My picks for the general election ballot

In a year of change, the choices are getting easier as Election Day approaches.
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Susan Hutchison

In a year of change, the choices are getting easier as Election Day approaches.

Seattle and King County voters have a rare opportunity in local elections to break decisively with the past. I already have cast my mail ballot accordingly.

Neither outgoing Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels nor former King County Executive Ron Sims, now Deputy HUD Secretary, will be on the ballot. Neither will outgoing Seattle City Council member Jan Drago, Nickels' most effective ally on the council. The policies associated with them — that is, massive public works projects and unsustainable budget expansions — simply cannot be continued in the present period of economic and public budget distress. The policies will be easier to change with new leadership at city and county level.

In a perfect world all our local and county candidates would have gotten A or B college-level grades in introductory economics or public finance courses. Too many of our previous elected officials have seemed to lack even elemental knowledge of these subjects. The order of the day for state, county, and local elected officials has for the past decade been (to paraphrase the FDR-era statement) "tax-and-spend, borrow-and-spend, spend-and elect." We can't do that anymore and must make deliberate choices about what we truly must do and how we can pay for it.

At the outset of the Seattle mayoral and King County executive races, the choices between candidates seemed difficult. But as we near election day they have clarified, at least for me.

Mayor: Neither Joe Mallahan nor Mike McGinn entered the Seattle mayoral race with the experience we might have wished. McGinn, emerging from the primary season, seemed the savvier, most instinctive candidate. Moreover, he had been actively involved in local causes over several years. Mallahan, by contrast, displayed huge gaps in his knowledge of city issues and had a long record of not voting in local elections. His primary-campaign operation was stiff and unprofessional.

McGinn reached the November finals by riding a wave of grassroots opposition to the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  He pledged to stop it. Mallahan, by contrast, said he considered it "a settled issue," as per the state-county-local agreement to proceed accordingly.

On another major transportation issue, the Mercer Project — designed by Nickels/Drago to meld with Vulcan Inc.'s South Lake Union development plans — the candidates also differed. Mallahan said it should be set aside completely in the current economic and budget environment. McGinn fudged, implying support if costs could be contained.

McGinn, who objected to the cost of a deep-bore tunnel, surprisingly advocated extension of Sound Transit light rail into several Seattle neighborhoods that it is not now scheduled to reach. (The present three-county light rail plan already calls for upwards of $23 billion in regressive tax increases — $5 billion more than the infamous Boston Big Dig — and McGinn's proposed Seattle extensions would lift the tab even higher).

At two Crosscut editorial luncheons, McGinn hedged carefully on both the deep-bore tunnel and light-rail extensions. If elected mayor, he said, he would stick to his pledges to stop the tunnel and extend light rail. However, if community opinion was divided, he said, he would send both matters to the ballot and then abide by voters' decisions. He also sent an important signal that he might as mayor compete with Tim Eyman as a ballot-measure champion. He said he took pride in having supported all recent revenue-raising levies, initiatives, and other ballot measures. As mayor, he said, he would be likely to resort to them frequently.

Both candidates made important switches in their primary-season positions.  Mallahan — within hours of naming a downtown-establishment campaign advisory committee, including lawyers and others deriving income from the Mercer Project, Sound Transit light rail, and related big-ticket schemes — reversed himself on the Mercer Project and said he would proceed with it, but with an eye toward cost containment.

McGinn undertook an even more dramatic reversal — in fact, a defining one — earlier this week when he suddenly announced that if elected he would not oppose a deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct but would support the state-county-city agreement to do it. In a split second he walked away from what had been his cornerstone issue in the campaign.

Mallahan's Mercer Project reversal was unattractive.

 I read it as the action of an inexperienced candidate yielding to the bad advice of local big shots he need not have taken seriously. But McGinn's was unforgivable. You do not seek office, and plead for support, on a single issue (in this case, the tunnel) from which you walk away in a campaign's closing days. (It is as if George McGovern, in 1972, had suddenly switched from opposition to support of the Vietnam War two weeks before election day.)

Mallahan need not have made his switch on the Mercer Project.  Establishmentarian business and labor groups will support him anyway, because of their fear of McGinn's unpredictability. It was not a disqualifying action, in any case. But McGinn's switch on the tunnel revealed him as being more than unpredictable; it revealed him as unprincipled.

Mallahan projects as an honest if still inexperienced man whose business background would predispose him to weighing costs and benefits of city policy alternatives. Watching and listening to him, I believe he would emphasize provision of quality city services to Seattle neighborhoods over continuance of grandiose and unaffordable public-works schemes benefiting chosen insiders. He also projects a sense of openness that would be welcome after the uptight, closed-door eight Nickels years.

A Mallahan mayoralty would present some risk. A McGinn mayoralty would present unacceptable risk.


County executive: Here, too, the choice has clarified as the campaign has worn on. I would enthusiastically have supported state legislators Ross Hunter or Fred Jarrett in a general-election campaign for the nonpartisan office. However, neither Democrat made it to the finals; veteran County Council member Dow Constantine did.

Democrats enjoy a huge registration edge in the county. Constantine, therefore, has based much of his campaign on his long partisan affiliation, in contrast to former TV anchorwoman Susan Hutchison's uncertain affiliation. (Hutchison says she is a genuine independent who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans and who is endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans). More recently, Constantine's allies have attacked Hutchison on the basis that she might not be pro-choice.

As the general-election campaign has proceeded, Constantine has diminished himself with his low-politics tactics. (Neither partisan leaning, in a nonpartisan office, nor presumed position on a social issue has anything to do with the duties of the King County executive). Moreover, Constantine's service on the County Council has marked him as a man who consistently has sided with county bureaucrats and special-interest groups that have helped put the county in its present financial and budget hole. Hutchison not only is unassociated with these policies but credibly has pledged a top-to-bottom review of them. Somewhat to my surprise, she has shown herself to be smart, tough, and well informed.

Constantine has been part of the problem and it is difficult to see him as part of a solution. Hutchison, by contrast, is a credible change agent at a time when we badly need change. She would be a truly independent advocate of county taxpayers and voters. She got my vote.


City Council: The council, during the Nickels years, was often a bullied, unquestioning body that failed to exercise its statutory powers — including the power of the purse. Among recent council members, only former Council President Peter Steinbrueck, now at Harvard, and Nick Licata consistently attempted to exercise their critical faculties and bring genuine oversight and scrutiny to mayoral initiatives. (In one notorious episode, the council first adopted Licata's proposal that hard cost estimates and revenue sources should be specified before a go-ahead was granted for Nickels' Mercer Project. Then, when the deadline passed for submission of the data — and no data were forthcoming — the council, at Drago's urging, reversed itself and gave a first-phase go-ahead anyway).

Licata's reelection is imperative. He is the single council member we can least afford to lose. David Bloom and Robert Rosencrantz also could be expected to bring conscientious, independent judgment to the Council Chamber. Bloom would be mindful of the interests, in particular, of middle- and low-income citizens now often overlooked in city policy. Rosencrantz, a real-world small businessman, would bring that badly needed perspective to the council. Dick Conlin has been a conscientious council member and deserves reelection. He too often has been part of a passive, go-along majority on the council. But his posture might change as his colleagues changed.

Sally Bagshaw, Jesse Israel, and Mike O'Brien are candidates for whom I might have voted in another circumstance. But I fear that Bagshaw and Israel would be rubber stamps for downtown-establishment wishes. O'Brien, like his friend McGinn, is just too unpredictable to risk.

Other races: Among other contests, I regarded those for the Seattle School Board as most vital. Michael DeBell has earned reelection. I voted for Betty Patu over Wilson Chin — mainly because of Patu's long personal commitment to students at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Most importantly, I voted for Kay Smith-Blum over Mary Bass. Bass's departure from the board would be addition by subtraction. She has been an uninformed, disputatious, and disruptive force in a system now getting positive leadership from a new system administration.

Ballot measures: I voted for Referendum 71, affirming gay rights, and against Tim Eyman's Initiative 1033, another of his tax-limitation measures.

The political establishment hereabouts holds Eyman in equal scorn with Karl Rove. They miss a major point, however. Eyman's proposals draw popular support because voters do not believe elected officials would limit taxing and spending without such artificial constraints.

I don't like ballot measures in general and regard Eyman's tax-limitation proposals as inflexible and damaging to public policymaking. I did vote for his measure establishing state performance audits — and so did a strong majority of other state voters. State Auditor Brian Sonntag, operating under that mandate, has helped keep public and quasi-public agencies honest.

In these relatively tough times, we should recognize that local politicians quite frequently ask the question: "How can we get new tax revenues to do what we want to do?" They almost never ask the question: "How can we manage government more efficiently and within citizens' capacity to finance it?" Tax breaks granted here to companies and sectors amount to three times the size of our state's biennial budget. A review and repeal of only a few would close our present budget gap immediately and make Eyman disappear.

Over a lifetime in politics, I have found the actual casting of votes to be an uplifting, even inspiring exercise — although less so since mail balloting began to supplant in-person, election-day voting at local precincts.  This also is a time for gratitude for those who step forward as candidates. A several-month campaign is a punishing, draining exercise for the candidates themselves. It is a time of financial sacrifice, absence from family, and day-and-night demands from petitioning groups. 

May my own candidates win; may all who ran prosper and continue their involvement in public life.


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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