Parsing Seattle politico-speak: A participatory field guide

Mayoral elections are bearing down. Legislative wrangling is in full-swing. How to understand your local politician.
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Mayoral elections are bearing down. Legislative wrangling is in full-swing. How to understand your local politician.

Politicians aren't like us. They talk different(ly).

With campaign season upon us, and a new Governor and Legislature sparring in an endless Olympiafest, politico 'statements' are ramping up faster than a Bitcoin bubble. Find yourself caught in a wash of talking points or listening to draft nine of a stump speech and it's hard to ignore the intense longing for clarity that emerges.

Politics may not be a science, but just like quarks in physics, there is inherent spin everywhere you look. That's not a knock; just a reflection of the political version of a doctor's Hippocratic oath: First, do no disagreements.

Much of northwest politics is about disguising obvious disagreement, but open back-and-forthing (in a safe space, mind you) is exactly what it takes to forge unity of purpose and create a real plan to do something. Working through disagreement is nearly always better than sidling around it, but that requires the sharp tools of clear language and lots of sweaty wrenching.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when politicians pile up the words in bulk tonnage, then scoot from the scene.

Here to help you sift through all that is the Northwest Politico-Speak Field Guide. As we head into campaign season, add your own entries in the comments to help us all cope with the political propensity for verbosity ahead.

"Alignment" (n) – Politicians often talk about being in alignment with one another. This does not mean agreement. It means full agreement was hoped for, but is impossible, so let's just roll with a photo shoot or media availability. Alignment declared is success achieved. This applies in business, too. Once, onboard an airliner, our entire row shot knowing glances at each other after hearing a tech exec launch the ultimate alignment salvo, shouting into his cell phone "I'm so GLAD that we were finally able to reach alignment on this." Translation: "Do it my way or you're fired."

For example: Crossover Washington state Senate leader Rodney Tom, D? – Bellevue, has said of Jay Inslee's early speeches: "To have a great jobs market, you have to have a world class education system, so those are values that we are in alignment with." Field Guide users will know that the one thing Tom's statement doesn't mean is that the two agree on how to tackle those those things.

"Initiatives" and "Frameworks" (n.) – Not to be confused with a detailed operational plan, which often actually tackles a complex problem or scenario, initiatives are florid, eager-to-please and look good on TV — especially when viewed from across the kitchen with the sound turned off. There is also a rich frosting of adjectives spatula-ed atop most initiatives — things no one could possibly disagree with.

This doesn't mean initiatives don't have structure. That structure is called a "framework." Frameworks are "aspirational," but their actual strength is unknowable.

For example: Take this city Department of Planning and Development statement about the South Lake Union Design Framework, which, "with the guidance of a range of community stakeholders, draws on past planning efforts and evaluation of new opportunities to identify the specific projects, actions and design opportunities that will ensure new development, both public and private, strengthens the livability and sense of place in South Lake Union and advances the goals and strategies set out in the Neighborhood Plan." That means we do know how tall the buildings will actually be, right?

"Partners" (n. pl.; v. "partnering") – Partners abound, but the traditional meanings of this esteemed classic (1. someone else who also put money in, 2. "significant other", 3. a kind of cracker) are now gently blended into warm nonspecificity. When one entity "partners" with another, don't be the person who asks the uncomfortable question about who, for example, is paying for what. That is so uncouth. Just bask in cozy partnership.

For example: When the city issues a press release about night crews turning off some lights for an hour to observe Earth Hour, and notes that "The Office of Arts & Culture is partnering with the Seattle Art Museum to turn off Hammering Man" … It would impolite to ask if crews from both organizations actually held hands when flipping the switch together and whether there was any overtime in that darkness.

"Stakeholders" (n, pl.) – Almost, but not quite, the actual owners or decisionmakers. The ones who really make the calls are the shareholders — the ones who put money in — be they governments, people, corporate-people or otherwise. The stakeholders are a much bigger tentful. Think of them as the people invited to the public hearings (Side note: "hearings" are not "listenings") that occur just before a decision is announced. Hearings are a great place for stakeholders to mingle, while they wait to hear what the shareholders have decided.

"Vetting" (n., v.) – This means whatever you want it to. Really! It's universally applicable and can mean something or nothing depending on what you prefer. Make it a "thorough" vetting if you want to sound tough. Or you can let it breeze by in past tense if things were already "thoroughly vetted" beforehand. It's like a wild card or a blank Scrabble tile: pure genius. Examples are too numerous to name, but to puncture this one, just toss a few "How, exactlys ...?" in the path of an oncoming vetting.

There are also two forms of press releases worth watching out for:

1. The "Me Too" press release: This is a press release that rides the coattails of other news. Usually, it's one politician lauding or applauding another, with all of the sizzle that wording brings to mind.

Pro tip: Look for the words "applauds" and "congratulates" in the headline and delete these press releases immediately. The press, for the most part, never quotes these things, so it's a mystery why politicians of all sorts keep doing THIS.

2. The "Supreme Soviet" press release: This is from everyone and no one all at once. A joint effort, this press release arrives without being attributable to a real person. The issuers hope to make a point without leaving identifying fingerprints — or inciting follow-up questions. Yet this kind of release raises a profound ontological question: If a city council issues a statement without anyone being quoted, did it ever really happen?

Pro tip: If the concrete facts (signal) to fuzzy feelings (noise) ratio is low, then you're in the political "Just Trust Us" zone. This is your indication to ask probing questions.

We applaud the stakeholders on reaching alignment around the frameworks of this new initiative. This aspirational work is ongoing. So please, partner with us and put your own additions in the comments.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.