Some interesting newcomers could shake up the Seattle City Council

Efforts to field a slate fizzled out, but there are challengers who could be catalysts for the council to rouse itself from the political doldrums. The slate idea is central to politics in Vancouver, B.C., and it once made a big difference in Seattle. Time to dust off this approach?
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Seattle City Council candidates Venus Velasquez (top) and Bruce Harrell. (Photos from their Web sites)

Efforts to field a slate fizzled out, but there are challengers who could be catalysts for the council to rouse itself from the political doldrums. The slate idea is central to politics in Vancouver, B.C., and it once made a big difference in Seattle. Time to dust off this approach?

One peculiarity of modern politics is that races are normally over before the voters wake up and pay attention. Case in point: Seattle City Council contests will mostly be decided in the next few weeks, just before the filing deadline June 8, as key backers and dollars are lined up. Not surprisingly, the most interesting race is that for the open seat being vacated by Peter Steinbrueck. Rule number one for incumbents on the council is to preclude a challenge by raising about $100,000 way early, before any challenger has a chance to pick off key financial backers or interest groups. Tom Rasmussen, Jean Godden, and Sally Clark have all done so, and so we might as well declare them winners now and avoid having to read all those mailings. As of today, not a soul has declared against any of the three. David Della, another incumbent and generally thought to be the most vulnerable council member, will have a serious opponent, Tim Burgess, a former cop, businessman, journalist, and government ethics specialist. That race will likely be close, and Della will have strong Asian and union support, plus a sympathy factor after the death of his beloved aide in a pedestrian accident, that could get him re-elected. Burgess will argue for more cops as well as a pragmatic perspective on getting the fractious council to pull on some oars together. Two other interesting newcomers are in the race for Steinbrueck's seat. One is Venus Velasquez, a highly energized candidate who will appeal to neighborhoods, Hispanics, and those wanting better schools. Her problem might be that the public appetite for outspoken and divisive figures may have been slaked. Her advantage is an endorsement from the popular Steinbrueck, as well as the emotion she can stir up in the angry neighborhoods. She'll have to share some of that insurgent vote with Al Runte, who ran against the mayor in 2005 and is running for council, mostly on a Nickels-bashing ticket. The other newcomer, and one of the more interesting figures to enter politics in recent years, is Bruce Harrell, a corporate lawyer, former Husky football star linebacker, and active player in civil rights and other minority issues. Harrell's father was African American, one of the first to break the color barrier at City Light, and his mother is Japanese-American, who worked until retirement at the Seattle Public Library. He mixes mainstream Seattle liberal views with a mild form of fiscal conservativism, so he will be positioned as an effective centrist reminiscent of former Mayor Norm Rice's politics, and will enjoy some support from the business community. For a novice, he's done very well in fundraising so far. A clear comer now ready for a long-deferred career in politics, Harrell, who is 48, may touch off alarm bells (Rival! Rival!) in the mayor's office or among others interested in running for mayor someday. Another problem for these relatively unknown challengers is the new date for the primary, August 21, shortening the time of the campaign and lowering the turnout due to summer weather. Burgess and Harrell, if both elected, could make a significant difference in the council's performance. It is not widely known by the public, but the Seattle City Council has been effectively shunted to the periphery in recent years. Mayor Nickels moved strongly to reassert executive authority from the council and independent department heads, reducing the council to near-impotence (and a lot of reflexive resistance to most mayoral proposals). The council, made up of nine individualists who decline to poach on each others' small turfs of responsibility, lacks the leader (or the followership) to set new policies, hold the mayor accountable, or do much more than blame the mayor for its own ineffectuality. But the public largely doesn't care about this dysfunctional situation, sensing that the city is cruising along pretty well, even if it can't solve big problems like congestion, soaring prices, and declining public services. Accordingly, efforts to recruit strong challengers to run for council on a kind of slate fizzled earlier this year. Burgess, Harrell, and Velasquez are all self-starters and certainly not part of any coordinated slate. Might a slate be a good idea? Seattle politics were transformed by such an approach in 1967-77, when Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) adopted such an approach, endorsing one Democrat and one Republican in each race and fairly quickly transforming and dramatically improving the council. Vancouver, B.C., has practiced slate politics for 80 years or so. The current ruling party, the Non Partisan Alliance, controls the Board of Aldermen, the School Board, and the Parks Board as well as the mayor's office. Candidates are screened by the NPA board and then nominated in a membership meeting, where the top 10 votegetters (politicking is intense) become the slate of aldermen for the election. The rival local parties are COPE (Committee of Progressive Electors), a more liberal group with union and New Democratic Party money behind it, and a splinter of COPE called Vision Vancouver, which is more moderate and now has four of the 10 aldermanic seats. Competition between NPA and COPE is brisk, with both sides trading majority control frequently. The advantages of a slate are that it induces better people to run for office (they can be more effective since there are supporting votes), provides a screening that produces better candidates, rewards working together, and gives greater consistency to policy over the years. Vancouver, for instance, has had remarkable agreement on its main policies for 30 years, those programs being strong support for parks, for transit, and for a non-criminal approach to drug problems. Portland politics have had the benefit of a long-lived group of political figures who came to power with Mayor Neil Goldschmidt in 1972 and stayed the course much longer than their counterparts in Seattle. A slate in Seattle might provide the council with a more coherent core of issues, rather than simply reacting to mayoral initiatives or letting councilmembers operate as lone rangers. A slate might create, as in Vancouver, a kind of two-party competition for ideas and voters that could raise the level of the game in one-party Seattle. Slates can also "cast" candidates into roles (someone who really knows finances, someone who is expert on labor relations, someone who is an urban planner, someone who really understands poverty issues, etc.). Lacking any filtering or quality-control mechanisms, Seattle takes pot luck. An informal slate was tried in the last School Board election, and a trio of impressive challengers is running this year. Some neighborhood-based slates for City Council had modest success several years ago, including Vision Seattle, which elected Margaret Pageler. It's not clear whether such a movement would be resisted by Mayor Nickels or grudgingly embraced, on the grounds that a coherent and mature City Council would be much easier to work with and get more done. Given all these advantages, several people (myself among them) floated the idea earlier this year of an informal slate for this year's election. No takers. Two years from now, when there might be three vacancies from the likely retirements of Richard McIver, Nick Licata, and Jan Drago, the idea might make more sense.


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