How the Muni League's hidden bias got Seattle into its current state

Got my August primary ballot, voted and sent it in, with no help from the Municipal League.
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Joe Mallahan was the Muni League's kind of candidate, but voters went for Mike McGinn.

Got my August primary ballot, voted and sent it in, with no help from the Municipal League.

The Municipal League of King County, celebrating its centennial this year, is a non-partisan civic organization best known for its candidate ratings. Candidates rated well (top is an "Outstanding") are pleased as punch; those at the bottom complain loudly (worst grade is a "Not Qualified"). It's basically the old-school ABCDEF report-card system. Naturally, those who get an "A" trumpet their success on yard signs; those who get poor marks attack the system.

The Muni League insists its process, which involves candidate questionnaires, background checks, and evaluations by a large volunteer committee, is without any ideological bias whatsoever. They are neither Republican nor Democrat. Gabe Meyer, co-chair of the Muni League, said on KUOW recently that the process "takes out any biases that could exist."

Well, good luck with that. I don't think you can completely remove bias from any process, from media reporting to something as complicated as judging political candidates.

My take is that Muni League's bias isn't right or left, it's on behalf of a certain, establishment idea of good governance. And in a democracy, there's no objective standard about what that is. I mean, if a candidate believes in eliminating government entirely, how are they going to do in the Muni League's rankings? The League's biases are embedded in the very notion of what a public servant should be: stolid, experienced, someone who gets along with his or her peers, a leader. Turning the system upside down? Not so much.

The Muni League's Meyer describes their process as a "job interview," or as a "professional review." That in itself is unfair to some candidates because in a democracy, no credential is required. The job of a politician is not to be a leader or a CEO, it is to represent the public interest as they see it. There's no requirement that they play well with others. In fact, some of the best politicians defy the status quo.

The League has four standards for evaluation: "Involvement," "Effectiveness," "Character," and "Knowledge." They all sound great. But even as you read the League's criteria, you can whiff the bias.

For example, the League asks, "Does the candidate have a firm grasp of the issues important to his or her constituency and their potential effects?" Well, candidates for office might have very different political constituencies; they might also have vastly different ideas about the effects of policies and their "importance" (see McGinn vs. the city council). There is no objective set of issues to have a "firm grasp" of. A consensus among evaluators about what the important issues are presents a kind of bias and judgement, one that tends to marginalize candidates seen as outside the mainstream: activists, libertarians, insurgents, mavericks, populists, or people arguing to reframe issues in a new way. And, yes, it can help eliminate the nut-jobs too.

The Muni League ratings often leave big questions. For example, in 2003, former King County Council member Brian Derdowski ran for his old seat against then incumbent Dave Irons. Despite the fact that Derdowski had held the seat throughout the 1990s, the Muni League found challenger Derdowski to be "Not Qualified." No one could argue Derdowski wasn't experienced; he was also effective (and was one of the council's least partisan Republicans), and was extremely knowledgeable, especially on land use issues. In 1995, the League had rated him "Good" for the same office.

Was the downgrade a question of character raised by an unnamed informant? Certainly, Derdowski was controversial throughout his tenure and the League admits it will hear from a politician's enemies. But we don't know. All we do know is that the Muni League inexplicably found an experienced politician to be the equivalent of Goodspaceguy.

Another interesting case is the Muni League's ratings in the Seattle mayoral primary last summer. ... It's hard to see, objectively, how Joe Mallahan could possibly have grabbed an "Outstanding" ranking in comparison with Greg Nickels or Mike McGinn or Jan Drago.

Meyer says the no one ever rated "Not Qualified" has won elected office. Did the Muni League want the experienced, controversial Derdowski to receive an "unbiased" nail in his political coffin? Do the League's evaluators ever get tempted to dish out a political coup de grace?

Another interesting case is the Muni League's ratings in the Seattle mayoral primary last summer. Incumbent Greg Nickels, who had been rated "Outstanding" by the League prior to his first mayoral election, had now slumped to "Very Good." Outsider challenger Mike McGinn was ranked as "Good," as was longtime city councilmember Jan Drago. But business executive Joe Mallahan somehow rated an "Outstanding." It's hard to see, objectively, how Joe Mallahan could possibly have grabbed an "Outstanding" ranking in comparison with Nickels or McGinn or Drago.

Here's a theory: the Muni League evaluators wanted change, and a guy who said the right things to position himself as a "pragmatic" centrist with a business background was just the ticket, a veritable Muni League poster-child of a candidate. Joe Mallahan: the insider's outsider. The Muni League's boost of confidence — and the ratings can help in close races among unknowns — could have been what propelled the ill-prepared, inarticulate Mallahan over the top as one of the top two picks. Unfortunately for the establishment, Mike McGinn might have rated a "C" grade, but he's a grade "A" campaigner.

Let's not pretend there's never any bias just because the Muni League's leanings are deeply embedded in their political and civic world view.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.