Nice guy finishes first, winning fans for Olympia reports
After 30 years covering the Capitol, outlasting every other reporter and legislator who was here when he arrived in July 1971, The Associated Press' David Ammons is sure to be disappointed in what the Capitol wags - as he'd call them - have to say about him.
"He is just a hell of a nice guy," said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro.
"You can't find anybody who disrespects him, and you can't find anyone who dislikes him," said Denny Heck, a former Democratic legislator and governor's chief of staff. "Name one other person for whom that's the truth."
In most places that would have to make a guy feel pretty good. But there's something about reporters, like relief pitchers and military strongmen, that makes them squirm just a bit about being too nice.
"I don't know if I want to be called nice or not," Ammons said the other day.
In interviewing people who have known him over the years, they often lapsed into the past tense, accustomed to saying only nice things about the dearly departed or soon-to-be-retired.
Along with nice, Ammons, 52, is praised for his fairness and knowledge of state government and politics.
There is an unusual earnestness about him. He lacks the cynicism and cold heart that many politicians figure are as much a part of newspaper work as a pen and notebook.
"There are absolutely stellar people here and rogues and liars and people you'd trust your first-born to," he said. "I like politicians. I think they're interesting people."
When writing about them, he usually avoids any personal details that the subject might be embarrassed by. Short, fat, bald pols don't have to worry that Ammons will tell.
He made that policy early in his career after a newly appointed senator was unhappy to read an Ammons story that called her "middle-aged." She was 38.
"She was really quite hurt," he says.
Ammons is likely the most religious member of the press corps, but after eight years, we didn't know it until we started interviewing people for this column. He's also a trustee of the state Historical Society.
His daughter, Jennifer, 23, graduated from Duke University and is in Americorps. Son Jonathan, 20, is at Evergreen.
"He makes it clear that he is a member of the community here," said Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
The political source
Ammons is the AP's Olympia political writer. The AP is a news service that provides stories for newspapers and radio and TV stations. A lot of what people in Washington know about state politics comes through Ammons.
"He is the only institutional memory left in the press corps," says Gordon Schultz, who competed against Ammons as manager of the UPI bureau in Olympia.
Ammons writes mostly straight-ahead coverage of the daily goings-on in Olympia. He's not an investigative reporter and stays away from the thumb-suckers and 20,000-foot fly-overs that really aren't meant to be read by real people.
Each weekend, though, he writes his political column. That's a chance for a little sass and analysis. He says that's the best part of the job.
When Ammons arrived in Olympia with his University of Washington communications degree, the press corps was dominated by cantankerous, hard-drinking, tough-talking types. They'd hang out and drink with lawmakers and eat in their private dining room.
"It was very incestuous," he says. "I didn't quite get it. I didn't really challenge it because everyone was doing it. I was green for sure. Naive probably. But it seemed to me the way to do journalism was to stay independent."
He took that to an absurd length, he says now. He refused to talk to lobbyists, thinking they somehow dirtied the process and would pollute his mind.
He gave up that bit of purity. It was just too cynical.
He doesn't always get along with the people he covers. There was a time in the mid-80's when lawmakers were trying to find a way to raise taxes to get more money to send to local governments.
One day a group of lawmakers met in an office building in SeaTac. Ammons was the only reporter there.
The meeting took place behind closed doors. But from the waiting room, where he sat patiently, Ammons could hear what was going on. Inside, lawmakers agreed on what the tax increase would be and discussed the timing and strategy of getting it passed by the full Legislature.
When the lawmakers emerged, though, they told Ammons there was no agreement.
"My mouth fell open because I heard them cut the deal," he says.
An eternal optimist
He didn't tell them he knew differently. But he found the closest phone and called in his scoop as he had heard it through the walls.
Legislators were angry, said he had jumped the gun. There were angry phone calls. One lawmaker called him a "garbage reporter."
"I thought they should be calling me to apologize for lying to me," Ammons says.
Lawmakers then did precisely what Ammons had reported they would do.
"It took me a long time to trust them again."
He shocked reporters and others during Gov. Mike Lowry's sexual-harassment troubles with very direct questions about the governor's personal life. Some thought the nice guy had gone too far.
But nice is still the word that sticks to Ammons.
Schultz said he remembers when Ammons started his tradition of giving the Legislature a grade each year.
"Many of us thought he was a pretty easy grader," he said. "He was always the eternal optimist."
Clearly Ammons knows that people wonder if he's just too nice.
"I think journalism is a very human endeavor and each of us bring who we are to the job," he says. "There is a place for people like me and a place for the ankle biters. I don't see any reason to be snotty or impertinent."
Inside Politics is written by chief political reporter David Postman, with contributions from government and political reporters.