Heading into fall local elections, with primaries in mid-August, we face big issues and a paucity of large-minded candidates capable of dealing with those issues intelligently.
True, small signs of national economic renewal are beginning to be seen: lowering business inventories, strengthening bank balance sheets, and what appears to be a slowing in the rate of the housing-price collapse. We may be near or at the bottom of the most serious downturn since the 1930s.
But the way back will be stop-and-start. Stimulus monies, intended to jump-start growth, have thus far been coming from Washington, D.C. in a trickle (less than 10 percent of them in the pipeline). Bank balance sheets, thanks to the feds, are improving but a general unfreezing of credit is still distant. Federal debt has skyrocketed and $1 trillion-plus annual federal budget deficits are projected for several years ahead. And unemployment rates — which begin to ease only six months after the actual end of a downturn — are unlikely to improve until the latter part of 2010.
Bottom line: Our local economies, as the national economy, will be hurting for at least the next 18 months. Slow growth will mean fewer public tax revenues. State and local budget deficits will remain high. Tough times call for tough-minded leadership. But, in Washington state and especially in Seattle, such leadership is hard to find. Why is that?
If you think local elections are meaningless, consider what our city might be like today had Mark Sidran or Paul Schell been elected mayor eight years ago rather than Greg Nickels. Nickels' tenure has been one more usually associated with big cities, where downtown money and power call the tune and elected officials dance to it. Huge, expensive projects such as Sound Transit light rail, subsidies and streetcars for Vulcan's South Lake Union real estate development, and the proposed Mercer Mess redo (also designed to benefit Vulcan) — these things have taken precedence over provision of basic public services.
While light rail, involving the largest local-level tax increase in American history, will carry small numbers of riders from a handful of fixed-point stations, our local bus system, carrying many times more riders at less cost to far more destinations, keeps getting cut back. Nickels even went so far as to defer basic bridge and street maintenance for several years, spending the budgeted money elsewhere, before (successfully!) going to voters for a special levy to do the work he should have done within the normal city budget.
Sidran, said to be interested in a regional EPA appointment, appears to lack interest in a rematch with Nickels. Former City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, a one-sided winner in polling matchups against Nickels, will forgo the mayor's race for a study sabbatical. Council member Nick Licata, also a winner in matchups against Nickels, has chosen to seek reelection to the council rather than challenge Nickels. Business executive Joe Mallahan, whose personal savings would allow him to match Nickels' campaign war chest, appears earnest but ignorant of local issues and of politics in general. Retiring Council member Jan Drago, not seeking reelection, is talking up her own mayoral candidacy. Drago, when it comes to public policy, is Nickels in drag. She has been Vulcan's and other developers' most avid and consistent agent on the council.
Not a promising outlook for constructive change only a few months ahead of the mayoral election.
Our council is not corrupt. But its members collectively seem not to understand the relationship of their legislative body to the Mayor's office. In the oft-used phrase, the executive proposes; the legislative disposes. But, with the exception of Licata, most council members seem focused more on going along and getting along with Nickels/Drago agendas than they are in applying critical oversight to them. If you attend or watch on TV many council meetings, you know that they often are empty exercises in hyper-courtesy (among council members and toward the executive branch) rather than ough-minded examinations of city policy. With Drago and Richard McIver leaving the council, there's a chance that a couple strong newcomers, added to Licata, could help energize returning incumbents and make the council a genuine working body.
Reformers are back this year with a proposal to elect council members partly at large and partly by district. This would be a good change. An even better one would be to elect all by district, as most other major cities do. Downtown power and money truly do dominate an agenda where all council members are elected at large and thus depend for their reelections on those in the city with the most political juice and money. It was easy, for instance, for the council to approve the expensive but running-near-empty Allentown trolley from Westlake Center to South Lake Union while cutting local bus service in city neighborhoods. Council members representing solely those neighborhoods would have voted otherwise.
The experience and backgrounds of candidates for King County Executive are stronger than those thus far seeking the Seattle mayorship. As I consider my own vote in this race, I will eliminate at the outset those prominently involved in the Sound Transit light rail scam — most notably Larry Phillips, who has almost matched Nickels in his enthusiasm for this cost-ineffective system. I will not vote for Ross Hunter because of his flip dismissal of State Auditor Brian Sonntag's valuable and cost-saving performance audit program. Among the others I will be looking for evidence of common sense and independence from interest-group influence.
How did our region, once known for progressive and enlightened governance, fall into such a morass of political mediocrity and fumbling?
It often is said that constituencies get the governance they deserve. Locally it does seem we often are more interested in lifestyle or distant causes than in the meat-and-potatoes daily business of self governance. Given this complacency, those with a narrow or self-interested agenda are more likely to get their way than in a more politically-informed place. To oversimplify, Seattleites find it easier to express themselves on international and national issues, where they have marginal influence, than on state and local issues which impact their daily lives. Why pay attention to Mayor Nickels or the state Legislature when moral satisfaction is more easily derived from putting a politically-correct bumper sticker on your hybrid car?
We are complacent, also, because endangered local media have become mere shells of what they once were. The Post-Intelligencer is gone; the Seattle Times survives unprofitably and, in part, because of a new state tax subsidy. Local broadcast media long since have abandoned any attempt at serious coverage of public issues. Statewide, economically threatened newspapers have cut staff and coverage. Without their daily oversight, public officials — and those seeking something from them — can operate more freely than if such oversight existed.
Even before the current media crisis, it must be said, both the local dailies had become lazy in their state and local coverage and begun to dumb down in order to compete with alternative media, rather than smarting up in order to fill the needs of informed, more educated readers.
All is not lost. This remains the most highly educated city in the United States. It is a progressive-minded place with a reservoir of talented, capable people more than qualified for state and local office. Trouble is, in recent years most of those people have found something better to do. We need them to step forward and soon.