Beware of big stories buried at election time

A tale of two cities, as costs mysteriously balloon for Seattle's Mercer Mess
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A tale of two cities, as costs mysteriously balloon for Seattle's Mercer Mess

Politics here can be vexing (see below). But, have faith, it is even more vexing in some other venues.

I have spent part of my time over the past several years in a mid-sized central Arizona city. Over that period I have gotten to know most of the local as well as some state-level politicos and have followed local issues, though not to the degree that I follow them here.

Over a long period the Arizona city was run by a Good Ole Boy crew which put its candidates in office, mutually back-scratched, and kept public decisions and contracts in its hands. Its mayors, drawing minimal salary, traditionally retired to million-dollar homes on the hill. Midwest and California retirees, however, began to change the city's political culture and, two years ago, dumped the old crew in favor of a reform mayor with a national business background.

Now, the Good Ole Boys are back, mobilizing on behalf of a local former auto dealer with a checkered past, offering an ephemeral platform. This coming Tuesday is election day. The local daily newspaper had traditionally been allied with the pre-reform arrangement, and it did not publish negative information about the ex-auto dealer which was well known locally. Letters and e-mails to the paper were not published if they contained such information.

Finally, three days before the election, the newspaper published a front-page story reporting that the ex-auto dealer/candidate had bankrupted his business; had 8 Internal Revenue Service, four Arizona, and one local tax liens placed against his assets; had four judgments against him for non-payment to contractors; and had been involved in several court cases relating to the conduct of his business. The newspaper story carried several paragraphs of explanation by the candidate in question but no comments from the incumbent reform mayor, a third candidate, or independent citizens. At the end of the story, a sentence was added that investigations of the incumbent reform mayor and the third candidate had yielded no derogatory information.

This rather crucial information came out in the Saturday edition of the paper, the day with the least circulation of during the week. Moreover, by the time of the story's publication, a majority of all-mail balloting already had taken place in advance of Tuesday's deadline.

Over a lifetime I have witnessed similar scenarios — though few as flagrant. It reminds us that we cannot take for granted the integrity of our local political processes or, for that matter, of local media — even in a Seattle that prides itself on the relative cleanliness of its institutions.

Now to some local instances that vex me. I was shocked last year when local media treated with complacency Gov. Chris Gregoire's exemption from state taxes of tribal gaming revenues — which yield millions to other states in which tribal gaming takes place — while accepting six-figure contributions from the tribes.

Last week Seattle Transportation Director Grace Crunican presented a new budget for Mayor Greg Nickels' Mercer Corridor Plan, with a price tag, as opponents decipher the numbers, now exceeding $290 million — $100 million more than estimated six months ago. What happened? Facing a financing shortfall of $60 million when the project was estimated at $190 million, Nickels/Crunican apparently decided to double down. They added to the original plan a second phase, bringing increased costs, and a proposal to raid Bridging the Gap funds voters had been told would go for neighborhood street, bridge, biking, and sidewalk improvements. Note that it was unveiled after the primary election, since earlier release would not have helped Nickels' campaign.

What will the City Council do about this proposal? Right now it has apparent support from mayoral candidate Mike McGinn and City Council candidates Sally Bagshaw and Jessie Israel, opposition from mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan and City Council candidates Nick Licata and David Bloom.

Big news, one would think. But it has not appeared in The Seattle Times, nor has it got any local TV news and radio coverage that I know of. We need to keep an eye on the Mercer Corridor issue, not just as it evolves in the Nickels regime's dying days but as it moves front and center in fall-election debate.

This is not to imply that media in Seattle, as in the Arizona city, are biased or or in anyone's pocket. But complacent, lazy media are almost as damaging to our democracy as slanted media — especially in places, such as ours, where there are ever fewer broad-circulation sources of information.


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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