the anger up,” Lowe recalls. “It was very impressive. People who didn’t like that, who wanted to see the facility, we had to figure out how to organize.”

In 2020, Clallam County went for Biden by just over three percentage points. Yet that didn’t put the brakes on the slide into political chaos that had begun after Armacost’s election and the chance series of events that, over the course of a few months, had led to several ultraconservatives being appointed to the city council—and then forming, with Armacost, a 4-2 voting bloc. In early 2021, even as Biden was beginning his presidency, the little city of Sequim—despite nearly 60 percent of its voters having supported Biden—slid toward far-right governance.

Had it happened elsewhere on the peninsula, the capture of a city government by the far right might not have been so surprising. After all, Clallam County counts among its three cities the ultraconservative community of Forks—where a mixed-race family on a camping trip was accused of being antifa at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 and was trapped for several hours until high school students cut the trees being used to pen them in at their campsite. Residents had been on high alert for the previous several days after BLM demonstrations spread across the country. That same day in the more liberal Sequim, a city of only 8,000, a BLM protest drew hundreds of people. The protesters were met by camo-wearing, gun-toting militias egged on by Seth Larson, a local gun store owner who used Facebook and other social media to spread disinformation about BLM and to sow fears of an antifa-sympathizing mob of looters descending on the peninsula, moving from Sequim on to Forks.

But Sequim had, in recent elections, looked more like the progressive hub of Port Angeles—a fishing and logging town, population 20,000, from which ferries depart daily, their foghorns blaring as they set off to Victoria, British Columbia—than like conservative Forks.

That wasn’t enough, however, to buy immunity from the corrosive politics roiling the country. Both Sequim and Port Angeles experienced political upheavals in the Trump era. And in 2021, even the usually reliably true-blue Port Angeles found itself caught up in many of the same battles around public health and the future of the local economy that were reshaping politics in neighboring Sequim. City Councillor Lindsey Schromen-Warwin, an Oberlin- and Gonzaga-educated attorney and an avid hiker and wilderness camper, had been elected during a local progressive wave in 2017 but found himself in a tough brawl for reelection against an IAA-backed candidate. Schromen-Warwin squeaked to victory with a tiny margin. “In 2017,” he says, “I’d gotten the most votes of any city council member since 2005. In this last race, I won by 104 votes—which is way too close for comfort when your opponent is the person with a bullhorn trying to shut down the county health commissioner’s forum.”

Jefferson County, Clallam’s next-door neighbor, has historically been solidly blue. The brick warehouses and canneries that once lined the waterfront of its one sizable city, the Victorian-era Port Townsend, have recently been converted into bookstores, art galleries, and restaurants, and the city has long been a bohemian refuge for artists escaping the crowds and prices of big West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco. But Clallam County’s progressives had not solidified their position in the way their Jefferson counterparts had. The QAnon movement had made inroads into Clallam County during the Trump years, and, despite showing up for national elections, local Democrats were slow off the mark when it came to local politics. They didn’t field comprehensive slates of candidates for city council and other regional offices, apparently not realizing until late in the day just how much of an electoral threat the extremists had become.

“It does have a national ramification,” says Bruce Cowan, a retired elementary school teacher. Cowan lives in Port Townsend and has followed local politics in both Jefferson and Clallam counties since he moved there in 1977; in his retirement, he does volunteer consulting for progressive political campaigns. “Folks who don’t believe in government—populists, people who don’t have faith in the institutions of governance—shouldn’t be in charge of the government. One of the things that happened in Sequim is that people were not engaged enough to see how important it was to find candidates for city council. Now they understand the importance.”

Faced with the very real prospect of QAnoners consolidating power over all tiers of city and county government, the SGGL got busy. Progressive candidates were recruited to run for office; moderate conservatives, such as City Councillor Brandon Janisse, were wooed as voices to counter the IAA; dozens of volunteers were trained to do the on-the-ground grunt work that can make the difference between a painful election loss and a head-turning win.

For concerned locals like Lowell Rathbun, an engineer by training, it had become increasingly difficult to sit on the fence in 2020 and 2021. With city councillors waging war on the county’s public health department and targeted protests occurring against individuals in that department, this was, they felt, a fight about civic decency.

This past May, Rathbun filed to run for the city council. Then, throughout the summer and fall, with backing from the SGGL and its growing cadre of canvassers, postcard writers, and other volunteers, he got to work. “We organized. I broke the town down into 54 neighborhoods, and we worked every one of those neighborhoods,” Rathbun recalls over a beer and mozzarella sticks at the local Applebee’s.

Volunteers would get up in the middle of the night to send out e-mail blasts. They’d drive around town putting up scores of signs for SGGL candidates. Above all, they’d talk with people. For months on end, door-knocking was the chief tool that the organization—known to its founders as “the little engine that could”— relied on.

On the night of the election, it became clear that the organizing had paid off. In one race after another—for city council, for the local school board, for hospital commissioners—SGGL candidates swept aside their IAA-backed opponents.

“When it turned out to be two-to-one,” Rathbun remembers, his reaction was visceral: “Holy crap! We kicked butt.”

SOS, the IAA, Armacost, and the other conservatives had, for two years, told everyone who would listen that they represented the silent majority of the county, that their brand of divide-and-conquer politics was the only brand worth selling. But, says McGuire, the former Library of Congress researcher, “At the election we proved it: They are not the majority.”

When the votes were counted, they showed that the SGGL-backed candidates had ridden a wave of genuine popular fury against the faux populists aligned with Armacost. In Sequim, the five SGGL candidates for city council—Rathbun, Janisse, Vicki Lowe, Kathy Downer, and Rachel Anderson—all got between 65 and 70 percent of the vote. Both hospital commissioners’ positions in the county went to SGGL candidates, as did the fire commission and school district posts up for election last year.

It wasn’t so much that a given ideology triumphed—Iraq War veteran and county jail control-room technician Brandon Janisse’s conservative leanings are, for example, a far cry from the liberal politics of the tattooed, partly head-shaved Rachel Anderson or the longtime tribal health administrator Vicki Lowe—as it was that people’s better angels burst to the surface. The electorate in Sequim finally put the kibosh on Armacost and the Trumpian, QAnonist threat to civic well-being that he and his colleagues embodied.

“Four of the SGGL candidates are left-leaning. I’m right-leaning,” Janisse says. “But they endorsed me because of how I think government should be run at the local level. We’re worried about ‘Are the roads paved? Are the alleys good? Do you have sidewalks? Are the sewers not spraying leaks everywhere?’”

For Dr. Berry, as the tide turned against the vocal right-wingers who had held Sequim hostage through 2020 and 2021, her correspondence from residents shifted from a daily barrage of threats to something rather different. At some point last fall, a contingent of elderly people began writing letters to her and her public health colleagues expressing how much they appreciated the public health staff. Anonymous residents would swing by the office and leave bouquets of flowers. “A good thing happened: There was a counterresponse in the community,” Berry recalls with a smile. “It was incredibly heartening.”

On January 11, Armacost was voted out of the mayorship by his fellow city councillors, the majority of whom had been endorsed by the SGGL in the recent elections. The only councillor to vote in favor of Armacost remaining as mayor was Armacost himself. The ousted mayor, his firebrand politics having been firmly rejected by the electorate, was replaced by Tom Ferrell, a somewhat conservative but non-QAnon-supporting longtime member of the council, who had been nominated by both Downer and Rathbun. Janisse was elected as his deputy.

For the SGGL-backed candidates now in the majority, it represents a new beginning, a chance to restore competent, get-things-done local government. “We have issues here,” says Lowe. “Housing issues. We have to work on bringing our community back together.” For Downer, a nurse who served as a city councillor in the little town of Marietta, Ohio, before retiring and moving to Sequim to be near her children, her role in city governance in her new home means that she, too, can focus on affordable housing. “When you can’t find housing for your nurses, policemen, firemen, and teachers—that’s a horrific situation,” she says. Rathbun, who was widowed suddenly during the campaign and has since thrown his heart and soul into his political work, wants to focus on housing as well. But after being the target of death threats, he is at least as desperate to restore faith in the basic workings of the democratic system and to find a way to dial down the fear and invective that saturates the social-media-dominated political discourse. “I would like to see a healing in this town. We can’t have red and blue Sequim. We have to have Sequim Sequim—and somehow start talking to each other about what we have in common.” Janisse, with his blue-collar roots, wants to focus on affordable housing and on changing zoning regulations to encourage the building of more high-density, multifamily units. And 31-year-old Rachel Anderson, a Head Start volunteer who was appointed to the council in early 2021 (Armacost was apparently unaware of her liberal political leanings), wants to focus more on children’s issues, as well as on affordable housing and local health safety measures.

“I think we’ll be more productive and actually make decisions that mean something,” Anderson says of the SGGL’s victory, “instead of saying, ‘We don’t like this.’

“I feel like there’s a lot more middle ground,” she continued. “I can only hope that, with a change in local leadership, there’s a change in the local political climate. I’ve worked with kids a lot, and a lot of the time during council meetings, it felt like children throwing a tantrum. Now, with the change in leadership, it feels like I’m having an adult conversation.”

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