No, really, this is a watershed election

Beyond the pettiness of the campaign just ending lies the potential emergence of a whole new mood in Seattle-area politics. It would start with a muting of the cultural wars that have bedeviled Seattle politics ever since 9/11. Call it the revenge of the center.
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Beyond the pettiness of the campaign just ending lies the potential emergence of a whole new mood in Seattle-area politics. It would start with a muting of the cultural wars that have bedeviled Seattle politics ever since 9/11. Call it the revenge of the center.

Tuesday's election, following a dispiriting campaign loaded up with petty issues, is actually a kind of watershed election. Or it might be, depending on the results. Permit me to explain, as we head to the voting booth, those few of us who still enjoy the face-to-face experience at the polls. The first thing you have to do is look past the phony issues. Among the bogus ones that seemed to catch our attention and distract the voters from the underlying issues are these: Can we vote for somebody, even for nonpartisan office in Seattle, who on rare occasion favors a Republican? How well did Venus Velazquez apologize for her DUI arrest? Do we prove our manhood by finally voting for rapid transit, after the setback of 1968 (oh the shame!)? Or by slapping down Tim Eyman yet again? Should you trust what insurance companies say? Can we expunge white racism from Seattle? Does fixing the S-curves on Interstate 405 endanger the planet? Give me a break! Far more important than those mildly diverting stories is the larger narrative of this election, which I would define as the attempt by a pragmatic politics to transcend the culture-wars liberalism of the past four years. Cultural or symbolic liberalism is concerned about hot-button but second-tier issues and the perpetuation of false dichotomies over these issues. Examples are: rail versus cars, punishing affluent parents who help their schools with cake sales, saving the port for old-fashioned jobs, defining all transportation issues in apocalyptic terms of endangering the earth, bashing all suburban values with the catch-all slur of sprawl, and describing anyone who has worked in the private sector as the evil twin of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney's Haliburton. Against all this posturing on the extremes is a counter movement that has gone largely unnoticed in the election. Call it the revenge of the center. First chapter in the deeper narrative is an attempted legislative revival. The legislative branch of local government is in a decadent state, scrapping over marginal issues and giving the mayors, port executives, and school board superintendents fits. We're coming off an indulgence of this kind of activist agitation on many of these bodies, and it will be interesting to see if the seasoned pragmatists prevail. The revival is most apparent on the Seattle School Board, where a group of parents, business leaders, and some politicians (including, to his credit, Mayor Greg Nickels), fed up with the shenanigans of the current board, fielded four strong challengers, most with real-world experience. The same theme is strong at the Port of Seattle, with two veterans of international trade and large enterprises, Gael Tarleton and Bill Bryant, running to replace Bob Edwards and Alec Fisken. Fisken in particular has tormented the current commission with his narrow conception of port business (boats and planes). The key figure in the Seattle City Council races is Tim Burgess, also a successful businessperson and a moderate, daring to challenge David Della, an incumbent whose main claim to office is loyalty to unions and advocating for minority issues. The council may be able to move from taking pot shots on the margin to working effectively with a strong mayor on some bolder initiatives, though it still has a long way to go. Second chapter is the search for a regional coherence, as epitomized by Proposition 1, the multibillion-dollar roads-and-transit measure. Merits of the proposal aside, what intrigues me is its potential to provide a framework for regional cooperation, mixing rapid transit with more roads, spreading congestion relief across three counties, and empowering new regional entities such as the Prosperity Partnership (an economic development consortium of leaders across four central Puget Sound counties), the Regional Transportation Investment District (created by the state to sort out transportation solutions at the three-county level), and Sound Transit. Again, in the recent past, we have indulged ourselves with feel-good but unbuildable transportation proposals (such as the Seattle Monorail Project and the waterfront tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct) that split the region and pit city and suburb against each other. Meanwhile, the state and outlying politicians have grown heartily sick of these Seattle-driven ideas and the vacillation and isolationist style of the Nickels administration. If Prop 1 passes, or comes close enough to encourage the new regionalists, we may be witnessing the birth of a new generation of regional statesmen with the clout to make Seattle act its size. Related to that, in my third chapter, is a revival of bipartisanship, at least at the local level. Here the key symbolism has been around the King County prosecutor's race, where it has seemed fine for Bill Sherman to run as a proud Democrat but wrong for Dan Satterberg (the very soul of a moderate independent) to accept a dime from the GOP. Similarly, Tim Burgess has been waterboarded for once or twice giving money to a Republican, as if being able to appeal to Republicans around the county and in Olympia could not possibly be an advantage. This intense partisanship has started to turn off people, I suspect, even as the Bush aversion remains strong at the national level. The real significance of a muting of partisanship will be an ability to work across the aisle, across the Lake, and with the Frank Chopp Democrats (who want to mute all the cultural wars that cause Democrats to lose outside Seattle). It's a lesson that neither Ron Sims nor Dino Rossi, seemingly intent on energizing the extremes, have yet learned. Peter Maier, one of the attractive insurgents running for Seattle School Board against diehard activist Sally Soriano (launched into local prominence by the World Trade Organization barricades she stormed), says this election is about "leadership and change." Sherry Carr, another challenger running against Darlene Flynn (whose main theme, pushed very aggressively, has been to stamp out institutional racism in our schools), says the election is about "winning back confidence" in the schools. "Leadership and confidence" seem almost quaint after these years of tearing down trust in our governmental agencies – the Iraq Effect, if you will. Take away trust and leadership and you have well-organized interest groups flourishing and making off with goodies where they can. Restore it across the region, and especially in the faltering legislative branches, and you restore the promise of grappling with the big issues of our time. Until that day, you get elections like the current one where you can't really talk about the big topics: Viaduct, 520 bridge, keeping the Sonics, tax reform, lasting school reform, congestion pricing, saving Seattle from turning into "an urban resort," true public funding for the arts, and effective programs to cut the carbon count. If this really is a watershed election, or an important start of that momentum, those big issues will once more be up for resolution.


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