One curious aspect of the election next Tuesday is that most of the excitement is taking place outside Seattle, in places such as Everett (struggle between Republicans and Democrats for control), Bellingham (over coal-for-China), Tacoma (school politics), and Bellevue (the city council and transit politics at stake). Some of this is due to the spreading Democratic vote in the region, or cities modernizing to match the new economy.
But why is Seattle so becalmed, given the tumultuous times and the big issues of the day? In a time when people are furious with their governments, why is it so easy for incumbents? Let me offer some explanations.
One big reason at Seattle City Hall is that many political forces were girding for a show-down election that never came. For the past two years, Seattle politics has been a giant twisted pretzel over the deep-bore tunnel, what might be called the Bore Wars. Accordingly, the pro-tunnel coalition (labor, downtown Seattle, business, some environmentalists, waterfront park enthusiasts) expected the anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn to field a slate of city council candidates, in order to increase his sway on the council from just one vote/ally (Mike O'Brien).
The anticipation of this show-down meant that the major interests rallied around the two endangered incumbents, Jean Godden and Bruce Harrell, lest they be knocked off and the tunnel jeopardized. It then turned out the the McGinn forces were paper tigers. They ran a feeble campaign in the weird August referendum on the tunnel, losing badly. And no pro-McGinn slate materialized, with the possible exception of anti-tunnel Brad Meacham, running against Harrell.
This dynamic also meant that an admired challenger to Godden, deputy prosecutor Maurice Classen, running on a platform of modernizing city hall and shaping a business culture to the current economy, couldn't muster business support, which had circled defensively around Godden. Other good new faces, sensing the pro-incumbent dynamics and not wanting to tangle with the McGinn issues, also decided to wait two more years. (One promising new face is Richard Mitchell, the Democrat challenging Jane Hague on the King County Council, and raising the valid issue that Dow Constantine and the council are not doing enough in reforming King County government, despite all the good press.) The result: a yawner, and not much in the way of emerging issues put into the arena for public debate.
A second factor is the way Seattle puts together ballot issues, such as Proposition 1 (roads and transit and bikeways) and the Families and Schools Levy. With the city and the school district strapped for funds, it was inevitable that these ways of getting new money (for social services and for the various transportation interests) would have to be enriched. Asking for more in a down economy risks rejection, so the ballot measures had to widen to include any potential strong opponents (such as the bike lobby or high-turnout north-end neighborhoods). The measures bulked up, as expected, and the opposition largely vanished, at least for schools. Prop. 1 might still fail, as liberals resist the regressive license-tab method of raising money, and many others look to their pocketbooks. But the debate has been muted.
A third reason might be called the 2007 factor. That was the year when at least three legislative bodies (Seattle School Board, Port of Seattle, Seattle City Council) all tossed out mavericks and elected grown-up centrists. Schools had been dominated by single-issue candidates and some Teamster-backed selfishness, but that group lost to four business-oriented professionals. Voters did not want to revert, and the challengers are mostly raising tertiary and liberal-backlash issues. Same was true of the Port, which shed some environ-labor activists for international-trade experts. As for the City Council, it has been adding team players who seem all the more important to retain given the erratic regime of Mayor McGinn.
And so, having swept in such people four years ago, there was little appetite to throw them out, particularly since these bodies have fairly encouraging records of reform in the past four years, and lightning-rod leaders such as Mic Dinsmore at the Port and Maria Goodloe-Johnson at Schools have been replaced. We have, clumsily, an era of governance by the legislative branch.
Adding to these factors is the way we conduct these off-year elections, which are designed to minimize turnout and mute the fireworks, lest the broader populace get dangerously stirred up. The mid-August primary is one way to hold an election when nobody notices; turnout in Seattle was only 35 percent, despite the hot issue of the tunnel vote. "Off-year" local elections is a tradition going back 100 years, when reformers wanted to tilt things to their kind of highly motivated voters and not risk large turnouts of ethnics and poor folks who get excited during even-year, presidential elections. Our mail-only voting doesn't seem to have increased turnout, but it does spread the voting over two weeks so that the elections do not have a satisfying, climactic last week where everyone, including what's left of the media, turns up the heat and light.
Turning away from Seattle, there is some interest in the ballot measures. But here too, it is dispiriting that these measures are really just special interests funding by a very narrow base. Eyman's I-1125 (restricting tolls and Sound Transit's expansion to the Eastside) is not only Eyman's anti-tax crusades rewarmed, but Kemper Freeman's vendetta against light rail in yet another guise, and almost entirely funded by him. Costco has poured $20 million into I-1183, distorting the debate into Costco's motives rather than the public policies. And the SEIU-funded I-1163 (more training for long-term-care workers) is just a way of re-fighting an issue in Olympia on another, baffled stage. (Talk about poor timing, for Costco to be ostentatiously purchasing governmental goodies right when the Occupy movement is tarring such corporate greediness!)
Too, these issues are quite complicated, and so the public is served up vulgarized slogans and side issues that poll well. There is a legitimate debate about getting state government out of the liquor business in such a way that it doesn't just become a Costco monopoly. There is not much policy debate about variable tolling: we'll either start imposing such tolls or have to privatize construction and operation of tollways. But there could be (though it's too late and mostly settled) a reasonable debate about extending light rail to the Eastside (as opposed to heavy rail, with real capacity, or bus rapid transit, with real affordability and flexibility). Alas, the only real debate has been about what might be motivating Freeman's long railing against light rail.
Even so, real debates on big issues do somehow break through. The rail corridor up to Bellingham will be so impacted by huge coal trains, if that happens, that jobs vs. amenities issues will polarize many a city council. Tacoma is modernizing and paying more attention to education reform. Bellevue is becoming a big city where political parties care about the city council, not just leaving it to a former consensus of holding taxes down and spurring development. How curious to see such amity on the Seattle City Council and such bitter partisanship in Bellevue's!
The Bellevue issues are deeply important for the region. In any city, the holders of prime property take a dim view of the upstarts who have bought cheaper, outlying property and now want the taxpayers to help turn these new areas into dense, rival "downtowns." And yet if the city stays in thrall to the prime movers, it limits its growth, stymies the leapfrogging. Seattle has long had these fights, going back to the Bogue Plan which would have shifted Seattle's core downtown to South Lake Union. And it recently agreed to ratify just such a leapfrogging, driven by Paul Allen's Vulcan and abetted by Mayor Greg Nickels and the University of Washington.
If Bellevue does the same, developing along the Sound Transit corridor from Bellevue to Microsoft, it will emerge as the twin city to Seattle, the business dynamo of the region. This election will probably favor the reactionary element, focusing on building up the current Bellevue business district first (a reasonable proposition, in planning and densification terms). But I suspect we'll soon see the powerful shaping dynamic of rail transit ratify the larger vision. The region will be the winner, though Seattle might be a slight loser.