A beauty contest of political blunders
by Knute Berger
The now-damaged green cutter head was lowered into place before the Bertha tunnel-boring machine began operations on the Seattle waterfront in 2013. Credit: WSDOT
In wrapping up Civic Cocktail for the summer (it'll be back in the fall), host Joni Balter asked the media panel to pick the biggest blunders of the last year. There were a lot to choose from, but the list went like this:
KIRO-TV's Essex Porter said he thought it was Mayor Ed Murray's stumbles at the beginning of the police reform process, especially as it related to the mass confusion over his handpicked interim Chief Harry Bailey's actions overturning disciplinary decisions. Multiple press conferences to explain what happened, contradictory statements, new concerns over the mayor's relationship to the police union, all added up to a major stumble on an issue the mayor had identified as a number on priority. Some questioned Murray’s reform commitment. As Porter said, "people were looking for clarity right off the bat." They didn't get it.
The Los Angeles Times' Seattle bureau chief Maria LaGanga, a newcomer to town, said she thought the big blunder was the state's giving so much to Boeing in terms of extending tax breaks and new spending for the company to the tune of $9 billion, then Boeing turning around and announcing it was shipping 1,000 engineer jobs out of state. She described Boeing's action as "déclassé." She didn't mention Boeing's beating the unions around the head, but she does put her finger on a new reality: Loyalty and sentimentality have no places in these dealings, and if you want something, you better get it in writing.
C.R. Douglas from Q13Fox was just brimming with blunders, floating three nominees at city, county and state levels. (It's called a murder of crows, but should we call multiple booboos an "embarrassment of blunders?")
For the city, Douglas agreed with Porter about the Seattle Police Department transition and said that the appointment of Bailey as interim chief was a mistake — an "embarrassing low point" for the new Murray administration.
For the county, he thought the big blunder was the failure of the Prop. 1 campaign that was defeated handily by an essentially unfunded opposition. He decried the campaign as disastrous, squandering goodwill for busses. As Crosscut put it, the ballot measure ran into a deep ditch.
At the state level, Douglas cited Olympia's failure to merge the newly legalized pot trade with the medical marijuana system already in place, reminding us that the state is under a federal pressure to get it figured out. He warned that federal pot raids are in the offing.
My choice was Big Bertha — a blunder that almost requires no explanation. Engineer hubris, contractor incompetence, mechanical failure, ghosts, who knows what all contributed to the much ballyhooed tunnel boring machine getting stuck at the very beginning of the project? And it will remain stuck for a minimum of another year. We were told it was the biggest machine of its kind ever; some said it would never break down; its every step was followed via Twitter and video feeds. It’s as if the Titanic sank just after leaving the dock at Southampton.
Asked to "applaud" for which blunder was biggest, the audience agreed that Bertha won the blunder prize.
Now consider: We still have six months of blundering ahead, so by the time we get to January, the 2014 list might be very different.
We're already learning that warnings about the Oso landslide area were made as much as 50 years ago, and the that shortcuts were taken in allowing the Steelhead Drive community to be located in a dangerous zone. The Seattle Times’ recent headline on this: “Oso Neighborhood Should Never Have Been Built.” That was a blunder that played out over decades, but we might well learn more about the causes of the tragic slide in the months ahead that will make us shake our heads.
The blunders of legislative inaction in Olympia are reaching Olympic proportions. The State Supreme Court, for example, is demanding that the legislature — should we call it the "lag-islature?" — show why it is not in contempt of court for failing to fund public education as required under the McCleary decision. Maybe throwing the legislature’s leadership in jail for a few weeks could boost negotiations.
Transportation, tax reform, education, gun control and closing corporate and industry tax breaks are all areas where the embrace of collective inaction is damaging the state.
Olympia has become “Nolympia,” and is that any way to govern?
There will also likely be smaller-but-eyebrow raising blunders. For example, the city council voting to give the head of City Light a $120,000 raise, and then the revelation that the utility’s boss, Jorge Carrasco, hired an outside firm to boost his online image so that those who Googled City Light would have a more positive view of his leadership. It appears that part of the image-burnishing is hiring bloggers to say nice things about you, but that could now get harder. The revelation will likely incite the trolls to counter-attack.
As the political season heats up this fall, with the state Senate in the balance and major initiatives on the ballot, with the complexities of rolling out the $15 wage and reforming the police department, there are ample opportunities in the next six months to generate many new contestants in the Blunder "Beauty" Contest.