Some significant signs in a little-noticed election

Dialing for more dollars, Jane Hague's poor showing, how to read the Seattle results, liberal bias, how to spin your win, the dangers of a low-key approach: In an evolving thread, Crosscut's writers analyze Washington's first August primary, an election that was on almost no normal person's radar.
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Dialing for more dollars, Jane Hague's poor showing, how to read the Seattle results, liberal bias, how to spin your win, the dangers of a low-key approach: In an evolving thread, Crosscut's writers analyze Washington's first August primary, an election that was on almost no normal person's radar.

There was a primary election in Washington yesterday, Aug. 21, the first time in memory a primary here hasn't been held in September, and Crosscut's pundits were possibly the only people who noticed. So here's what they are thinking. We'll add to this discussion through the day. Feel free to weigh in yourself in the comments below.

Campaign 101: Spending wisely

O. Casey Corr: Next to the vote totals, the numbers most analyzed after a primary are the "cash-on-hand" figures. Those numbers can be suggestive of several things, such as the nervousness of a candidate as she or he approached the primary. In a crowded primary, the pressure is on candidates to spend money on direct mail, win some votes through that effort, and not look weak in the vote totals. Balancing that is a desire to hoard cash to finance a direct-mail blitz for the general. Generally speaking, incumbents should get 50 percent or more of a primary vote total.

Let's look at one race, Position 3 of the Seattle City Council.

Venus Velázquez did great in the votes, capturing 42 percent in early returns. Her Aug. 14 Full Summary (C4) disclosure showed a cash-on-hand balance of $38,367, which became a negative balance of $20,609 when you counted her obligations to consultants and others, including a loan to herself of $3,500.

Since that date, of course, she could have pulled in many dollars. I'm not counting any of the reported donations since Aug. 14. But the numbers suggest how much she risked to make the strong showing. She spent everything and more to get through the primary.

As I write this, Velázquez is almost certainly on the phone to donors, talking up her good showing and asking for another check to get across the finish line. Some calls will go to potential donors who wanted to see how she'd do in the primary before giving money. Now she has something to tell them.

Her opponent, Bruce Harrell, shows a cash-on-hand figure of $65,987, which shrinks to a net balance of $12,819 after liabilities are counted, including a loan to himself of $4,300. His higher balance may suggest he felt a little more confident approaching the primary, but doubtless both he and Velázquez considered the possible impact of the candidacy of Al Runte, a 2005 mayoral candidate who came in a distant third in this race.

According to the Aug. 14 reports, Velázquez had raised a total of $124,595 to Harrell's $156,072. These numbers suggest that Harrell's position is better than it seems from vote totals alone, but he's not likely to talk publicly about that. "Cash on hand" is inside baseball. If your phone is ringing as you read this, it's Bruce or Venus, asking for money.

A moderate lawmaker loses

Chris Vance: According to David Postman's blog, Sen. Jim Clements, a relatively moderate Republican, lost to a conservative challenger in a special election in Yakima.

This is very significant, as it is the first time that a moderate legislator of either party has lost to a more conservative (or more liberal) challenger under our new pick-a-party primary system.

Clements often worked with Democrats on issues, supported raising the gas tax, and voted to put this fall's measure to repeal our state's 60 percent vote requirement to pass school levys on the ballot. Will his defeat have a chilling affect on bipartisanship and embolden more ideological candidates?

Update: I just spoke to a reporter with the Yakima Herald-Republic. He says that one factor in Clements' defeat was the fact that his challenger, Curtis King, rang thousands of doorbells, and Clements did not. It wouldn't be the first time a veteran lawmaker was ousted by a challenger who simply worked harder.

I think sweat may have been as much a factor as ideology in this Yakima upset.

Jane Hague's poor showing

Knute Berger: Can you be unopposed in a primary and still have a bad day? Yes, if you're Jane Hague. It was revealed on Tuesday, Aug. 21, that the King County Council member had been charged in July with a DUI after an incident in early June – a fact that flew under the radar until primary day. According to The Seattle Times, Hague faces a judge in Redmond next week. (Hmmm. What's Bobbe Bridge doing these days?)

The Times reports that Hague blew readings of 0.135 percent and 0.141 percent (.08 is legally drunk). Hague claims she'd only had two glasses of wine. According to a Virginia Tech Web site on the effects of alcohol, a reading in that range would manifest itself in terms of personality with over-expression, emotional swings, anger or sadness, and boisterousness. It would impair a person's reaction time, gross motor control, and cause staggering and slurred speech.

The King County Sheriff's deputy who stopped her said she was driving erratically and had to grab onto the car to keep from falling. She was also "sarcastic and condescending," called the arrest "ridiculous," and used foul language.

Doesn't sound like Mel Gibson, but then, he only blew a 0.12.

Hague's lawyer promises to defend her "vigorously." One hopes.

It looks like Republican Hague's opponent could wind up being perennial candidate and gadfly Richard Pope, who has run for office – any office – nearly every year since 1996: prosecutor, assessor, attorney general, judge, port commissioner, everything but bikini inspector.

He jumped into the primary as a Democrat at the last minute when the party failed to recruit its own candidate. If Hague's troubles mount, Pope could possibly prove Woody Allen's famous dictum: "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

On partisanship

Chris Vance: Regarding "Republican Bill Bryant," referred to by David Brewster below, this is exactly the sort of thing that makes Republicans hate the liberal media. Bill Bryant is running for a nonpartisan office. He is endorsed by prominent Democrats like Jan Drago, Cecil Andrus, Alex Alben, and David Dicks, the man just chosen by a Democratic governor to lead the new Puget Sound restoration effort. Yet his partisanship is used to define him. I don't mean to sound like a Dittohead calling into the Rush Limbaugh show, but truly one wonders if the mainstream media will ever realize that their obvious liberal bias is what has caused their decline.

Campaign 101: Defining your 'victory'

O. Casey Corr: If we were sticklers about math, we might wait days or even weeks before conclusions are reached about the primary election. After all, shouldn't we be cautious about pronouncements drawn from "early returns," a tally of just 18 percent of the votes? But that's not how it works. On primary election night, reporters and supporters want an immediate reaction to numbers. But if you are a candidate, you must seize the opportunity to define events to your advantage. Doing this well is important, because campaign messages affect whether you can build momentum for the rest of the campaign.

In short, no matter what the numbers, you want to create an impression that you are the winneror coming on strong, which makes your the winner by November. Either way, you're the winner. (For an example of doing this well, Bill Clinton called himself the "Comeback Kid" after a second-place showing in the 1992 New Hampshire primary.)

By this standard, Venus Velázquez was the winner of the race for a Seattle City Council seat, Position 3. She got herself pictured in a happy moment with a supporter on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was quoted defining the vote totals as support for what she brings to the race. Bruce Harrell was shown inside, photographed in a pensive moment with his daughter. In returns posted this morning, Velázquez had 42 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Harrell had 27 percent. But Harrell, doing what he needed to do, defined the numbers as all part of his plan, perhaps even the goal. "We're actually where we wanted to be," he told the P-I. He said he expected Velázquez as the only woman in the race to draw a larger share of the primary vote.

Not the best message, but a message.

By contrast, what could be this fall's most intense race showed candidates both using the moment to reinforce their message. The general election for King County prosecutor will be a contest between Republican Dan Satterberg and Democrat Bill Sherman. Both are prosecutors, but Satterberg is the interim King County prosecutor and perhaps has a presumed advantage as the designated successor by supporters of the late Norm Maleng. Sherman last night continued to try to turn Satterberg's long tenure in the office under Maleng as a disadvantage, saying voters are "ready for a fresh approach." Satterberg pushed back. "This election is about qualifications," Satterburg said.

Remember that phrase: "This election is about ..." You fill in the blank: change, experience, getting a mom on the council, getting a dad on the council, a bridge to the 21st century, etc. Even if you have 2 percent of the vote, the tide is going your way. Congratulations!

Colby Underwood: tall but nonpartisan

Knute Berger: Colby Underwood, the 29-year-old Seattle fundraising wunderkind, usually works for Democrats (Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee ...), though he also has plenty of clients in nonpartisan races (City Council). But this time out, he's working for Port Commission candidate Bill Bryant, who won the right to take on incumbent reformer Alec Fisken in November. Bryant is a longtime Republican. Underwood says he took Bryant as a client because he's green – as in a strong environmentalist. Bryant has been described as a Republican in the Dan Evans mold, which is an appellation that doesn't mean much of anything anymore except to the aging voters who remember that at one time, the GOP actually had environmentalists. Bryant isn't the only oddity represented by Underwood: he's also raising funds for a J.P.Patches statue.

One Underwood mystery to clear up: his height. Underwood is tall, and his height has variously been reported as 6-10 and 6-11. He confirms that he's 6-10 but allows as how his driver's license lists him at his "basketball" height of 7-3. He used to play for Shorecrest.

The role of partisanship

David Brewster: I just heard a KUOW-FM newscast that said Port Commissioner Alec Fisken was going to face "Republican Bill Bryant." That was fast, hanging that epithet on Bryant in a nonpartisan race, and it raises the question of how much partisanship will play in the fall election.

For the Port of Seattle, where Bryant and Bob Edwards, both fairly independent sorts, will be "outed" as Republicans, that label is two-edged, since the majority of voters are outside Seattle in the King County suburbs, which incline toward nonpartisanship. Partisanship might also be a big part of David Della's attempt to hold his Seattle City Council seat against challenger Tim Burgess. Both are Democrats, but Burgess gave money to Rob McKenna, the Republican state attorney general who was running against Deborah Senn, an unpopular Democrat. Della is a pure Democrat who will not allow voters to forget Burgess's lapse from purity. But will voters prefer partisanship, even in an age of Bush backlash, to the supposed effectiveness of a nonpartisan?

The most important race, as regards the issue of partisanship, is King County prosecutor. Norm Maleng, still widely revered, was a Republican who played the bipartisan role skillfully. He was known for hiring good lawyers regardless of their party loyalty. (Bill Sherman, the Democratic nominee as determined by voters yesterday, was one such active Democrat hired by Maleng.) As the Democratic Party activists increasingly want to fight the Bush Republicans with equally adamant partisanship, they will tempt Sherman with the votes and money that would come from his positioning himself as a loyal Democrat.

If Sherman takes this bait, Satterberg would probably pounce at the opening, saying that the office should not be politicized, any more than Alberto Gonzales should have politicized the U.S. attorneys. Besides, Satterberg's allies are passing the word among Seattle Democrats that their man is only a nominal Republican, whose partisanship has been so disguised over the years that many thought he was a Democrat.

One rule of politics is that at the local level, party labels don't mean much. We'll see whether that rule still applies in an era of intensified national polarization.

Improvement and coherency

David Brewster: My morning tea leaves (skipping coffee for this one day) read this way: In the King County prosecutor's race, Bill Sherman easily defeated Keith Scully, and the two Democrats' total of 69,000 (incomplete returns), as opposed to Dan Satterberg's 41,000, shows the value of having a primary race to stir up supporters and get your name known. I'd say Sherman now has a good shot at defeating the Republican Satterberg in November.

The easy victory of the two King County Parks levies, each raising $108.5 million over the next six years, shows how you fund parks in King County – put a Seattle benefit (the zoo) in the package, and those pass-any-good-sounding-tax folks in Seattle will sweep it through. The tough questions about this odd way of funding general government obligations will continue, though.

Port of Seattle Position 2 has Gael Tarleton with a modest lead over incumbent Bob Edwards, who has former CEO Mic Dinsmore's salary perks wrapped around his neck. The surprise to me was that Jack Block Jr., with the famous name (his father was on the Port Commission for many years) came in a distant fourth. Maybe not a surprise. With so many newcomers in the region (nearly the highest percentage in the country), a father who was famous back when is unknown today. The anyone-but-Edwards vote was strong, suggesting that he's toast. Position 5 for the port demonstrated the continuing voter appeal of Alec Fisken, who leads Bill Bryant 45,000-30,000. This is still a good race, but Fisken has the potent appeal of being anti-tax and pro-green. The question is how much appetite the public has for mavericks like Fisken.

In Seattle City Council races, one surpirse was Position 3, where gadfly and former mayoral candidate Al Runte bombed, suggesting the general drift of this election toward level heads rather than hot heads. Venus Velazquez has a comfortable lead over Bruce Harrell, but that's still going to be a fascinating race, with both candidates well-financed and Harrell gradually getting the hang of campaigning. (Velazquez is a natural.) Joe Szwaja is the likely opponent of Jean Godden, who failed to turn this race into a non-contest.

In the Seattle School Board contests, Steve Sundquist won by a wide margin over Maria Ramirez, but those two will now run citywide. Ramirez, an attractive candidate up against a very compelling Sundquist, will be the second Hispanic candidate of note (along with Velazquez) this fall, testing the strength of this rising ethnic group. Darlene Flynn, an embattled incumbent in District 2, barely managed to get through the primary, with Sherry Carr, a very impressive challenger, leading the group. Flynn is looking pretty toasty, I'd say.

As for issues? The crushing defeat of a port levy in Vancouver, Wash., which would have bought more industrial land, is a sign of anti-growth politics growing in the "suburbs." One of the mayoral finalists in Redmond, Jim Robinson, wants to raise taxes on business, which is a sign of declining Republican orthodoxy in the 'burbs.

Redmond is also trying to have a kinder, more consensual form of politics after its feisty previous mayor, Rosemary Ives, and this trend toward "maturity" after an age of low-yield activism still seems to me the dominant local mood. We're going to end up with a very different (and much improved) School Board, and probably a more coherent Port of Seattle. The change at City Council will be less noticeable, though if Harrell were to win and Tim Burgess upset incumbent David Della (those two were not on the ballot, as they passed directly to the general election), that would tip the balance in a moderate direction.

Oh, there was an election yesterday?

Knute Berger: It wasn't a very exciting election to start with, but the move to an August primary made it a dud, with turnout projections in the low-30 percent range. When I showed up at my polling place, McGilvra Elementary School in Seattle, around 9 a.m., I was greeted by poll workers with the news that I was the third voter they'd seen – confirmed when I dropped my ballot into the machine. Granted, most folks vote by mail now. Poll voters are the Dodo birds of the election process, and we'll all be filling out mail-in by 2008, supposedly.

There is a longstanding tradition here of tuning out politics until after Labor Day, and I pity candidates trying to get attention during the dog days of summer. I remember at Seattle Weekly – back in the old days when the Weekly did election endorsements – we once ran our primary recommendations ballot in August and nobody noticed. People called in a week or so later demanding to know why we hadn't run a ballot that year!

A lot of people are just out of town: That's why the I-5 roadwork is taking place this month, not September. Many others are just on a mental vacation. The rationale for moving the primary from September to August was ostensibly to give election workers more time between the primary and November general election – needed in this era of ballot-counting incompetence and rancorous disputes over votes. It allows winning candidates a little breathing room if a race is close and the count drags on. But in talking with people, I was amazed how few generally well-informed folks even knew an election was happening.

My hunch has been that the August primary is a voter-suppression move by the parties to ensure primaries that draw only the most partisan and faithful. This time, though, there wasn't much to stir the passions of even a party hack. I bristle at having to declare a party affiliation on the ballot. It seemed doubly ridiculous Tuesday, a largely non-partisan election, to have to declare loyalty to choose either a guy named Noble or a guy named Nobles to be county assessor.

The "where is everyone" quality continued into the evening. I attended a primary night pundit's party in Lower Queen Anne. I foolishly took the often-clogged Denny Way during the tail end of rush hour, only to discover the streets were empty. Had I missed an evacuation order? Even more bizarre, I found a free parking space right in front of the restaurant. Perhaps I had been magically transported back to the Seattle of 1970, when the lights were about to be turned out.

These campaigns were too low-key

Chris Vance: Turnout was horrible, but let's remember that moving the primary to August was a move that reformers had sought for years.

What strikes me about all these races, particularly the countywide races for prosecutor and port commission, is how little information voters have due to the small scale of the campaigns being run. King County is the size of two and a half congressional districts. It is roughly one-third of the state. Yet none of these candidates will be able to raise enough money for TV or radio or significant amounts of direct mail. In the port races, newspaper endorsements will be key.

In the prosecutor's race, Dan Satterberg will struggle to overcome the massive partisan advantage the Democrats have. Even the best GOP candidates struggle to get to 45 percent in King County. Satterberg has a compelling message (the Maleng legacy) and resume, but will he have enough money to deliver it? As of Aug. 14, he had $100,000 in the bank – about half of what a highly contest legislative election spends these days.

Too much money in politics? Sometimes I don't think there is enough.


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