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The missing party in our local politics

Fred Jarrett Credit: Photo: King County

How to explain the disconnect between all the populist anger out there and what Publicola cleverly calls a “send the bums back” election? Pause before the storm? Caution and hunkering down? So little trust in government that few believe electing folks with new ideas would change much?

In politics you can’t beat somebody with nobody, just as you can’t elect reformers if you don’t have good candidates or some kind of compelling message, as for example New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels do. Absent a broad, convincing case for reform, voters will just reelect incumbents. And so it was that all Seattle City Council incumbents, all King County Council incumbents, all Bellevue City Council incumbents, all Port of Seattle incumbents were reelected, mostly quite easily over feeble opponents.

I’d describe our current politics as divided among three parties. One is the Party of No, exemplified by Tim Eyman, rolling back taxes and spending, and Kemper Freeman, rolling back activist government and big-dollar transit schemes. The state Republican Party, which foolishly endorsed Eyman’s I-1125 (anti tolling and anti Sound Transit), is torn between its Eyman wing, dug in against modernity, and its suburban wing, trying to figure out lean governance. The legislative caucuses of the GOP, at least, are firmly in the Party of No.

It’s not just Eyman and the GOP. The main challengers of the Seattle School Board, for instance, were fighting against modern math instruction or “heresies” such as Teach for America or the Gates Foundation. The Party of No also rallied against the liquor initiative, somewhat reviving anti-saloon arguments and, joining here with the Party of Government, trying to preserve government jobs.

The second party is the Party of Government, hoping to “keep the governmental family together” until it can enjoy full funding again after the recession. And so, in the past election we had the unified Seattle mayor and city council pushing for ways to find new funding for two kitchen-sink measures to help schools and transportation. Sound Transit, which showed itself in the likely defeat of Eyman’s initiative as one of the strongest players in the Party of Government, is a good example of how politicians, consultants, large-business interests, developers, and inside-game environmentalists can rally when threatened. Next rounds for this coalition will be getting Boeing to build its new 737 in the area and passing a statewide roads-and-transit measure. The theme of the Party of Government is clear: give us more money in exchange for a veneer or reform. And why do they need to do more, when the reformers make such a weak case against the status quo. and the Party of No is so naive and extreme?

Seattle, which talks a populist and even leftist game, is now pretty much a one-party town, that being the Party of Government. As such, it strongly protects members of the club, such as the Seattle City Council, the Port, the (relatively harmless) County Council, centrists on the Bellevue City Council, and the slow-and-steady education-reform bloc on the School Board. The current chair of the Party of Government is King County Executive Dow Constantine, the go-to person in big matters now that Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been effectively sent to the rubber room.

The third party, weakest of the three, is the Party of Reform — unhappy with the pointless reactionary stances of the Party of No and impatient with the governmental protectionism of the Party of Government. This party has only a few visible proponents. Some are non-union Democrats in the Legislature like Ross Hunter from Medina or Reuven Carlyle of Queen Anne. It is likely that others will appear, mostly from the urban perimeters of greater Seattle.

The Reform Party has trouble being taken seriously in a city dominated by a kind of reactionary and defensive liberalism. Reform ideas quickly get debunked as heresies or slippery slopes. (An example: Gov. Gregoire’s idea of pushing some ferry funding down to the Puget Sound counties, trading autonomy and getting out from under the veto of Eastern Washington legislators. The idea was quickly torpedoed by special interests and outraged taxpayers. Same with her idea for a unified Department of Education, which poked some sleeping dogs in the bureaucracies.)

Partly because Seattle politics has no Republicans to contest races and policies, Seattle has a numbing kind of group-think that snuffs out challenges. Nor are strongly reformist department heads appointed any more at City Hall, and some of them have fled. (That talent exodus may be the worst inheritance the next mayor will face.)

Consider the story of one challenger in the city council races, King County Deputy Prosecutor Maurice Classen, who ran against Jean Godden and lost in the August primary to Bobby Forch. Classen actually had a reformist message: creating a “progressive business climate.” He opposed the paid-sick-leave legislation as a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all idea, an illustration of Seattle’s suffocating nanny-state governance that ill suits the more fluid, entrepreneurial climate of the new economy. Here is one authentic voice of reform liberalism in a time of governmental austerity: Lighten up! And here was a rare politician actually talking about the economy, the need for jobs and a strategy for Seattle’s competitiveness, rather than amenity issues such as bike lanes.

The Party of Government, determined to protect an obliging and loyal member, Jean Godden, paid him no heed. (Shame on us here at Crosscut for waking up too late to Classen’s new-wave politics as well.)

Classen was virtually the only new face I know of in local politics trying to push a message of significant reform. The previous voices were Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett when both ran for King County Executive in 2009. They foolishly divided that vote, so both lost to Constantine, who had the good sense to hire Jarrett as his deputy, where some productivity reforms are being instituted at the most retrograde of all our local governments.

Someone may emerge to lead this third party. Jay Inslee will have to decide whether he would be a governor of the government party or for the people and reform. (I’m not holding my breath.) More likely would be Gov. Rob McKenna, but he would have an epic battle with Speaker Chopp and a highly defensive Democratic caucus. Possibly a Mayor Tim Burgess, though he’s a cautious centrist. A self-funded billionaire from our creative economy, determined to disrupt the old arrangement like Mayor Bloomberg in New York City?

I honestly don’t see it happening, despite the crisis in governmental funding and the loss of public confidence. Rather than waiting for such a savior, then, it might be better to create a new movement to propound such ideas and help launch a new generation of politicians. How about an Urban or Civic Party that encompasses central Puget Sound (and is therefore bipartisan) and pushes for regional solutions to a few major problems — taking the heat for these suggestions when conventional politicians will not. Such a party could back a handful of candidates each year, giving them money and volunteers so long as they push some of the reform planks.

Here’s an example of strong medicine that such a party could research, refine, and push. To solve the funding crisis for higher education, give community colleges greater autonomy and local taxing authority so that they raise a significant portion of their funding from local taxpayers. The money thus freed up from the state’s unusually generous funding of community colleges (generous because we have so many of them) would go to research universities and four-year colleges.

No way the Legislature would do this on its own, since it is so heavily swayed by community college interests in virtually every legislative district. Absent serious political pressure for real reform, these incumbents will all hold hands together as water fills the bilges of our Ship of State.

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