The Owner of Two Pot Shops Won a City Council Seat in a Conservative, Rural Town

The marijuana industry is starting to win real political power.

Kennewick City Council candidate Steve Lee’s campaign ad on the side of a Ben Franklin Transit bus, the bus system for the state of Washington. Photo: Steve Lee

Washington state has a reputation for being progressive, but the southeastern portion of the state is known to be quite conservative.

It’s there that you will find the small town of Kennewick. The county where Kennewick resides — Benton — was swept by President Donald Trump, with nearly 60 percent of voters backing his bid. And while the state legalized marijuana after a voter referendum, Benton County has been skeptical. They also recently voted for a six-month moratorium on new cannabis production and processing within the county. Many neighboring cities have barred marijuana businesses indefinitely.

But all this didn’t stop 33-year-old Steve Lee, the co-owner of two local marijuana shops, from running for city council and defeating an incumbent in early November. He received 7,138 votes to incumbent Gregory Jones’s 5,351.

In a phone interview with The Intercept, Lee described the town as “super conservative” and said that he saw himself as a “long shot” when he began his race. But he had cut his teeth in politics working for Obama for America in 2007, so he had an organizing skillset he knew he could apply to a local race.

Given the area’s anti-marijuana politics, questions about Lee’s business frequently popped up during public forums and debates. “That was the big thing in our community, there was sort of a little bit of a whisper campaign about [marijuana],” Lee noted. “People were afraid that I was running to turn over our area’s ban, sort of force cannabis businesses on our conservative community where our community didn’t want them.”

But he eventually won his district over by practicing good, old-fashioned retail politics: showing up at events, talking to people, hearing them out, and recruiting them to his agenda.

Lee joked that he made his campaign less about his “evil cannabis agenda,” than a contrast between himself and the incumbent. Jones was chief financial officer at the Hanford nuclear reservation, a local Superfund site.

In his campaign literature, Lee noted that his business wasn’t that different from any business — and that it contributed to the local economy. His website notes that his business Green2Go “has since created over 30 fulltime positions with full benefits, contributed $65,000 in local charitable giving, generated over $500,000 in local tax revenue and $2,200,000 in state tax revenue.”

“It was sort of like, billion-dollar-budget-federal guy versus hometown, small-business owner, so it was really the effort to push the narrative in that direction, and that definitely took,” he said of his campaign.

Lee thinks his race should inspire other millennials to take the plunge and run for office, even if they don’t think they stand a chance. “We’re famously not a financially very well-endowed generation,” he conceded about his age cohort. “No matter how much monetary backing you have behind your race, it’s about relationships. I’ve spent years making good relationships with people and doing right by people.”

Now that he has been elected, he plans to work on increasing city council transparency. For instance, he wants to make sure all city council meetings are livestreamed on YouTube, something nearby cities do but Kennewick does not.

Top photo: Kennewick City Council candidate Steve Lee’s campaign ad on the side of a Ben Franklin Transit bus, the bus system for the state of Washington.

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