A catch-your-breath election for Seattle

The Class of '03 was swept in amid scandal, hard times, and a fear of losing jobs. After an awkward record of reform by this group, are they about to be swept out by the more sensible Class of '07? Here's a look at races on the August 21 ballot for School Board, Port, City Council, and King County
Crosscut archive image.

Sherry Carr, one of the new faces of reform in the Seattle School District election, comes from a background in big business, but she was also a PTA president. (Photo courtesy Niki Desautels/Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

The Class of '03 was swept in amid scandal, hard times, and a fear of losing jobs. After an awkward record of reform by this group, are they about to be swept out by the more sensible Class of '07? Here's a look at races on the August 21 ballot for School Board, Port, City Council, and King County

I know this may come as a shock to you, relaxing in the mid-August sunshine, but next Tuesday is an election day in the Seattle area. I kid you not. The primary got moved up, from mid-September, to give candidates more time to regroup for the November election. Putting it right in the summer doldrums has meant a desultory campaign season, so far, and probably a thin turnout. In case you are wanting to pay attention, here's a short primer on the issues and candidates, as I see them. One helpful way to understand an election is to start by looking at the election four years before, since it produced the crop now up for reelection. Times were very different in 2003. The local economy was in recession, still struggling back from the bust of the dot-com era in 2000 and the dire effects of September 11, 2001 on airlines, Boeing, and much more. It was a time of layoffs in government, so the labor unions put a lot of emphasis into the race, hoping to protect jobs, and joining forces with environmentalists and diversity advocates to dominate the election. A labor activist such as David Della was elected to Seattle City Council. Alarmed by the Seattle School Board's vote in 2002 to contract with two non-union bus companies, throwing out the Teamsters' yellow buses (temporarily), unions strongly backed School Board candidates Sally Soriano and Irene Stewart. Alec Fisken, strongly backed by labor and the Democrats for his determination to save maritime jobs, was an example over at the Port. Now, of course, we are back in boom times, so the job-protection issue has lost its salience. Fisken is facing a stiff challenge from a pro-modernization candidate, Bill Bryant (who advocates for American farmers in world trade), and Della is also probably in for a close race against Tim Burgess, an ex-cop and global entrepreneur. (The Della race is not on the September ballot, by the way, since there are only two candidates and they go directly on to the November general election.) The School Board demonstrates the most dramatic shift, with a strong challenging group drawn from such big-business experience as Boeing (Sherry Carr) and Frank Russell (Steve Sundquist). The activists of the Class of 2003 are on the defensive against the steady, experienced, more centrist Class of 2007. The other unusual factor in 2003 was a spate of scandals. Scandals, in turn, put wind in the sails of reform candidates. At City Hall it was the contributions from Frank Colacurcio, hoping for a zoning favor for his topless club in Lake City, that toppled Heidi Wills (defeated by Della) and Judy Nicastro (bested by Jean Godden). Neither winner was especially a reformer, and both settled into mid- to back-bencher status. Tom Rasmussen (unopposed this year) won by running against the supposedly out-of-touch and too-experienced Margaret Pageler, so there too there was a tiny whiff of reform. As with this year, the challengers did not put forth any platform of new ideas, and the council has continued to be less than the sum of its parts. At the School District, there was financial mismanagement under the regime led by Joseph Olchefske, soon ousted, which colored the race and pushed aside most matters of educational policy. The crop of reformers, recruited from the ranks of suspicious citizen activists, came charging in convinced that much was rotten in the state of Seattle Schools, and the proceeded to make life miserable for Superintendent Raj Manhas (now departed) and to turn the District into something resembling the Iraqi Parliament. It was a classic case of activist overkill, with two of the reformers (Stewart and Brita Butler-Wall) deciding not to seek re-election, and the other two, Darlene Flynn (chief foe of "white privilege") and Sally Soriano, facing uphill fights to get re-elected. Maybe it's just the mid-summer blahs, but the races also seem drained of big issues. In most cases, that's because these issues have recently been defused. The hot story at the Port was the imperial carryings-on by Port executive director Mic Dinsmore, but he has retired and now the Port commissioners and candidates are all rallying around the steadying new leader, Tay Yoshitani, a mild-mannered Gary Cooper type. At the School Board, it was an uproar over institutional racism and the patterns of fundraising among white parents for North End schools. That's calmed down to let the new superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, definitely not mild-mannered, have enough room to make some of the tough decisions that the board members had arrogated to themselves. The counterpart at the City Council would be the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which drew all political oxygen out of the air earlier this year and then completely disappeared in another vivid illustration of Mayor Greg Nickels' uncanny ability to get issues unfavorable to him swiftly off the front pages. The result of these factors -- strong economy with lots of tax revenues to spread around, the pratfalls of the reformers, impatience to get some things done -- is a crop of well-bahaved challengers promising to behave better, to defer to the executive, to mute the squabbling, to be grown ups. Instead of divisive issues, we get candidates running on their personalities and their resumes as consensus-builders. The pendulum doth swing! No pendulums to worry about over at King County, where they might as well stop holding elections. The County Council you see is the County Council you will get. Council districts are pretty safely gerrymandered, and a challenger faces a district that is large enough to require serious fundraising and yet invisible enough to get very little "free media," meaning television and print coverage. It takes a campaigning demon like Bob Ferguson to overcome such odds. There is one interesting county race, by accident of King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng's death, which interrupted the quadrennial automatic succession. The Democrats, sensing that they can complete the total takover of Seattle politics, may overplay their hand by making Bill Sherman, the almost-certain nominee, into too partisan a figure for this above-politics (at least by local tradition) office. Heir-apparent Dan Satterberg, really more an independent than a Republican, looks likely to hold the prosecutor's office for the Republicans into a third generation. Beneath the calm of this election, with its return-to-normalcy mood, there are several interesting tidal flows in local politics to note. One is the continuing sway of organized labor, even as labor loses membership and clout around the country. As noted, the labor-led takeover of the Port and the School District is subject to some rollback this year, but the rise of activist unions like the Service Employees International Union, albeit a maverick in the union ranks, has helped to sustain labor's dominance over the state's key Democratic leaders, Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, and Mayor Nickels. You don't hear any of the City Council candidates uttering a kind word about outsourcing jobs or tapping private partners for big infrastructure projects, nor any talk of charter schools in the School District races. So long as Republicans declare Seattle politics off limits or not worth the effort, our municipal politics will remain tilted to the left. Another key aspect of Seattle politics is the importance of race and diversity. The black achievement gap virtually took over school politics in the past years, such that when the Seattle board would go down to lobby Olympia for money, calling legislators out for their supposedly white-privilege positions, they came back with more enemies and less money. Now the emphasis will be on a more conciliatory style. Sherry Carr, for instance, says, with particularly her opponent Darlene Flynn in mind, "You can't open a conversation with somebody by taking a shot across their bow on race. Let's talk about these issues in the context of facts, and what to do about it. Otherwise a wall goes up on both sides." Change the tone, be more respectful of differences, unite to get more money from Olympia -- that's the new message. The policies themselves will probably not change much. Seattle City Council is also very much driven by issues of diversity. In the race for the open seat being vacated by Peter Steinbrueck, both likely finalists are diversity candidates. Venus Velazquez, an energetic activist from big city politics, specializes in wading into race-charged issues and working out settlements. She also would be the missing Hispanic representative on the Council, whose diversity consists so far of one black, one Asian, and two gays. Bruce Harrell is Japanese and African American, and he too has done a lot of work representing minority interests, particularly in the big mitigation payment from Sound Transit to Rainier Valley. Harrell adds two other aspects: former corporate attorney for US West, and star linebacker on a Husky Rose Bowl team. The two offer the choice of diversity with a raised voice, or diversity with a calm manner. Advancing diversity is a core value to Seattle voters, particularly for North End white voters, but it has suffered some setbacks due to the stridency of the issue at the schools, and perhaps if the street-crime issue gains traction with local voters. One more elephant in the room is Mayor Nickels. Seattle is very much a one-party town, and it is now also becoming a one-man political environment. One wonders how much longer this will go on, and some of Nickels' stumbles this year -- on the Viaduct, the Sonics, and police oversight -- may indicate that forces could be gathering for a serious challenge in 2009. (Like who?) Meanwhile, Nickels and his very politically astute team continue to consolidate power, though not a lot of love. None of the City Council challengers, except Al Runte (who ran against the mayor in 2005) are really critical of Nickels, aside from emitting reassurring remarks to the neighborhoods, who feel snubbed by the mayor. The Class of 2007 on the School Board is likely to have ties with some mayor-assisted groups that sought out better candidates, with more big-institution experience. Only the Port seems to be drifting out of the City Hall orbit a bit. Nickels is dominant in part because he has a real instinct for the center of political gravity in the city -- labor, environmentalists, and downtown developers. Hold that coalition together, as the tunnel plan for the Viaduct was doing until it got shot down by voters and the Legislature, and no opponent has much of a base for opposition. The crime and police issue could be one entering wedge, for a Democrat of Mark Sidran's street-civility politics. The neighborhood groups are looking for an issue to unite them, with the Parks Department being one for a while. (The departure of Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds has defused that one for a while.) Many citizens are fuming about the escalating cost of housing and other services, but it's hard to run against prosperity and rising taxes filling coffers to pay for municipal employees. The result is a highly centralized political order, one that drains the drama out of local debate and stifles the emergence of challenging new ideas proposed by ambitious candidates. That could change fast, if Nickels were to have a bad stumble (he doesn't have a large reservoir of good will to get him through) or to leave town for a job in a new White House cabinet. Failing that, look for a few more years of the politics of a numbed normalcy.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors