Shaking up Seattle's City Council

It's tough to dislodge a sitting member of the chamber. But two ballot measures could help newcomers break in.
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Seattle City Council Chambers

It's tough to dislodge a sitting member of the chamber. But two ballot measures could help newcomers break in.

From time to time, fresh young faces are elected to the city council: Mike O'Brien, Nick Licata, Sally Clark, Richard Conlin. Over time, members tend to gain establishment status. Activist edges are rounded off, the job itself tends to push politicians to the center as they balance Seattle's progressive and business interests.

Comity on the council is valued, in part because it helps to leverage the group's power against the mayor's, or other interests. Laws and policies are stronger if they are approved by 9 to 0 votes, and there is political safety in numbers. Thus, the "Maple Bar" effect that Emmett Watson observed. You elect individuals, but once on the council they become, he said, like maple bars in a sack: all stuck together.

Is that bad? Shouldn't experience be a good thing?

The council has had a few members serving for 30 years or more. One, David Levine, served from the beginning of the Great Depression to the Century 21 world's fair, a span of nearly four decades. Even when he retired he wasn't really gone. They gave him an office at City Hall from which to continue to dispense his wisdom.

Such longevity can reflect the virtues of pragmatism. It might also speak to the fact that governing by rock-throwing is not effective over time, especially when a council member needs to develop coalitions and use persuasion more than force. You might lose your spark and your youth to the city council, but that doesn't mean you become ineffective or lazy, though that happens to some. Another incentive to stay on the job: council members make over $100,000 per year, and few move up the political ladder.

It can be hard to dislodge a sitting council member. On rare occasions members lose their bids for re-election because they are seen as ineffective, or if some scandal tarnishes their youthful glow. At various times in our city's history, fossilized councils have been successfully targeted for change. The most famous example comes from the late 1960s and early '70s when a city-wide reform group called CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council) rose up against a council whose average age was in the mid-60s and which was dominated by longtime office holders. With a series of targeted races over several campaigns, CHECC helped to turn over the entire council, replacing it with a band of new blood, including Tim Hill, John Miller, Phyllis Lamphere, Sam Smith and Bruce Chapman. They embodied youth, ideas, reform, change.

Such movements don't always work. A later effort, Vision Seattle, failed to elect its slate. After the Strippergate fiasco in the early '00s, some previously elected new blood, specifically Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills, lost their seats on the council, amidst calls not for youth and energy so much as for a "more adult" council — and not in the Frank Colocurcio sense.

If a more "adult" council is now dominant, there are still candidates running to shake things up, who purport to reflect a "new Seattle" less kowtowing to the establishment. Mike O'Brien is a one-term incumbent who still has a touch of outsider cred, mainly because he is attached to Mayor Mike McGinn, the outsider's insider. But O'Brien now describes himself as "progressive, yet pragmatic" as if the two are normally incompatible. If convention holds, O'Brien will be re-elected over his even more establishment opponent Albert Shen, but will be in full maple bar mold by the end of his second term.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.