To the tired old complaint that Seattle is a one-party town, full of nothing but think-alike Jim McDermott Democrats, I would like to point out that there really are two parties.
One is the Drago Party, named in honor of Jan Drago, former power-broker at City Hall and now in temporary seclusion at the King County Council. This is the party of settled large powers, such as downtown developers, the University of Washington, labor, greens, and big business. It's the party of growth, of split-the-difference deals. Its proud achievement in the past decade is the consensus about the deep-bore tunnel, where Drago was a key backstage broker.
Opposing the Drago Party is the Licata Party, honoring the longtime goad on the City Council, Nick Licata. This is the party of grumpy populists, suspicious of large powers and their deals, obstructionist, Naderite, protective of neighborhoods and taxpayers. Dragovians like to say yes and they like bigness and overdogs; they recall the good old Scoop and Maggie days where politics in this state meant Big Labor, Big Business, and Big Government. Licatics prefer the No word and relish smallness and side with underdogs. (Think Speaker Frank Chopp, Licata's good buddy.)
Of this basic dialectic Seattle history is woven, and it's a fine, rich argument to have, over many beers. It's a little like the great national divide between the politics of power (Dad, a Republican) and of warmth (Mom, a Democrat), as analyzed by David Paul Kuhn. Like the battle of the sexes, it's not about to be resolved.
For many years, the mayor's office has been a bastion of the Drago Party, and Mayor Nickels even came to look a lot like Lady Jan. The Licata Party controled the city council (small consolation), with former stalwarts such as Peter Steinbrueck and the more youthful Richard Conlin joining St. Nick in a kind of anarchic core. No more! Role reversal set in with the last election, and we have a vivid Licatic in Mayor McGinn and a stolid bunch of Dragovian burghers in command at the council.
This was particularly clear in the contrast between the mayor's state of the city address, full of windy generalities and what-was-that threats and promises. They mayor does not like clumps of power like the establishment or labor or Microsoft. He doesn't like the traditional ways of doing things — such as actually writing out a speech once a year. He's Mike the Menace. Turns out Licata, who shied away from running for mayor this year, ended up capturing the executive branch after all.
And what of the council's long laundry list of "priorities," unveiled in vivid contrast to the mayor's speech? Why it was perfectly mayoral, promising little goodies to every interest group in much the same fashion that the boring middle 40 minutes of every State of the Union address manages to do. Mayor Nickels didn't get booted out of office; he just completed his conquest of the city council.
But there's a problem. Both sides are now acting out of character. Someone looking to broker a big deal at city hall now doesn't follow the normal pathway to a deputy mayor like Tim Ceis, smiling broadly as the big cigars are lighted, but instead has to go, grinning unconvincingly, and sit down before a Tom Rasmussen or a Jean Godden. Can they keep a straight face? Can the new mayor stand to watch all the fun go elsewhere? Will the council dare to make hard decisions than anger the swarming little interest groups that have learned to love the council's solicitude (and unwillingness to offend)?