by Kirby Lindsay
Nearly anyone who knows anything about the neighborhood of Fremont knows the Honorary Mayor of Fremont to be Armen Stepanian. Decades after Stepanian moved to Ocean Shores, Washington, mythic stories his legendary deeds have firmly established him in Fremont history.
Honorary Mayors of Fremont
Yet, in an interview with Stepanian, he revealed that he actually stands as the fifth mayor of Fremont. Back issues of the North Central Outlook (available at the Fremont Public Library) do reveal an announcement, in February 7, 1947, of the Fremont Old Timers association election of Thomas W. Lough, of Winslow, Bainbridge Island, as Mayor of Fremont.
The second sentence in the brief notice referred to the position as honorary. The notice made no mention of Mr. Lough’s connection to the neighborhood, although Stepanian recalled Lough as a fire official, and that another former mayor, from the 1920’s or 30’s, served as a State Representative. The position, bestowed as a tribute or award, seems to have been distributed arbitrarily, with characteristic Fremont casualness – and lack of paperwork.
Stepanian didn’t achieve his title so easily, but by 1973 nothing in Fremont came easy.
The Fremont U.S.A. newspaper sponsored an election, as a blatant publicity stunt intended to spark interest and boost public opinion of the area. According to Stepanian, Greg Click, the paper’s publisher, “thought it would give us a jolt.”
Stepanian described Fremont of the early 1970’s as “a comatose lady who had her day but is down in her cups.” Our small business district consisted mostly of 11 taverns that earned us the nickname Tavern Town, Washington. “The druggies were preying on the hippies,” Stepanian explained, and nothing was done about it since the victims didn’t want to talk to the authorities.
The infant mortality rate in Fremont was the second worst in the city, Stepanian went on. It wasn’t the babies but the rampant drug abuse by young, disinterested pregnant or nursing women. The police, too accustomed to problems here, lost interest and focused on simply keeping the filth from spreading to neighboring ‘nice’ communities. General public opinion of Fremont was to let it sink.
Candidates For Fremont
“Elect Armen – He’s a resident carpenter. He shoots straight and on the level.” Stepanian agreed to run as the newspaper’s candidate, although being bearded and roughly dressed he appeared to be a joke. Fremont U.S.A. ran the election with no official authority, yet people responded.
The primary listed 36 human candidates on the ballot, and one dog. Tommy McAuley, owner of Tommy’s Joint (“almost a restaurant” according to Stepanian) ran, but someone also signed up Tommy’s dog, a Black Labrador nicknamed “Blackie II” for the election. Mel “Blackie” Black, art gallery owner, also ran in the primary along with local landowner Al Linden, A-1 Litho owner Robert Helena, and Model City staff member Bob Cronn.
These six men – minus the dog – made it through the primary and participated in a public debate held before the final election. Voters needed to do nothing to prove their eligibility to vote and wild accusations flew, including one about Stepanian bussing in voters from Ballard. An examination of votes did reveal one irregularity – a family of four people registered five votes because they’d counted their family dog. Stepanian gave his closest competitor the dog’s vote – and still won. The North Central Outlook for March 7, 1973 reported Stepanian taking the election at 238 votes, over 200 gained by Helena.
As newly elected Honorary Mayor, Stepanian heard a mandate - “Do all the good you can, and don’t expect to get paid.” He threw his considerable, and not inconsequential, energy into neighborhood rescue, and revitalization. He attended City meetings, issued challenges to Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and talked to the media every chance he got. “Anything that had any kind of humor,” Stepanian used to draw positive attention to our neighborhood concerns, anything “with something besides death and mayhem.”
Legacy of Fremont’s ‘Last’ Mayor
Perhaps we are overdue for another election, but until the neighborhood replaces him - Stepanian remains Mayor here. Certainly, he’d be a tough act to follow. While he didn’t single-handedly change the course of Fremont, it did change after he took a ceremonial title and put it into action.
In 1972, the Fremont Street Fair began as a sidewalk sale, held in April. As Mayor, Stepanian helped promote and build the event, which hosted 184 booths the year he ‘took office.’ Yet, the night before the Fair the Fremont Hotel (once located at 3415 Fremont Ave N - current location of Starbucks and Willow & Bloom) burned down. Fair attendance increased, even as Stepanian rebuffed accusations that he had started the fire to promote the event.
He also rebuffed those folks who came up and told him, “Hey, Mayor, you know what you should do?” Stepanian would hand them his mayoral business card, with a statement on the back that roughly said, ‘If you have a suggestion, please write it down, give specific details and tell me how you would like to help.’ He cannot recall receiving a single written suggestion.
Stepanian worked tirelessly for years, on Fremont, his mission as the Christopher Columbus of recycling and supporting the Fremont Public Association. For good or for bad, depending on whom you ask, Stepanian made waves and stirred things up here. He also proved, in Fremont, that sometimes even the smallest election - one that involved slash marks on a chalkboard to count ballots – can spark revolutionary changes.
©2010 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.