Most expect the Seattle City Council to confirm Mayor Mike McGinn's nomination of John Diaz as the permanent police chief. But that doesn't mean there won't be some interesting days spent on the hot seat for the SPD veteran. The confirmation hearings (beginning July 21) will be an opportunity for the council to test the extent of its new authority against a still-weak rookie mayor.
A parallel is the Senate confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan for Supreme Court. Here too the outcome seems pretty certain: confirmation by an easy margin. But these hearings are a high-visibility opportunity for politicians to shine, to signal to constituencies, and to raise money for party coffers. They also provide a way to reframe some issues.
The political analyst E.J. Dionne spells this out in an essay about how Democrats want to shift the narrative from the usual Republican ones of judicial restraint and social issues to a new framework: how the court should empower individuals to resist corporate misdeeds, an old theme dating back to Justice Brandeis days.
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, for one, says he wants "to focus on how conservative courts have limited the rights of plaintiffs to challenge corporations before juries by restricting the right to sue and on the evidence that can be brought into play." Sen. Al Franken also wants to focus the discussion on corporate malfeasance, a topic with lots of contemporary resonance.
Similarly, look for the city council to underscore how much needs to be done to make Seattle's streets safer, to stand up to detailed police regulations in the union contract, and to adopt many modern reforms from other cities that have been slow in arriving in this corner of the country. Underlying this will be an effort to impress on Chief Diaz that he now works for two bosses, the mayor and the council.
Diaz has been in the force for 30 years, so he can easily recall the days when department heads had such dual supervision and chiefs needed to stay on the good side of rival bosses. Mayor Greg Nickels swung the balance back to the mayor during his eight years, but those days are clearly over.
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