The city council races that weren't

Why incumbents are hard to challenge in Seattle, and why the current races for city council are so devoid of issues and excitement.

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City Councilmember Sally Clark at an announcement on viaduct demolition

Why incumbents are hard to challenge in Seattle, and why the current races for city council are so devoid of issues and excitement.

As Occupy Seattle continues to capture local attention and Occupy Oakland draws reporters from all over the world for a General Strike, we in Seattle are having a hard time remembering there’s an election going on. Thank goodness we have the mail “hit pieces” reminding us of the dangers of alcohol, Eyman, and Freeman, because the Seattle City Council elections are not generating much excitement.

Who would have guessed this at the end of 2010? The Alaskan Way Viaduct battle seemed sure to generate a crop of willing challengers to take on the incumbents who all supported the tunnel replacement for the aging structure. But a strange referendum changed everything. It weakened Mayor Mike McGinn and strengthened the incumbent councilmembers. The issue that once consumed all of the political dialogue is now absent from our mailboxes.

This striking turnaround has left us with council elections almost completely void of policy issues. Quick, what’s the big issue in city elections this year? You could say it’s the $60 car tabs initiative, Proposition 1. All of the incumbents voted to put it on the ballot and I’m betting it will fall flat. So, challengers must be riding that issue as a way to go after incumbents, right? Wrong.

Rather astoundingly, the downtown and government consensus is out of step with the voters on this issue. There is no one taking advantage of it politically, except for Dian Ferguson, who has come out against the fee and is challenging Sally Clark. But Ferguson has not been able to raise the money necessary to force a debate on the issue and isn’t gaining much traction. (Here's an update on council campaign fundraising, courtesy of

The most contested race is between incumbent Jean Godden and Bobby Forch. In 2009, Forch introduced himself as the business candidate and pledged to create an office in city government to help small businesses. (Full Disclosure: I was a candidate in that race and never liked the idea of a small business office.) This time around, Forch has cast himself as the more progressive choice. He has weighed in on statewide redistricting and the creation of a majority-minority congressional district, and made greater police accountability a centerpiece of his campaign. Godden has promoted her work as budget chair and cited the need for experience in difficult economic times.

This race will likely be close but most Seattleites probably couldn’t tell you what the major policy differences are between Forch and Godden, because there aren’t many and Godden has moved leftward, such as supporting paid family leave, to fend off the challenge. The real issue, Godden's age of 80, has to be mentioned indirectly.

The other incumbents, Sally Clark, Tim Burgess, Tom Rasmussen, and Bruce Harrell, will win easily. Burgess and Rasmussen have only token opposition. Harrell has a spirited challenger in Brad Meacham, but the latter's anti-tunnel issue evaporated in the August election.

Aside from the car-tabs measure, you would think the incumbents would also be vulnerable over the city’s increase in parking rates and extension of paid hours for meters from 6 to 8 pm. This is the sleeper issue that will catch the downtown/City Hall group think by surprise in 2013. It’s surprising that no one has grabbed that ball and run with it. Forch has talked about going back to the 6 pm limit but has not made it a major issue of his campaign.

The perennial issue of police staffing levels has also barely registered in our political dialogue. Are people happy with the policing services they receive in their neighborhoods? From observing what passes for our political dialogue one would have to assume so.

David Brewster has reported that Snohomish County, Bellingham, and Bellevue have hotly contested elections that hinge on big public policy questions. So why are the local contests in Seattle so predictable? And where are the challengers to take up some of the obvious populist issues available to them?

A lot has to do with the way people get elected. There are really only two pathways in Seattle.

First, is the conventional track. You go to a few of the limited number of consultants and fundraisers in town who are connected with the limited number of individuals who are willing to contribute to campaigns. Thus validated, the candidate raises the money, buys a couple of mail pieces, goes to all the labor and Democratic groups, and gets elected or at least gets launched.

The second path is to get into a crowded primary field and with the help of one or two advocacy organizations and a wedge issue to get attention, make it through the primary. Once in the general election, expand your issues for the larger crowd and woo the support of labor and business. This was McGinn’s successful strategy, using the Viaduct issue as a way to stand out in the primary, and then softening his opposition to the tunnel in hopes of broadening his base. He didn't win over business and labor, but he had such a weak opponent in Joe Mallahan that he won anyway. His narrow base means he will have a difficult time in 2013. But if it’s a crowded field and it produces a weak finalist, look out!

The biggest obstacle, for either path, is when you are challenging an incumbent. To beat an incumbent you have to criticize them. In Seattle this is done generally through a patented passive aggressive style — “well, she’s done a great job and has been there a Really LOOONG Time…”

Sometimes, an aggressive approach can work. David Della used it to beat Heidi Wills in one of the toughest campaigns Seattle has seen with billboards announcing his opponent as “Rate Hike Heidi,” because she voted to raise City Light rates. But criticizing an incumbent is seen as negative campaigning — difficult to pull off in "Nice City," and especially hard when challenging a minority or a woman.

These factors curtail the ability and willingness of challengers to jump in. Add to this that consultants and contributors all know the incumbents and you lengthen the odds of success still more. Why would these folks with privileged access want to try out a new person?

Some argue that district elections would help open up the process for more people and generate more interest. Maybe it could shake things up, but the voters have already voted down district elections several times, once again showing how averse to change Seattle is.

Maybe Seattle voters like boring elections that favor the status quo. One wonders, given all that's happening to the status quo, for how much longer?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.