Seattle Prop. 1, the vote to create a new Metropolitan Parks District, turned into a Rorschach test on public trust.
On Primary Night August 5, the voters seemed to be passing the new Parks District, 52.3 percent yes and 47.6 percent against. It looks like Prop. 1 will pass — advocates aren't declaring victory yet, but you wouldn't know that from how they celebrated at Belltown's 5 Point Cafe when the numbers rolled in at 8:15 Tuesday night.
The pro-Parks crowd whooped and cheered when the numbers were announced. Their relief was palpable. A small lead was more than many had expected in what was a tight race. Thatcher Bailey, president of the Seattle Parks Foundation, couldn't conceal his delight. "Holy shit!" he yelled. Some had expected the "yes" votes to trail in the early count, and the campaign believes it will pick up momentum in the later ballot are counted due to their get-out-the-vote efforts.
The surprise lead didn't come by accident. Just before 8 p.m., Prop. 1 leader and City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw rode in on her bike, nervous and breathless, having just hand delivered a single ballot from a neighbor to the courthouse at 7:30 — "the last vote" she joked. The pro-parks campaign claimed to have made over 40,000 phone calls to voters. They were leaving nothing to chance. Responding to the first numbers, Bagshaw declared giddily, "This just proves everybody loves parks!"
Meanwhile, in the Queen Anne Hill living room of the "no" campaign's chairman, Don Harper, the mood was resigned. "We lost," Harper told a crowd of about 20 supporters. Carol Fisher, the campaign's vice chair, said, "I was surprised we did as well as we did."
In terms of park love, both sides claimed to be the most ardent. The "Yes" campaign called itself "Parks for All," and the "No" campaign upped the ante by declaring "Our Parks Forever." Of course, the only thing "forever" about parks is squabbling over them. But no one was willing to cede an edge on parks love to the other.
Still, two starkly contrasting views of government were outlined in the campaign.
Parks district advocates believed they were trying to solve a long-term and systemic funding problem that stemmed for tax limits laid down by Tim Eyman's anti-tax initiatives and the legislature. They wanted to find solid, permanent funding for parks operations and maintenance and expand and improve the system. What's not to love?
Anti-Prop. 1 advocates painted a darker picture: the district as a kind of Darth Vader intent on condemning your property, selling off parks and building unwanted stadiums. It was painted as an example of out-of-control government out to feather its own nest. The one thing everyone agreed on, other than a love of parks, was that the vote would raise taxes — that was the point.
In a city where everybody purportedly loves parks, the vote was relatively close. If we love them so much, why did nearly half of the electorate vote "No?" Why did the "Yes" campaign have to raise nearly ten times as much ($367,000 vs. $38,000) to get just over half of the vote?
Chart: Bill Lucia
Some of the closeness could be attributed to the small summer primary turnout. Some also to a general aversion to higher property taxes. The measure was also complex — creating a new public authority that overlapped with the city council with new powers to tax. It even looked complicated on the ballot, something that often raises doubt. If voters are confused, they often default to “No.”
Brad Kahn, chairman of the Seattle Parks Foundation, which worked heavily for the measure, says that supporters knew from the beginning the proposal "was never going to be a slam dunk." Said Kahn, "It was going to be a heavy lift from day one." He accused the "No" campaign of misleading claims and "black helicopter" paranoia about the plan. Even in tax-friendly Seattle, an uphill climb was expected, and the "No" campaign won over many doubters, including The Seattle Times editorial board and the League of Women voters — hardly tin-foil types. A big chunk of Parks District skepticism resided with the grassroots, neighborhood activists who are frequently suspicious of City Hall.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!