I just spent a 3-day weekend at the Roanoke. No, not the Roanoke Inn on Mercer Island, my favorite tavern.
I’m talking about The Roanoke Conference, an annual gathering held on the last weekend of January at Ocean Shores.
The Roanoke Conference is actually named after the Roanoke Inn. Why? Because the idea of the meeting originated on the front porch of the tavern.
In the late summer of 2008, three people — Steve Buri, Dan Brady and Julie Sund Nichols — met for beers at the Roanoke. Buri was then Deputy Mayor of Newcastle, but now lives on Mercer Island and is president of Discovery Institute. Brady and Nichols had been active in several Republican political campaigns. All were concerned about the lack of success of their preferred candidates in this state.
They had heard of the Dorchester Conference in Oregon, where conservatives gathered every year on the coast. Buri went to that conference in March 2009, and was impressed.
“We decided we needed something like it in this state” Buri said. In July 2009, he held a meeting at his home of about a dozen like-minded people. Many had worked for Sen. Slade Gorton or other Republican office-holders.
“That became the Continental Congress of The Roanoke Conference,” Buri said. “We named it after the place where the idea was born.”
That group became the founding board of the annual gathering.
Today, The Roanoke Conference has become a “must attend” event for conservatives in Washington state. This was the 15th year of the event. A sold-out crowd of 700 attendees packed the Ocean Shores Convention Center and all of the nearby hotels and motels.
The conference this year was especially energized because Republicans statewide strongly believe they have a chance of actually winning some elections in 2024. The agenda featured two keynote speakers, several major political candidates, six substantive panel discussions, four breakout sessions, and nonstop schmoozing from Friday to Sunday.
Roanoke’s organizers call it “an annual gathering of those who are Center-Right” in Washington state. That’s a pretty accurate description. The GOP has a range of viewpoints these days, from pro-Trump “MAGA” folks to “Never Trumpers.” I met many who support Nikki Haley. But this conference is not a Republican Party event.
“It’s a unique forum that doesn’t exist anywhere else, for everyone who considers themselves right-of-center,” said Buri. “It’s an opportunity for networking and relationship building. … Citizens can engage over a weekend that has a ‘retreat feel’ with their elected leaders.” He added that it also appeals to younger audiences, with evening receptions, parties, dancing and karaoke.
The conference focuses on state, county and local issues more than national or presidential politics.
“It’s always been a ‘Big Tent’ where Republicans from very conservative to liberal would feel welcome,” said Buri. “It is a place where everyone shares some core principles, but we don’t have to agree on everything.”
He added: “No one is paid. The conference is run by volunteers. It’s an incredible amount of work to put it together, but it’s become one of largest non-party gatherings in the U.S.”
Clearly many GOP candidates were there. Speakers included former Congressman Dave Reichert, who is running for governor; Dr. Raul Garcia, candidate for U.S. Senate; Pete Serrano, attorney general candidate; Jaime Herrera Beutler, running for public lands commissioner, and Chad Magendanz, a candidate for superintendent of public instruction. Many other candidates for local offices also came, along with current and former members of the state Legislature. Information tables were staffed by a wide range of nonprofits, think tanks, activist groups and small businesses.
If there was an overall theme to this year’s conference, it was: Individual responsibility is vital to our democratic society. Speaker after speaker focused on how citizens can and should step up to effect changes. Granted, this is a basic mantra of the Republican Party, but this year it was stressed more than ever.
Another clear lesson of this year’s gathering: Women are playing an increasingly dominant role. In a time when suburban women and “soccer moms” are pivotal voters, this is a significant development. In a party long dominated by males, women are ascendant. Consider:
• Half of the Roanoke board members are women, including Tessa Ester, board president (a new mother) and incoming president Kaitlin Vintertun of League of our Own (a licensed foster mother).
• Many of the Roanoke attendees were young women in their 20s and 30s. They are smart, savvy, organized, persistent and determined. All are gracious and engaging, but tough as nails.
• The two keynote speakers at Roanoke — Jennifer Sey and Elisha Krauss — were both women with national followings as conservative activists, writers, speakers and social-media influencers.
• A panel on Latino representation statewide was led by Maia Espinoza of the Center for Latino Leadership and included Gloria Mendoza, former mayor of Grandview, and Sen. Nikki Torres of the 15th Legislative District.
• A panel on the Addiction Crisis was moderated by Brandi Kruse, host of the UnDivided podcast and video program, and featured Ginny Burton, a former homeless drug addict who is now a recovery advocate and believes in more incarceration and mandatory treatment.
• Breakout sessions included one on child welfare led by Vintertun with Diana Carlen of Gordon Thomas Honeywell. One on the “War on Drivers” was moderated by Dana Quam of the House Republican Caucus in Olympia.
• A panel on the “Six Pack” of ballot initiatives that will be on the November ballot included Sally Poliak of Project 42, League of our Own, and the Steelhead Alliance. Brian Heywood of Let’s Go Washington, who led the initiative drive, was also on the panel and spoke at the Saturday night dinner.
• Many female state legislators or candidates attended, including Jacquelin Maycumber, Stephanie Barnard, Suzanne Schmidt, Stephanie McClintock and Judy Warnick.
• Congressional candidates Carmen Goers and Leslie Lewallen were there, plus Herrera Beutler, who is running for public lands commissioner.
• One of the evening’s awards was presented by Mariana Parks (full disclosure: my wife), former district director for Congressman Dave Reichert and former speechwriter for U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
Female speaker after speaker focused on how they had decided to step up and make a difference. In a post-“Me Too” era where more women are pushing back against misbehavior of men, these women are a powerful force. Many have active careers as elected officials, staff members, independent entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, media voices and business owners — as well as being wives and mothers. Granted, women have always exercised strong influences behind the scenes, but often avoided the limelight or watched men co-opt their ideas. Not anymore.
In a fiery keynote address on Saturday night, Elisha Krauss, a conservative speaker, writer, podcaster and radio talk-show host, summed up the mood of the gathering: “People are kind of over walking on eggshells. It’s time to stay and fight.” She echoed the theme of the entire conference: If not now, when? If not me, who?
Based on what I saw and heard at The Roanoke Conference this year, conservative women are stepping up to say: Yes, now. Yes, me.
And it all started over a couple of beers at the Roanoke Inn right here on Mercer Island.
John Hamer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former editorial writer/columnist for The Seattle Times and co-founder of the Washington News Council. He lives on Mercer Island with his wife, Mariana Parks. He writes this column regularly and posts frequently on Facebook.