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Very stormy weather

Green River Valley: warnings on the flood plain Credit: King County

We are living in the calm before the political storm. The world always seems to speed up after Labor Day, but this year the pace may resemble a hurricane. Wide-open campaigns, policy mega-battles, and possible flooding and flu crises will all impact in the last quarter of 2009. Enjoy the last lazy days of summer while you can!

The nation’s attention is already focused on the battle over health care, but wait until Congress returns to work in September. The news coverage, ads, and internet warfare will triple in intensity. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the focus is on the public option. Liberals in the House and the blogosphere have made it clear that they believe a health care bill without a public option is not worth passing; while moderate Democrats in the Senate are signaling that such a bill will never get the necessary 60 votes in the upper house. Compromise doesn’t seem possible at this point. Business and conservative groups will face off with unions, liberals, and the Obama administration in a no-holds-barred, winner-take-all, multi-million dollar battle that will probably end, one way or the other, by Christmas.

Almost as momentous and expensive will be the fight over cap-and-trade energy legislation. Again, the Senate is the battleground, and moderates hold the key. Can Democrats from rust belt states, coal mining states, and the South really be persuaded to support a massive back-door tax on energy? In the middle of a recession?

The Obama presidency won’t be doomed if the public option and cap-and-trade fail to pass. If the normal trends of the business cycle prevail and the economy recovers before 2012, Obama will probably be re-elected. But like Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama will have lost his chance to become the historic liberal change-agent he aspires to be. Republicans will likely eat into the Democrats’ huge congressional majorities in 2010. Obama’s moment is now.

Here at home we are going to be treated to the most wide-open, competitive, and interesting campaigns for the region’s two major offices in a generation. In the King County Executive’s race the question will be, can we get past personalities and stereotypes and actually talk about issues? Susan Hutchison will talk about change, and try to brand King County Councilmember Dow Constantine as a status quo courthouse hack. Constantine will try to pigeonhole Hutchison as a scary Republican extremist. Will we be treated to commercials of Hutchison’s face morphing into the smiling visage of George W. Bush? Here’s hoping the media and the voters force these two to do more than just throw around clichés and call each other names. County government is at a turning point and we need and deserve a debate about real county issues.

With the departure of Mayor Greg Nickels, (not a surprise to those of us who read polls for a living), the exact opposite situation exists in the Seattle mayor’s race. Prior to the primary, Greg Nickels was the issue. Now the debate will be between two rookie politicians still introducing themselves to the public. Issues and policy should be front and center as Seattle enters into a dialogue about its future. Joe Mallahan is a business executive; Mike McGinn is an environmental activist. This ought to be interesting.

While all this public-policy warfare will be interesting, what may end up capturing the headlines this fall is a virus and a river.

Remember the swine flu? Experts expect it to come back big time when our kids head back to school. School districts and the state are already discussing protocols for how and when to close schools.

And then there is the ticking time bomb of the Howard Hanson dam and Green River flooding. Damage to the dam may force the Army Corp of Engineers to intentionally release enough water to over-top the valley’s system of dikes and levies. We are not talking about our typical urban flooding nuisance this winter; we’re talking about unprecedented amounts of water filling up a big part of urban King County. City and county official are urging those of us who live in the Green River Valley to purchase flood insurance and make plans to evacuate. Yes, it is that serious, and local officials I have talked to are concerned that not enough people are paying attention.

A swine flu epidemic that closes schools and forces tens of thousands of parents to alter work and daycare plans; a flood that causes evacuations, deaths, and water and power outages throughout south King County — these are the types of events that galvanize public attention and form lasting impressions regarding politicians. Either of these events would put massive pressure on Gov. Gregoire, our new County Executive, and local officials. How they perform could make or break their careers.

Just ask Greg Nickels how that grade-B snowstorm response turned out for him.

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