Voter discontent: A flood threatens state's political structures

A panel of pundits sheds light on the state of our politics. A Republican questions the GOP readiness to lead, a former deputy mayor likens Seattle politics to a crowded crab pot, and all say more change is coming.

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Sen. Patty Murray

A panel of pundits sheds light on the state of our politics. A Republican questions the GOP readiness to lead, a former deputy mayor likens Seattle politics to a crowded crab pot, and all say more change is coming.

On Wednesday (Oct. 13), Crosscut held a "Political Pundit Free-for-All" in the old Elliott Bay Book Co. space in Pioneer Square. I moderated the panel of political veterans and consultants in a broad-reaching conversation about the upcoming election, Seattle politics, and the larger political context in this country.

Participating were former GOP state party Chair Chris Vance, a Crosscut contributor who has also served on the King County Council, as a state representative in Olympia, and is currently on the state's payroll as a part-time advisor to state schools Superintendent Randy Dorn; Anne Fennessy, principal in the public affairs consulting firm of Cocker Fennessey and a former aide to Gov. Mike Lowry and Mayor Charles Royer; and Tim Ceis, also now a consultant, principal with Ceis, East & Bayne, who has worked for Gary Locke, Ron Sims and most recently served as Deputy Mayor under Greg Nickels.

What did we learn?

Among other things that even Republican Vance has worries about how his fellow Republicans will rule in Olympia and Washington, D.C. if they win in November.

That Anne Fennessy thinks the decision on whether Seattle's downtown deep-bore tunnel will be made in Olympia, not Seattle.

And that Tim Ceis has a great metaphor for Seattle's dysfunctional politics: a crowded crab pot.

Here's a quick look at some of the insights the pundits shared:

Is this election a watershed?

The pundits agreed that the upcoming election is not likely to be a major national or local watershed, but rather a more typical swinging of the political pendulum. Vance said it was more likely to prove that the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008 was not a watershed moment either, failing to usher in the kind of change many people expected.

All panelists expected significant Republican gains, not un-typical of mid-year elections. Ceis' analysis summed it up: "It's not a watershed, but a flood."

How is the political landscape changing?

Fennessy emphasized the people are angry about the economy, and the government budget cuts are two years behind what private citizens have been experiencing in their work and family life. In looking ahead, she said that government will have to learn from the private sector: How do you get more efficient delivering services? She said she thought it unlikely that Seattle voters would continue their tradition of voting heavily to approve tax and spending measures, which would have a local and statewide effect.

Ceis has previously said that he thought former Mayor Greg Nickels was at the tip of the spear of public anger during his unsuccessful bid for a third term in 2009. Ceis elaborated saying polling showed that people in Seattle were angry, frustrated, and scared, particularly about the pace of change. He said people in this country seem to have lost their appetite for doing "big" things, and that the political system is making it hard for anyone to lead. "I'm not sure the American people want anyone to lead."

Vance said the economy is the issue, and that the election is being lost by the Democrats rather than won by the Republicans. In fact, the GOP is too invested in being anti-Obama rather than formulating its own positive agenda. He also questioned the heft of the state party leadership in Olympia, which is thin after years of Democratic control. He worried about how the GOP will rule if they gain control in Congress and the state legislature. "The GOP leadership ... has no idea what they're going to do," he said. "The GOP is out of ideas," he added.

No one saw a third party — the Tea Party or a pragmatic, centrist break-away group—as viable or likely. (Sorry, David Brewster and Thomas Friedman.)

Vance said he blamed neither Obama nor George W. Bush for the current state of the economy. Our economic problems, he said, are global and structural. All agreed that while the election isn't likely a watershed, it is taking place in a larger context of fundamental change.

What about state initiatives?

Fennessy had a great line: "Initiatives ask the right questions but give the wrong answers." The panelists decried the state of the initiative process. Vance was unequivocal: "God, I hate initiatives," which he said had degenerated into being a way for people like Tim Eyman to make a living. Eyman's not alone. Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into television advertising in Washington, mostly for or against various initiatives (both Ceis and Vance are benefitting, working in a strange-bedfellows alliance against the liquor initiatives I-1100 and I-1105). 

One reason for the windfall is that our ballot measures hit on topics that motivate national lobbies, like liquor, labor and the insurance industry. "We've got very hot ballot issues," said Vance. Ceis defended intitiatives as something more than a political relic, but said the process needed to be more effectively regulated. Vance suggested that one way to get control was to pass a law in Washington to limit donations to initiatives. "You'd stop the crap now," he said. 

In terms of specific initiatives on the ballot, Fennessy and Ceis both supported the I-1098 income tax measures, though Ceis joked: "I was for 1098 until Paul Allen told me he was against it."

The state of Seattle politics?

Fennessy said that with the tunnel and his spat with the Museum of History and Industry, mayor Mike McGinn had people wondering about his administration, but that for the most part she felt the public jury was still out on McGinn. Vance, an Auburn resident, said he wouldn't presume to weigh in on the city, but he shared his perspective of having been in the legislature and on county council. In Olympia, the Seattle legislative delegation "does not speak with one voice" and also frequently wants to do something out of step with the rest of the region. He said if you want to get something done, you "work around" the city of Seattle, as Vance said he did with Democrats Gary Locke and Cynthia Sullivan when they were all at the county. 

Ceis weighed in on Seattle's political culture, where every "decision" is endlessly questioned and revisited. He likened Seattle to a crab pot. What is the Crab Pot Theory of politics? If you have a five gallon bucket, Ceis said, you don't need a lid because if one crab tries to escape the others will pull him back. That's the best description of Seattle process I've ever heard.

Will the tunnel be built?

Fennessy said the decision to go ahead on the tunnel won't be made by McGinn but will be decided in Olympia. Ceis, who has been previously loath to critize the mayor publicly, said that McGinn "wasn't doing the city any favors" by his stance on the tunnel. Ceis cited his nearly 10 years of work on the Viaduct replacement and said that the surface option had been studied every which way and wouldn't work because the amount of transit needed was too expensive to replace the car capacity and the effect of traffic problems would be, essentially, to "tell the Port of Seattle to move to Tacoma." McGinn, he said, offered no viable alternative to the tunnel, which was the best compromise. The tunnel is a huge decision for the next 100 years, he said. Ceis' new worry: The GOP will gain control in Olympia and move to stop the tunnel and spend the money on other projects elsewhere.


The GOP would pick up one and possibly two Washington congressional seats, with Republican Jamie Herrera winning over Democrat Denny Heck for an open seat in the 3rd District and incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen maybe losing (Fennessy thought he would pull it out) to John Koster in the 2nd. Vance noted that there is a strong Tea Party contingent in Snohomish County, which helps Koster. 

Fennessy and Ceis thought Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray would win, but Vance said he was utterly baffled by the polls, some which show Murray with a substantial lead, some show the race neck-and-neck, and with GOP internal polling showing Republican Dino Rossi with a slim lead. I noted that Murray doesn't seem to be buying the big-lead polls either as Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton are all coming in to campaign for Murray in the stretch.

It was a terrific panel with folks with tremendous experience and perspective. There was much more discussion and nuanced analysis. For more, there's an audio file here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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