A bad election for moderates

Everywhere, the independent voters are gaining, but not here. An analysis of the problems some solution-seeking centrists faced, and how Susan Hutchison and Joe Mallahan failed on the candor tests.
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Joe Mallahan, a candidate out of nowhere

Everywhere, the independent voters are gaining, but not here. An analysis of the problems some solution-seeking centrists faced, and how Susan Hutchison and Joe Mallahan failed on the candor tests.

Seattle politics is in a fascinating state of flux: new mayor, new gang coming into power, new sustainability agenda emerging. I like that. We've been coasting for the past decade on tires that were wearing thin — Build Tall Fast. The juggernaut politics of real estate and densification/gentrification had created a kind of iron triangle of interests that needed a good shake. New talent needed to find a way into power by having a more inclusive mayor. All good, potentially.

I wish this change-election had gone further, empowering another new force: the independent center. Roping in disaffected independents is critical to resolving some of the big issues. But in most cases, the new faces from the vital center had trouble, and the electorate (and media) reverted to partisanship. What went wrong?

Start with Susan Hutchison, who bombed in her run for county executive against Dow Constantine, losing 59-41. I think her basic mistake was to rely on Dino Rossi's aw-shucks strategy of brushing off all questions about divisive social issues, such as abortion (not a local issue, etc.) and her obvious-to-all past Republican leanings. Everyone knows, when you dodge issues like that, that you are probably on the conservative side, the less popular side, of the ledger, so nobody is really fooled. But the stonewalling candidate looks inauthentic, untrustworthy, devious. It keeps the credibility issue alive in the media, enabling Constantine to win simply by charging that Hutchison was (gasp!) a Republican once. To get the independents' vote, you have to level with them, avoid political evasions, be your authentic self. (Query: Can anchorpersons actually retain an authentic self after years on the banquet circuit and on the tube?)

Too, Hutchison's past, from what I can tell talking with people who knew her in unguarded moments in recent years, was quite conservative. She probably wasn't going to be able to come off as a new version of Jennifer Dunn, the popular Eastside Republican congresswoman with many decidedly moderate views on education and the environment. Not a good choice if the GOP really wants to capture the independents and the center.

You can't wish your past away, and if you don't put those values out there, saying you've changed in some regards and want to build on some other beliefs you consider core, you just look false and unprepared. (Congressman Dave Reichert, for instance, hardly denies that he once was a sheriff.) The Democrats had only to warn that the "real" Hutchison (fill in the blank with whatever fears you may have) would emerge after the election. Who wants to chance that, particularly with someone so totally inexperienced?

In the mayor's race, Joe Mallahan exhibited some of the same problems. He disappeared behind his screen of consultants. He didn't put enough new ideas out there so that people could think he would be an agent of change, not an agent of the Nickels gang. Just as Hutchison refused to make her core experiences into a strength, so Mallahan never really showed how his business experience (which he wouldn't even discuss) could lead to some strong ideas, Mayor Bloomberg-style, for shaking things up.

At the very least, Mallahan needed to take a position on something where he clearly differed from Nickels, enough to draw his ire. As it was, this election turned into four thumpings of Greg Nickels, who has become a kind of George W. Bush of local politics. First was the primary, where Nickels was dumped and Nickels-ish Jan Drago was thrashed. The general election did it again, with Mallahan wearing a Nickels Halloween mask (and looking almost as saturnine and grim as the mayor). Fourth, Nickels' erstwhile pal, City Attorney Tom Carr, got shellacked, 64-36, by a relative unknown, Pete Holmes. Have we got this auto-da-fe over with at last?

On election night, I went to the joint party of City Council candidates Sally Bagshaw, who won by a mile (69-30) in taking over Drago's seat (and something of her role), and Jessie Israel, a compelling newcomer who lost by a half-mile (57-43) to a tired Nick Licata. Both Bagshaw and Israel ran to the center.

Bagshaw, let me disclose, is a pal and a member of the Crosscut Public Media board, so I didn't want to write about her during the campaign. But, if I may, I would say she ran a pitch-perfect race, the moderate as peacemaker and open-minded conflict resolver. This was also very consistent with her role in the early days of the waterfront park planning for the Viaduct and her specialty in her legal career; in short, her authentic self. No strain there. What you see is what you get — a sunny moderate. She even had the nerve (and the grace) at her victory party to say, "We ran this race every day as if Norm Maleng were by my side." She thereby mentioned a Republican mentor, the late, beloved King County prosecutor, and reminded all in the room about Maleng's enduring message: Seek justice and always be decent in politics.

Bagshaw also seemed to read the independent voter right, a person looking for stability and not too much governmental over-stretch. Here's how The New York Times' columnist David Brooks put it, in a recent column on the rise of the educated independent voter, how that voter is moving away from both parties, and how volatile this vote now is:

If I were a politician trying to win back independents, I'd say something like this: When I was a kid, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the U.S. Each state was a piece, and on it there was a drawing showing what people made there. California might have movies; Washington state, apples; New York, fashion or publishing. That puzzle represented an economy that was diverse and deeply rooted.

We've lost that. First Wall Street got disproportionately big, then Washington. It's time to return to fundamentals. No short-term fixes. Government should do what it's supposed to do: schools, roads, basic research. It should not be picking CEOs or setting pay or fizzing up the economy with more debt. It should give people the tools to compete, not rig the competition. Lines of restraint have dissolved, and they need to be restored.

Independents support the party that seems most likely to establish a frame of stability and order, within which they can lead their lives. They can't always articulate what they want, but they withdraw from any party that threatens turmoil and risk. As always, they're looking for a safe pair of hands.

Jessie Israel was also very classy at the election night party at a Belltown restaurant, even as the surprisingly poor results rolled in. She's a kind of post-modern independent, making a virtue out of the odd-bedfellows coalition of Licata opponents she put together: "Gals, greens, and suits." She did a shout-out to the construction trades unions — "dudes with power tools and a 35-year-old girl; how cool is that!" &mdash right along with her whoop for "Bikers in the room." It was a get-things-done, enrich-the-blend kind of appeal.

Didn't work. The problem was not with the candidate, who really can command a room. It was, again, no real message beside the stylistics of youth and a dissonant coalition that was weird enough to be unsettling. Licata is a still-popular incumbent, a valuable populist goad and accountability demon. You don't beat that with just a fresh face and an agenda of solving unnamed problems.

Other moderates also did not do well. Jordan Royer was eliminated in the primary for the Richard McIver seat that Mike O'Brien, the far-green candidate, ultimately won, 58-42. Royer tried to talk about business climates (reasonable point in a recession) and the need for more safety in the streets. He got tarred by the thought-patrollers on the no-deviationist left, who pounce on the tiniest past wanderings from party loyalty. Ross Hunter and Fred Jarrett (a former Republican), highly regarded suburban moderates with tons of good ideas and forceful personalities to suggest they meant them, both lost in the primary for county executive, with the most liberal Democratic candidate prevailing. Lesson here: You can't divide the moderate/reformist vote and expect to go far. Second lesson: Democrats won't allow it.

And so, while independent voters were electing governors in a few Eastern states and continuing to peel themselves off from both parties, not much happened along those lines in King County and Seattle. (Split verdicts on the Port and Seattle School Board.) We have vast numbers of these voters, secular, educated, affluent, solutions-hungry suburban moderates flocking here to join the new economy. But so far no champion.

So where will this hunger for effective centrist change go? It is a force unleashed by Obama in his call for post-partisan solutions and respectful listening to opponents. (Remember that hopeful time?) I don't think these voters will just slink back into apathy and government-distrusting, but they may. Their votes will be sought in earnest in the 2012 governor's race, especially if it's Rep. Jay Inslee versus Attorney General Rob McKenna, a reasonable prediction at this point. And it will get more serious as the economic hard times continue, making an amenities-and-uplift agenda of a Mayor McGreen seem like an elite luxury.

I don't expect much along these lines from Constantine, he of the cautious ways, since the county will all be about fending off disastrous cuts, especially for Metro. The more likely new home for solutions-moderates will be the Seattle City Council, which now has an effective centrist bloc (Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess, Bagshaw, and maybe Sally Clark). The council will be where the moderates and the business leaders turn, if Mayor Mike McGinn turns out to be too anti-establishment or too disorganized. Burgess, who looked at a mayor's race a year ago and foolishly backed off, could go into early and open political opposition to McGinn, dramatizing his politics of public safety, jobs, school reform, and efficiency, and gearing up for a mayor's race in 2013. On the other hand, the normally mercurial council might revert to its earlier self, singing from the old sustainability songbook in close harmony with McGinn and his new coalition. (Have you noticed that McGinn is really Conlin of five years ago?)

The surprise in all this could be McGinn, who more and more looks like a deft, ambitious politician. I imagine that he'll try at first to build a new team of outsiders and activists dedicated to the new agenda of carbon-phobic urgency (transit, walkability, density, pro-developer, anti-suburbs) with a good-hearted dash of inclusiveness, neighborhood sensitivity, and social justice thrown in. It might work, though the McGinn agenda probably will isolate Seattle still further from the region, the governor, Sen. Patty Murray, and the Legislature.

But if these next two years are full of rookie stumbles and if the recession stays bad, Seattle politics will change. Money from other sources will become urgent. McGinn is no fool, and his political heels are plenty round. Once in trouble, will he decide to excite his base, adding some Democratic stalwarts like unions; or move to that elusive center, a brave gamble in the lefty echo chamber of Seattle politics?

The next chapter of Seattle politics depends on how he makes that decision. The thrill and folly of the recent election ("Throw in the amateurs!") means that I have no idea which way he'll go. Do you?


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