Norm Maleng: the sequel

What does it say about Seattle that high-profile races for City Council and King County prosecutor turn out to be elections by acclamation?
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King County Acting Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. (University of Washington)

What does it say about Seattle that high-profile races for City Council and King County prosecutor turn out to be elections by acclamation?

A long-running farce in London was titled, No Sex, Please. We're British. Given the absence of genuine contests in the 2007 election, we might have earned a new slogan for the city: No politics, please. We're Seattle. Exhibit A is the City Council races, where three incumbents have no opponents or merely token ones; one incumbent (David Della) has a medium-longshot challenger (Tim Burgess); and only the open seat has a good race, with two strong contenders (Bruce Harrell and Venus Velasquez). Exhibit B is the suddenly vacant King County prosecutor's job, which would ordinarily be political catnip for the ambitious. Granted, there are a lot of unusual features in this race. Norm Maleng, a saintly figure beloved by the legal community and both parties, held the position for 28 years until his recent and unexpected death – so long that the job has come to seem a natural monopoly for Maleng and the GOP. Accordingly, when his chief of staff, Dan Satterberg, who's held that job for 17 years, announced his candidacy, the Maleng machine as well as the Republicans immediately closed ranks around him. Maleng's widow and son said they would co-chair the Satterberg campaign, and the announcement took on the air of a royal succession. Sentiment for a Norm Maleng: The Sequel was quite natural. Nobody wanted to risk returning the office to the kind of political machine-building of Charles Carroll, a courthouse pol who held the office from 1948-70 until being unseated by Christopher T. Bayley, who in turn installed Maleng as his chief civil deputy. If you're doing the math, that means the Republicans, increasingly endangered in Seattle, have held this office for 59 straight years. The legal profession and the business community have become fond of Maleng's style of solid lawyering, strict non-partisanship, and careful mentoring of good talent. More than that, the GOP is so badly split these days, especially as recriminations of Bush accumulate, that it didn't want to risk a primary. Mention a divisive figure like recent former U.S. Attorney John McKay (darling of the liberals but traitor to the conservatives for his withering exposes of Bush's Justice Department), and the idea quickly died for lack of a second. So Satterberg by acclamation it is, even though he's a political unknown. From what I could learn, Satterberg. who is 47, is completely apolitical (no one, probably not even he, knew he was a Republican until last week), an excellent lawyer, a beloved colleague, and a mean bass guitar player in the cover band called The Approximations. He's a Norm Maleng Republican, which means he'll have in his corner a broad network of lawyers and others who have convened every four years to re-elect Maleng and scare off any serious Democrats. The Maleng machine may be one reason Democrats were deterred. Another is fallout from the Alberto Gonzales Department of Justice, which means the public is in no mood for politics in any prosecutor's office. There are only a little over two months to the primary, so any candidate with small name familiarity would be at a distinct disadvantage. As of this moment, Keith Scully, a former deputy prosecutor, has said he will run. He is the legal director for Futurewise, an environmental group, and also recently worked as a war-crimes prosecutor for the United Nations. But Scully is not well-known and has not run for office before. King County Council member Bob Ferguson, said to be ambitious to be county executive some day, will probably run if only to get better known (and with a ready excuse for losing, given the effusions of love for Maleng after his fatal heart attack). Ferguson is a rising political talent, though lightly qualified to be prosecutor. (Update 6/7: Ferguson won't run.) Bill Sherman, who serves in Maleng's office and ran a good race for 43rd District state representative last year, is well qualified and respected among environmentalists but relatively unknown. Mark Sidran, who is both well known and very qualified, would have been the strong candidate, but he has an intellectually challenging new job as chair of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission and seems to have taken his two electoral defeats (for mayor and for state attorney general) to heart. That said, the non-race is very odd. Prosecutors normally go far in politics, and even the ho-hum office of Seattle city attorney created two mayoral candidates in recent memory (Sidran, who lost to Mayor Greg Nickels in 2001, and Doug Jewett, who lost to Mayor Norm Rice in 1989). The prosecutor's office is high-visibility, and you get to hire lots of eager young attorneys who become a political network when seeking higher office. It's an office subject to abuse (we'll learn more about this if the Rudy Guiliani campaign gets serious), since it can be tempting to put the cuffs on a prominent figure, even if you somehow forget to file charges a year later. Seattle is a grown-up city and there are plenty of watchdogs to curb such abuses. Nonetheless, the powers that be pretty much decided to take a pass. Three reasons come to mind for this apathy. One is a patronizing kind of urban tokenism, letting the Republicans have one (only one) important elective office in the city, so long as they behave in a non-Republican way. Second is a generation gap in local politics, where there are few political figures in power who are grooming successors in the way that Sens. Henry Jackson, Warren Magnuson, and Slade Gorton once did. (The only one coming close is state Attorney General Rob McKenna.) Third is a waning appetite for local politics as the region's economy gets more and more global in focus. Describing California politics, New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the phrase "apathy interrupted by initiatives." Something like that disease seems to have settled in here as well. Somehow I think even Norm Maleng would have wished for a more vigorous contest for the office to which he lent so much stature.


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