Seattle City Council races: It's the biography, stupid!

With lots of big controversies out there, this season's campaigns are light on issues. Instead, it's all life stories, all the time. What gives?
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Seattle City Council candidates in contested races, 2007. CLICK TO ENLARGE

With lots of big controversies out there, this season's campaigns are light on issues. Instead, it's all life stories, all the time. What gives?

Remember The Great Viaduct Debate? Earlier this year the city and region were consumed with the future of the elevated waterfront freeway. The debate was heated and involved big questions about capacity, car emissions, transit alternatives, livability. It was a momentous discussion about what kind of city we want to be and how we want to plan our future.

On the City Council campaign trail this season, what you hear about the Alaskan Way Viaduct is – almost nothing. Oh sure, the candidates all have positions on what should be done to replace the old, earthquake-vulnerable structure, mostly supporting a surface-transit option. With the exception of longshot Judy Fenton, who favors a retrofit, the candidates bring up the waterfront transportation issue only when asked. It's never in their stump speeches.

What a difference a few months makes.

But it's not just the Viaduct. One might argue that general issue fatigue has set in. Many of the big issues facing our city and region are mostly ignored in this year's City Council races. Instead, everyone wants to talk about their life stories. Call it the A&E Biography campaign, or, if you like, "It's the biography, stupid!"

For instance, Venus Velazquez spent a lot of time (before her DUI arrest, at least) talking about her "decisiveness" and how proud she is of sometimes ruffling feathers and what a good mother she is. Her opponent, Bruce Harrell, has spent just as much time talking about his approach to civic issues and what a great dad he is. He says he's "collaborative," clearly an attempt to create a contrast.

David Della says he's shown "leadership" on the council, without really talking about how he would put that to use in a second term, instead dwelling on his past roots in the community. Tim Burgess says, as often as he can, that he would be the real leader going forward. But then he goes on to talk about all the jobs he has had in the past that "uniquely" qualify him for office.

In sum, it's a City Council campaign season that is unusually heavy on style and feather-light on policy.

"Seattle has always been a resume town, but I would have hoped that candidates would have come out with agendas for solutions," says former council President Sue Donaldson. She has given money to Jean Godden (who is challenged by Joe Szwaja) and Sally Clark (the incumbent Fenton is challenging) but is neutral on the other races.

Indeed, I don't recall ever hearing the phrase "I have a plan" from any of the nine candidates – something more than just a position on an issue, such as a memorable comprehensive proposal or a big area they want to stake out as their own if elected. Instead, the candidates seem more comfortable talking about small things and spending money, like renewing the very popular pro-parks levy and adding more police officers. That's about as bold as things get, policy-wise.

There are some big issues and tough decisions out there, such as the looming $22 million shortfall Seattle faces starting in 2009 because of a change in state tax law. One huge issue, generally avoided, is big Proposition 1, the roads-and-transit measure that would have a enormous impact on the city if it passes. The multibillion-dollar package would lay down miles of light rail, grapple with the Mercer Mess, help make a surface solution possible for the Viaduct, and put some big bucks down on a Highway 520 bridge solution. You'd think increasing the sales tax to 9.5 percent, as Proposition 1 would do, might stir up the political embers. But no: It's never a major theme, either pro or con, on the council campaign trail.

Of course, there's always a risk in taking stands or offering up bold plans during campaigns, giving opponents an opening. But avoiding big issues doesn't seem to help candidates avoid big attacks. This being a biography campaign has probably made things more acrimonious, personal, and negative, not less, than would be the case in a more issues-oriented election cycle.

For instance, Velazquez spends a lot of time reminding audiences, pointedly, that her kids go to public schools, implying that she is more connected to everyday people. That forces Harrell (whose own kids go to private schools) to spend time telling people that at least he went to public school in Seattle - his way of implying that Venus didn't grow up here. It's an uncomfortable and unflattering exchange that I've seen a number of times this season.

Burgess and Della have been even more direct in their personal attacks. Della takes every opportunity to point out Burgess's ad agency had as a client a conservative non-profit group, trying to spread doubt on Burgess' values and imply that Burgess is a closet Republican. (City Council races are non-partisan, but having any Republican taint in overwhelmingly Democratic Seattle is usually not an advantage.) Burgess relentlessly pounds away at what he calls Della's failed leadership on all major issues, implying that the incumbent is not up to the job.

Council races are not always this way. Four years ago, when Della and Godden were first elected, the campaigns, while heated, were centered more around specific issues. Della made a big fuss (and, with it, big headway) on the issue of the management of Seattle City Light; Godden was able to get a lot of traction on the issue of council ethics. You certainly knew what policy platforms they were running on.

Likewise, the council races two years ago were more issues-based than background-based. The Seattle Monorail Project was a big topic, and all the incumbents were put on the hot seat about their weak oversight of the foundering agency.

Certainly, style and background matter. They can be a good indicator of how someone will perform in public office – sometimes better clues for the voter than focus-group-tested white papers. However, close races are good opportunities to dramatize important issues and to generate a popular mandate for a particular policy. Not this time around.


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