On returning to an unrecognizable home state

A veteran political insider writes a discerning book about being witness to an eventful history. His return to Seattle and his native state brings a shock at discovering how a once-exceptional political climate had soured into something depressingly like that of the rest of the nation, where the people's real needs are not addressed with forthright leadership.
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From the campaign trail in 1968: campaign manager Larry O'Brien, Vice President and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, and aide Ted Van Dyk.

A veteran political insider writes a discerning book about being witness to an eventful history. His return to Seattle and his native state brings a shock at discovering how a once-exceptional political climate had soured into something depressingly like that of the rest of the nation, where the people's real needs are not addressed with forthright leadership.

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted with permission from a new book by Ted Van Dyk, Heroes, Hacks, and Fools: Memoirs from the Political Inside (University of Washington Press, 2007). The book recounts the author's long career as a key advisor on presidential campaigns, to Democratic think tanks, to foreign affairs groups, and to other key organizations. Van Dyk grew up in Bellingham, Wash., and graduated from UW before heading East for a fascinating life in public affairs. In 2001, he returned to his native state, settling in Seattle and writing a regular column for the Post-Intelligencer. In this excerpt, he describes what he found in Seattle and Washington state politics upon his return.

Van Dyk will read from his book and take questions at an author event at Town Hall (Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street in Seattle) on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 7:30 pm. Tickets are $5 at the door.

Seattle had changed greatly since my time growing up in the area, and even since my brief return in 1978-80. A region previously dependent primarily on Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, and a few other huge employers had become diverse. New companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, and a wide array of high-tech and biotech firms had broadened the local economic base and made it less vulnerable to cyclical swings. The city's culture had become vibrant. World-class art, architecture, and performing arts were now embedded in the city's daily life, as were the popular-music and arts scenes. The Gates Foundation had become a philanthropic powerhouse.

The city's demographics had changed, however, in an even more marked way than in other big cities. The Seattle School Board had voluntarily instituted compulsory busing for racial balance in the late 1970s at precisely the time that other communities around the country had given up on it. As kids were bused from their neighborhoods and instruction levels suffered during the transition period, thousands of parents moved with their school-age children to the suburbs or enrolled them in private schools. Students remaining in the public-school system were disproportionately poor or members of minorities. Dropout, truancy, and delinquency rates shot up. In addition, school system mismanagement created a huge funding gap. Public schools that a generation earlier had been at the center of Seattle neighborhood and community life became marginalized. I recalled Seattle's Memorial Stadium being jammed with students and parents for Friday night high-school football games. By 2001 the games were being played before scattered handfuls of spectators. The city had fewer school-age kids than any other big city in the nation except San Francisco.

The middle class had fled the city not only because of the schools. It also could no longer afford housing in Seattle. Home prices – bid up in part by high-tech instant millionaires – had risen to the highest level of any city north of San Francisco and west of Washington, D.C. Working families and senior citizens already owning homes found their property taxes rising beyond their means. They could sell their homes at a profit, but afterward could afford to buy only in lower-cost suburbs.

I was most surprised to find that the populist, feisty politics of the city – historically associated with practical liberals such as Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson – had changed as well. The city remained solidly Democratic. But its nominally nonpartisan city offices were no longer graced with the periodic Republican mayor or City Council members who had helped provide balance. Preponderant opinion on national issues appeared to fall somewhere between Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich. Howard Dean would be a favorite of city Democrats, and endorsed by the party's state chairman, during the 2004 presidential nominating process.

Yet the city governance conducted by the same people was less Ralph Nader than Benito Mussolini. Seattle mayor Paul Schell, a real-estate developer and cultural liberal, had been unseated after one term for his failure to deal effectively with 1999 WTO and Mardi Gras violence in the city. He was succeeded by Greg Nickels, a lifetime political worker, who narrowly defeated moderate Democrat and City Attorney Mark Sidran. Nickels promptly instituted major subsidies for developers – including an estimated $500 million to $1 billion subsidy for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's commercial real-estate development on South Lake Union. He endorsed multibillion-dollar public works schemes including monorail and light rail systems that proved to be far more costly than alternative bus and bus-rapid-transit options.

Nickels' and City Council members' ties to developers such as Allen and the rail projects brought them re-election campaign money from the network of law firms, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, unions, architects, financial institutions, and engineering firms involved with the projects. It proved a handsome bargain for the donors, who could provide thousands in campaign money and, in return, receive hundreds of millions in public money approved by mayor and council. Local business and media establishments generally accepted the situation uncritically.

While citizens amused themselves at Bumbershoot, a music and arts festival; Hempfest, a city-sponsored marijuana festival; Seafair, a celebration involving hydroplane races, Blue Angel flyovers, and boosters in pirate costumes; the Gay Pride parade; boating, skiing, camping, climbing, and whale-watching, the public business was being run as in one of those towns in black-and-white Hollywood Westerns – the ones where local big shots profit and call the tune, public officials eat at their trough, and the townfolk eat dirt and pay the bills. Low voter turnout and high public complacency seemed likely to keep the situation as it was. At the state level, nominally liberal governors and legislatures had blown huge holes in the revenue base with "tax expenditures" – subsidies and loopholes extended to favored industries and companies – while raising taxes on consumers, small business, and homeowners.

I also remembered Seattle as having been a lively and competitive newspaper town. When I was growing up, the Post-Intelligencer, Times ,and Star had competed for daily readers. On my return, only the Post-Intelligencer and Times remained, existing under a joint operating agreement whereby the Times was responsible for circulation, advertising, and printing functions, and the P-I maintained only an editorial staff. Both had become morning papers; the Sunday edition was wholly the Times except for a shared editorial-page section. Both papers' circulations had been shrinking, the P-I's more sharply than its rival's. Seattle, in fact, remained the smallest American city with two competing morning newspapers. A renegotiated joint operating agreement appears likely to keep both papers alive but unprofitable.

The plight of Seattle's newspapers was not unlike that of newspapers in other cities. Alternative media, the Internet, and cable news channels are becoming the news sources of choice for many citizens; traditional newspapers and conventional network news programs are losing their audiences. Local television news broadcasts in Seattle, as elsewhere, had in any case long since abandoned any attempt at serious, hard-news coverage and had shifted to weather, crime, and lifestyle stories more to the tastes of a shrinking base of viewers.

Washington once had been a swing state in national politics, capable of going for either major party's national nominees. Liberal Seattle always had been balanced by independent and more conservative voters in the suburbs and the eastern part of the state. But by the time of my return, not only had Seattle become a true-blue bastion of political correctness, but its suburbs and much of the Puget Sound area had moved more strongly toward the Democratic column. Only the more lightly populated farming and ranching Eastern Washington remained reliably Republican. While George W. Bush had won the 2000 national electoral vote, Washington had been carried handily by Gore (and would be carried just as easily in 2004 by John Kerry). In 2004, moderate Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi would lose to Christine Gregoire only after three ballot recounts and a dispute over lost and mishandled ballots in liberal King County. But his victory would have been an upset in what had become a Democratic state.

I found, further, that my home state's governors and legislature, and Seattle's mayors and city council, had fallen into the California habit of bucking difficult political issues to the electorate for resolution, rather than dealing with them at the state capitol or city hall, as they presumably were elected to do. Initiatives and referenda had become vehicles for tax increases and rollbacks; teachers' pay increases; construction of cost-ineffective rail systems; looser marijuana-law enforcement; and a host of other matters. These ballot measures, used primarily in Western states, had been seen at the beginning of the 20th century as direct-democracy checks on powerful mining and railroad interests that had used their power and money to corrupt and control state and local elected officials. But now they were being used by powerful interests to short-circuit normal policymaking processes. A well-financed, organized interest group could sponsor a ballot measure to satisfy its objectives and prevail over diffuse, disorganized, or unfunded opposition in situations where it might not have been able to do so through a deliberative legislative process. This was particularly true if the measures were on the ballot in low-turnout, off-year elections in which disciplined and motivated supporters could more easily dominate the process.

Away from my home state and city, I had thought of them as progressive, clean-politics oases in an often arid national political landscape. On my return I found that they maintained high-road pretensions, but in practice were just as fumbling and often corrupt as anywhere else. Seattle was not exceptional. It had undergone the same changes that had swept other regions and cities.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.