Seattle and King County voters have a rare opportunity in local elections to break decisively with the past. I already have cast my mail ballot accordingly.
Neither outgoing Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels nor former King County Executive Ron Sims, now Deputy HUD Secretary, will be on the ballot. Neither will outgoing Seattle City Council member Jan Drago, Nickels' most effective ally on the council. The policies associated with them — that is, massive public works projects and unsustainable budget expansions — simply cannot be continued in the present period of economic and public budget distress. The policies will be easier to change with new leadership at city and county level.
In a perfect world all our local and county candidates would have gotten A or B college-level grades in introductory economics or public finance courses. Too many of our previous elected officials have seemed to lack even elemental knowledge of these subjects. The order of the day for state, county, and local elected officials has for the past decade been (to paraphrase the FDR-era statement) "tax-and-spend, borrow-and-spend, spend-and elect." We can't do that anymore and must make deliberate choices about what we truly must do and how we can pay for it.
At the outset of the Seattle mayoral and King County executive races, the choices between candidates seemed difficult. But as we near election day they have clarified, at least for me.
Mayor: Neither Joe Mallahan nor Mike McGinn entered the Seattle mayoral race with the experience we might have wished. McGinn, emerging from the primary season, seemed the savvier, most instinctive candidate. Moreover, he had been actively involved in local causes over several years. Mallahan, by contrast, displayed huge gaps in his knowledge of city issues and had a long record of not voting in local elections. His primary-campaign operation was stiff and unprofessional.
McGinn reached the November finals by riding a wave of grassroots opposition to the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He pledged to stop it. Mallahan, by contrast, said he considered it "a settled issue," as per the state-county-local agreement to proceed accordingly.
On another major transportation issue, the Mercer Project — designed by Nickels/Drago to meld with Vulcan Inc.'s South Lake Union development plans — the candidates also differed. Mallahan said it should be set aside completely in the current economic and budget environment. McGinn fudged, implying support if costs could be contained.
McGinn, who objected to the cost of a deep-bore tunnel, surprisingly advocated extension of Sound Transit light rail into several Seattle neighborhoods that it is not now scheduled to reach. (The present three-county light rail plan already calls for upwards of $23 billion in regressive tax increases — $5 billion more than the infamous Boston Big Dig — and McGinn's proposed Seattle extensions would lift the tab even higher).
At two Crosscut editorial luncheons, McGinn hedged carefully on both the deep-bore tunnel and light-rail extensions. If elected mayor, he said, he would stick to his pledges to stop the tunnel and extend light rail. However, if community opinion was divided, he said, he would send both matters to the ballot and then abide by voters' decisions. He also sent an important signal that he might as mayor compete with Tim Eyman as a ballot-measure champion. He said he took pride in having supported all recent revenue-raising levies, initiatives, and other ballot measures. As mayor, he said, he would be likely to resort to them frequently.
Both candidates made important switches in their primary-season positions. Mallahan — within hours of naming a downtown-establishment campaign advisory committee, including lawyers and others deriving income from the Mercer Project, Sound Transit light rail, and related big-ticket schemes — reversed himself on the Mercer Project and said he would proceed with it, but with an eye toward cost containment.
McGinn undertook an even more dramatic reversal — in fact, a defining one — earlier this week when he suddenly announced that if elected he would not oppose a deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct but would support the state-county-city agreement to do it. In a split second he walked away from what had been his cornerstone issue in the campaign.
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