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What I liked about this election

Mayor Nickels bolted together a powerful political and financial coalition. Credit: Josh Trujillo, seattlepi.com

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.

5. Jessie Israel. Very spunky, very young, very practical. Israel challenged Nick Licata, artfully suggesting that Licata was missing a step or two after all those years on the City Council, by talking about getting things done, less fastidiousness about process, injecting new ideas into the system. I saw much the same what-are-we-waiting-for spirit in Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter, two very encouraging candidates for county executive. This is the coming mode, thanks to all the smart newcomers flooding into town, free of loyalties to the “Seattle way.”

6. Susan Hutchison. While the GOP elsewhere is purging moderates, she ran a race that was as if Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn had come back to local politics. She dissed Eyman, tepidly endorsed gay partnerships, and kept saying she should be judged by her bipartisan abilities to get things done and knock some sense into the complacent Democratic monopoly. A huge amount rides on whether the GOP can come back from its radicalized wilderness and start working on centrist legislation again. Hutchison and her advisers bravely tried to show such an approach could work.

7. The Implosion of King County. Ron Sims put up such a rhetorical fog machine that we failed to notice that the place is chronically broke, politically decadent, and obsolete. That may be the start of some real regional reshuffling of the deck, long overdue, and key to this metropolitan region’s regaining its economic competitive edge. Dow Constantine would try to apply soothing ointments, and Hutchison would be assaulted by the courthouse gang, so it’s a long way back. But at least we know we’ve got a big problem.

8. Shaking up the Local Media Scene. With the two dailies linked in a dance-of-death, all we were getting was endless whining essays from assorted Blethens. Now the Times is rebuilding itself and Seattlepi.com has shown a lot of staying power, even with a much smaller staff. (It may be that we now are a three-newspaper town, with King5.com as the third “daily.”) On the Web side, it’s been encouraging as well. Publicola.net is giving The Stranger some competition for the young urbanist crowd, as well as lots of good inside-baseball political reporting. There’s plenty of debate, though mostly all in the same liberal, density-hugging mindset, among hugeasscity.com, the Slog, Seattletransitblog.com, and HorsesAss.org. Very good sites have sprung up for technology (TechFlash.com and Xconomy.com). Much less happening on the conservative or centrist side, or on the Eastside. Also encouraging is the drift to nonprofit, public-interest models, which promises to make local media more community controlled; an example aside (ahem) from Crosscut, is Sightline.org, a sustainability think tank for Cascadia. As for the for-profit side, I think at least larger dailies have found a new formula: lower circulation, higher subscription rates, more elite audiences for print, and breadth (probably with some paid content) for their Web versions.

9. The Decline of Real-Estate Politics. For the last 10 years, extending back to the Schell administration, Seattle politics has really been fueled by the real estate boom. All those condos translate into real estate excise taxes for City Hall, as well as funding for campaigns and many of the pro-density environmental groups that have joined the party. It’s been very distorting (to use a polite term), and this galloping boom has created huge problems in rapid gentrification and high housing costs. (And did I mention WaMu?) Now we have a breather, a chance for broader agendas to return. One reason for the fall of Mayor Nickels, I believe, was that he didn’t translate all this development into visible public goods, and those he did, such as the SLUT, which was supposed to include turning Westlake Avenue into a leafy boulevard, ended up very compromised.

10. The Tunnel Coalition Held Together. I’m not sure it will survive the next four years of an inexperienced mayor, not to mention the 20-30 years for the final completion of the waterfront park, but it’s good that it made it through the election season, got a 9-0 City Council vote (Licata must have calculated that he needed to go along if he hoped to get reelected), and even got McGinn to switch positions (probably fatally for his election chances). That coalition is key for solving other problems, such as SR 520 and the Mercer Mess. And it’s this spirit of detente that is crucial for building a regional prosperity agenda and talking to Olympia with some kind of a unified voice.

Not to overdo the good news, here are four worries from the election season. We seem to have run out of strong minority candidates, and black politics is in eclipse in Seattle. Likewise, the social-justice agenda is muted and didn’t have any effective advocates on the ballot; you’d think hard times would revive this side of our politics. Virtually nobody had much to say about the arts, design, and improved urban planning — even though we’re heading for a serious financial crunch and many other cities are far more aggressive about supporting the arts. (Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper makes the arts central to his politics, as does Portland Mayor Sam Adams.) Lastly, the local reaction to Boeing’s decision was very provincial, exonerating all local parties from blame (have you looked at the machinists’ union’s list of demands?). As with the Sonics’ episode, we lapsed into the pleasures of victimhood, rather than truth-telling. That won’t last.

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