Joni Balter, the acerbic Seattle Times columnist, fleshed out a familiar lament about our logjammed local politics in a recent column. None of the top electeds is moving on or in danger of getting defeated. We're about to have Sims IV, Nickels III, Gregoire II, Murray IV, and Cantwell III. Little to be done, she says.
Oh no? I've got an idea.
First, let me add a few more reasons for the stuck up-escalator. Washington politics, a long way from the seats of power and the big national debates, no longer seems to produce national figures (though we do fine with business moguls). One reason they don't graduate to federal prominence is the solid-blue nature of the state. You can't win enough gratitude to get a cabinet appointment in return if the state has been in the Democratic sure-thing column all along.
A second reason is the way the parties have carved up their monopoly zones. Dems get big cities, Republicans stick to the suburbs. The only real fights are in borderlands. Where one party dominates for a long time, the political debate stagnates, and a challenger is doomed by apathetic voters. A third reason, stemming from the Boeing era, is a local tradition of returning incumbents to Congress year after year, so that they gain seniority to return lots of military pork.
Unlike Seattle, both Vancouver, B.C., and Portland are in the midst of wide-open races for mayor, in part because they have some interesting reform groups and informal urban parties. Vancouver has three lively "parties": the moderate Non Partisan Alliance, the liberal Vision Vancouver, and the leftist Coalition of Progressive Electors. In Seattle and San Francisco, where the Democrats run everything, the sitting mayors draw only fringe opponents.
Speaking of mayors, take a look at what New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had to say in announcing that he would not be running for president. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent declares he is going to be an advocate for trans-partisan problem solving, deciding later which candidate could best demonstrate that "an independent approach really can produce progress on the most critical issues, including the economy, education, the environment, energy, infrastructure and crime."
Here's Bloomberg, the voice of a determined, hopeful, level-with-the-public, independent politician:
Watching the 2008 presidential campaign, you sometimes get the feeling that the candidates — smart, all of them — must know better. They must know we can't fix our economy and create jobs by isolating America from global trade. They must know that we can't fix our immigration problems with border security alone. They must know that we can't fix our schools without holding teachers, principals and parents accountable for results. They must know that fighting global warming is not a costless challenge. And they must know that we can't keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals unless we crack down on the black market for them.
Therein lies my idea for attacking the local logjam: Create an independent movement and run independents in the key races. Not gadfly independents, but serious candidates who really want to be honest with the voters about the big problems and work with both parties to find solutions. That means a movement, with speakers, platforms, and bold ideas that the fat-and-happy politicians won't dare propose. It means an orchestrated appeal to the largest bloc of voters in the country, the independents. (A good current approximation of the nation is 40-34-24, the respective percentages for independents, Democrats, and Republicans.)
Both John McCain and Barack Obama strongly appeal to independent voters, and their likely contest will greatly stir up interest in a pragmatic centrist approach. So why not tap all that free publicity for the cause and start an Independent Party in the Northwest? The region is full of voters who are so inclined, and we are a region with weak party loyalties and strong civic-reform instincts. A new party may not topple incumbents right away, but this is a great time to start a movement, give good candidates a chance to run and change the debate, and to tap youthful impatience with the politics of stalemate and incumbency, as Obama (probably an independent-light) is doing.
The key in getting people to run as independents is for them to feel that they are not all alone and quixotic, but are part of an emerging party that might well take over from the imploding Republican Party. That's what happened in the 1850s, when the Whigs collapsed and a new party, the GOP, was formed. Disillusioned Whigs like Abraham Lincoln had a place to turn, the emerging Republican Party made up primarily of anti-slavery Whigs and Democrats, that soon became a major party and put him in the White House.
People leaving a party need somewhere to go, not just a fringe candidate to protest with. And that Party needs some big causes to rally around, such as global warming, a new foreign policy built around alleviating global poverty, and a new domestic urgency for dealing with urban problems in metro regions.
As for a name, how about the Salmon Party? A salmon navigates the poles of salt water and fresh, takes the fate of the earth as seriously as the fate of local rivers, and has a lot of kick. So let's schedule the first salmon-bake, and really inject a new force into local and national politics.
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