The election season ending Tuesday seemed to me to be especially rich in meaning and positive developments. That's not immediately apparent, I concede. The races seemed unfocused and undramatic, especially with two major open seats (Seattle mayor and King County executive). I can think of two reasons for the seeming lack of drama: the absence of a full-team Post-Intelligencer to give the race dialectic tension, giving us our first one-newspaper-town election; and the dumb all-mail ballot, which means the last week of coverage is no longer a kind of dramatic climax, since so many have already cast their ballots.
Still, the whole election strikes me as a meaningful inflection point in our politics, a passing beyond a political order and agenda that had grown stale. Here are my reasons for optimism:
1. Lifting of the Nickels Cloud. Mayor Greg Nickels had installed a kind of numbing regime, servicing the usual constituent groups (labor, greens, developers, minorities, City Hall unions, human-services agencies, downtown interests, powerful lobbyists and law firms) in a notably crass way: You give me your loyalty and campaign support and I give you what you want. Similarly, Nickels and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis kept such a close watch over his department heads as to stifle originality or risk taking. It was badly out of sync with Seattle's public-interest political style, but nobody seemed to know how to get out of it. Thanks, voters!
2. Lots of Wake-up Calls. Let me count the ways: Sonics decamp, showing how incapable we are of mounting regional approaches; P-I stops printing, prompting a new crop to spring up; University of Washington learns how the Legislature never will be a trustworthy ally and starts looking for other cures; King County implodes; budget woes get a poster child (closing Seattle libraries); Port of Seattle faces up to its declining prospects; Seattle learns how much Olympia, especially Speaker Frank Chopp, wants to do it in; and Boeing plays local politicians and unions like a virtuoso, showing us what kind of a competitive world we really inhabit.
3. Legislative Shaping-up. The 2007 election was a watershed in this regard, tossing out the folks who were making the School Board, the Port, and the City Council zones of adolescent behavior, and replacing them with experienced moderates who know how to work together. (Nothing like this is happening at the King County Council, I concede.) More seems likely this election, examples being Sally Bagshaw for the City Council (a mediator trained in the Norm Maleng School of Decent Politics), Tom Albro for the Port (both a critic and a grown-up businessman), and Kay Smith-Blum on the School Board. Among the reasons this is a good thing: We're going to have to rely on the City Council to run things for the next year of on-the-job training for the new mayor.
4. New Politics, First Draft. Seattle and the region badly need a new narrative, especially since Nickels was so inward-focused that he never really supplied one, except for a little grandstanding on climate change. Credit Mike McGinn for getting one on the table — the sustainability and urban-walkability vision. Rep. Jay Inslee was saying the other day (with a loud amen chorus from Ron Sims) that climate change and creating the post-carbon economy is the closest thing he's seen to the civil rights revolution of 40 years ago. It's certainly appealing to young people, to global-economy workers, to idealists, to urban singles. Just look at Portland.
True, McGinn was a clumsy advocate, linking all this new stuff to a tired old debate about the Viaduct. And the new agenda lacked an experienced, popular advocate (such as Peter Steinbrueck). But it's clearly on the rise, and even if Mallahan wins, he'll probably steal all the best lines. Whether it has staying power (remember what happened to the bag tax) or can expand to ordinary urban concerns (police, schools, jobs) remains to be seen. But at least we have something more compelling than condo-craze or major-league status.
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