An election likely to ratify strong councils

Some peculiar factors lead to the prediction of little turnover in local legislative bodies, which have benefitted from strong members elected four years back.

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Sherry Carr, one of the new faces of reform in the Seattle School District election, comes from a background in big business, but she was also a PTA president. (Photo courtesy Niki Desautels/Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Some peculiar factors lead to the prediction of little turnover in local legislative bodies, which have benefitted from strong members elected four years back.

Ever wonder why local elections are "off-year," meaning odd-numbered years, when the big elections (statewide and national) are in even-numbered years? The reason goes back a full century, to the era of Progressive reform. These middle-class and respectable reformers wanted to separate local elections from the passions (and the bigger turnouts) of national elections.

The argument was that voters would more calmly decide on quality local candidates this way. And if the masses (like ethnic political machines) declined to vote because local elections were comparatively inconsequential, that also helped get "the best people" into office.

Among the unintended consequences of this reform is that politicians elected in off-years have a free shot at running for office in the even-numbered years; lose and you get to keep your seat. Even better, and this applies to this year, if you are elected to a four-year seat on the city or county council in a year when the mayor and the county executive are not running. You get a free shot at challenging them. (2013 is the next opportunity when Mayor Mike McGinn and Executive Dow Constantine are both up for reelection.)

So you might think that this year would draw some ambitious and strong challengers to the catbird seats of these council races, and to the Port of Seattle. Apparently not. (An exception is County Councilmember Jane Hague, vulnerable for many personal reasons.)

One reason for this is the unusual election of four years ago. In that 2007 election, many of the stumbling local legislative bodies underwent dramatic upgrading, and these candidates four years later are strong enough, and have sufficiently deep backing, to fend off serious challengers. I exempt the County Council from this analysis, since its members (well paid, capping off their careers, deferring tough decisions to the county executive) are virtually granted tenure once elected and can safely coast or contemplate running for state offices.

It was different with the Seattle School Board, where all four members of a particularly inept board were swept away (or declined to run) by an informal slate of business-backed, big-organization-experienced newcomers. The result was a transformed board. It changed overnight from a board dominated by petty bickering, meddling, superintendent-undermining, inexperienced bumblers. This time there is a swarm of challengers. I don't know much about them yet, but none seems to have much community stature.

The School Board is under a lot of criticism, to be sure, mostly stemming from the mismanagement and off-putting style of ousted Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson (hired by the board that was bounced). There is a fair amount of backlash against the reform-tilted new teachers' contract (Goodloe-Johnson's signal achievement).

You can see this in the way Democratic Party organizations in the legislative districts are making Teach for America into a litmus test for incumbents and candidates. (Hint: one word of support for the TFA idea and no endorsement for you!) And reform resisters have managed to reframe their issue from seeming to be foot-dragging teachers to stigmatizing the reform agenda as something perpetrated by corporate America and insensitive billionaires. Lots of fireworks, but I suspect the current board will survive, sustaining the momentum it has created.

The Port of Seattle also underwent a shift from being in thrall to the Blue-Green coalition (the waterfront unions and the Sierra Club) to electing two business-savvy newcomers, Bill Bryant and Gael Tarleton, both moderates and both interested in higher office some day. (Bryant tells me he's putting off thinking about a possible governor's race, as an independent, to the fall, in order to focus on his Port race and to see how that gubernatorial field, quite unstable, shakes out.)

Just as the School Board had to dig itself out of a mess, so the Port has been extricating itself from the wheeler-dealer years under Mic Dinsmore. And here too, I expect the donations and interest groups will secure more of the new status quo, particularly as the region worries about blue-collar jobs and the Port faces uncertainty from the widened Panama Canal and freight mobility issues around the waterfront tunnel and other bottlenecks.

Which brings us to the Seattle City Council, which has been steadily raising its game for the past decade. Two members of the class of 2007, Tim Burgess (a likely mayoral candidate in two years) and Bruce Harrell (longshot mayoral candidate), are up for reelection, along with more entrenched members Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen, and Jean Godden. The council didn't quite know what to make of Harrell in his first years, as he's a lone operator, but they now seem to be coaching him to join the team. His likely strongest opponent, former journalist and businessman Brad Meacham, is running as an anti-tunnel, pro-density candidate that is probably a hard horse to ride into a council seat. Godden, because of her age and her unflinching support of the deep-bore tunnel, might be vulnerable.

Public attention tends to focus so relentlessly on the chief executives that we often miss the much less dramatic but impressively sustained coherence of these legislative bodies. The Seattle City Council, for years a disorganized bunch of soloists, is now remarkably cordial, well led, and able to hold together for tough issues such as the tunnel. The School Board has gone from a raucously dysfunctional circus to a body that can make very tough decisions (closing schools, reassignment plans, actual evaluations of teachers). The Port has greatly cleaned up its act and knows how to support intelligently an excellent strategic leader.

I can't say the same thing for the state legislature or the King County Council. But, hey, this is very significant progress. It's got to the point that the one truly divided council is in, of all places, formerly oh-so-adult Bellevue. There we have a high-stakes showdown going on between the property owners of downtown Bellevue, led by Kemper Freeman, and the developers of the emerging Bel-Red corridor to the northeast, along the light rail route to Microsoft, led by the Wright Runstad interests.

This is a fight over rail and density and Eastside land use that is well worth having, even if so far it's a proxy fight over Sound Transit costs and routes. Still: Weird to think that "the Seattle malaise" has somehow slithered across the lake to Bellevue!


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