Dodge-em time at City Hall

The City Council squirms and delays on the issue of the anti-tunnel referendum, since now is the time when challengers to incumbents must rise or fall.

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Sally Bagshaw

The City Council squirms and delays on the issue of the anti-tunnel referendum, since now is the time when challengers to incumbents must rise or fall.

As they say, timing is everything in politics, and now is the time to lie low. The reason for those in Seattle City Council is that these next few weeks are the time when challengers decide to appear or start getting enough traction to turn into serious challengers. So if you are running for reelection next fall, you get through this short period by avoiding tough votes. To use Sarah Palin's latest neologism for Obama's warlike skirmishes: the council's feeling "squirmish."

You could see this in three instances. The council voted to put off deciding on annexation of White Center. It decided it needed more time to study the question of allowing big signs on big skyscrapers. And it decided not to offend all the social service agencies depending on the Families and Schools Levy, and so went along with Mayor McGinn's proposal for a much-increased levy.

But the real contortions in this round of dodge-em was about the tunnel and the referendum. Anti-tunnel advocates have framed this measure as a sure-to-please matter of letting voters have a say. Who wants to stand up against that? City Council President Richard Conlin, while not facing reelection himself, is helping protect those who are (Tom Rasmussen, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell, Jean Godden) by delaying the vote to forward the referendum to voters until all the signatures have been counted. The council is also able to let City Attorney Pete Holmes take the heat by asking a court to agree with Holmes that the matter is not "referendable."

Another heat shield is being provided by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, normally a consensus-seeker but also probably the most pro-tunnel member from her years of pushing for a grand waterfront park. Bagshaw is making the sensible argument that the referendum would only stir the toxic political waters but not really settle anything. She notes that the polling on this remains very stable over the past few years: one third for the tunnel, one third for a new (or repaired) Viaduct, and one quarter for the "surface solution" (no tunnel, no viaduct). So any vote would just confirm that any one proposal gets vetoed by the other two parties. We've already been down that road with the famous No-No vote (no cut-and-cover tunnel, no new elevated structure) in 2007.

The council remains firmly in favor of the deep-bore tunnel, 8-1, but it would dearly love to find a way of not forwarding the referendum to a vote. Their best hope lies in a court determination that such a referendum would be illegal. Failing that, they may have to summon the courage to refuse to pass it on to the voters. Another ploy would be to couple the anti-tunnel referendum with a parallel measure on McGinn's preferred solution. That way, McGinn would be able to claim that voters don't want the tunnel, and the tunnelers would crow that the voters don't want McGinn's idea either. Checkmate!

I suspect that in a few more weeks, the councilmembers running for reelection will feel comfortable enough about the weakness of their opponents to come out from hiding and actually stop the referendum (perhaps with a few excused to make a hero vote "for the people"), if needed. Then comes the other political calculation for members such as Burgess, Clark, Conlin, and Harrell, any one of whom might run for mayor in 2013. That could add up to a few more hero-votes of being pro-tunnel and pro-right-to-vote.

Amid all this comes the Elway Poll, showing how unpopular the Mayor is, and suggesting to any anti-tunnel candidates that McGinn would not have much in the way of coat-tails. There clearly is a hunger for a kind of new politics in Seattle, more reflective of the younger, newcomer demographics of the city (pro-bikes, pro-transit, pro-density, pro-nightlife, pro-diversity). Ironically, if the anti-tunnel referendum doesn't get to a public vote, these insurgents, and Mayor McGinn, would be helped. They could speed up their search for a defining issue with more traction than the tunnel, which has worn out the electorate's patience.


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