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.
Crosscut archive image.

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.

Crosscut archive image.Conlin (at left), also once an outsider, has become an effective, longtime council player. Accused of having aged into establishment status, he is being challenged by the appealing young socialist Kshama Sawant. That aging Keeper-of-Youth, The Stranger, says it opposes candidates like Conlin who are "washed-up, goat-loving, Metamucil-swilling incumbents dying at city hall after fruitless multi-decade careers." Conlin, a liberal's liberal who often bike commutes to his own drummer, is left rather baffled by such attacks.

If you can't beat them, you can change the rules. This year Seattle has two ballot measures aimed at unsettling the city council status quo, if not in this election, then in the next.

One is Charter Amendment 19, which would create seven city council districts. Currently, a Seattleite can run for any of the nine council seats, all representing the whole city. Under Amendment 19, seven council members would be elected by districts, and only two would be at-large. A council candidate would have to live in a district to represent it. The districts are drawn up to reflect roughly equal parts of the population (approx. 80,000 people per). A redistricting commission would be created to administer the district boundaries. The five-member commission would have two members appointed by the mayor, two by the city council and one selected by the other commission members.

The idea is that this a district system will generate more accountable council representation. Instead of representing some fuzzy "citywide" interest seven councilmembers would have specific neighborhood constituents. Campaigns would, presumably, be easier for all candidates, but especially for non-incumbents who would not have expensive citywide races. As one former council candidate said to me, it would bring back the door belling campaign because you could reach a reasonable number of doors. In other words, grassroots candidates might have a fairer shot. It would likely also boost neighborhood interests over those of downtown business.

The counter argument is that it is good to have all the council members accountable to all the voters at every election. The district system may well have the effect of making the mayor more powerful while the council becomes Balkanized. Also, when you hear the words "Redistricting Commission" you might realistically also hear "gerrymandering." Do you like the way the state legislature works? Congress? District boundaries are almost certain to be manipulated for political and parochial reasons. Expect turf wars.

A little history here. Seattle has tried many council variations over the years: appointed councils, elected ones, at-large, districts and, yes, hybrid systems. The city used to even have a bi-cameral council (a House of Aldermen and a Board of Delegates) that featured both district and at-large members. The old district system divided the city into eight or nine wards (think Chicago). Seattle politics was then partisan, the wards dominated by political rings that nominated council candidates. The district system was thrown out in 1910 partly due to populist reforms. The council was made non-partisan, the number of council members reduced from 13 to nine. At-large representation was seen as helping to break up the entrenched political interests for a more general municipal good. Now returning to wards, or districts, seems to offer a way to open things up.

A second ballot measure aimed at changing council campaigns is Proposition 1. It sets up a property tax-financed system where the city would match campaign funds raised by candidates. To get matching funds, you have to be a declared candidate in a contested council race who has raised at least $6,000 from 600, $10-or-more campaign donations. At least one of your opponents must have done the same. If all candidates for a seat agree to participate in the matching program, they also agree to a $245,000 cap on their campaign spending. But if your opponents opt out of the matching fund program and raise more money, or are supported by independent expenditure campaigns that boost their financial firepower, the spending cap is lifted for the opponents.

The idea is to take some of the money out of council elections. One reason they're expensive is having to run city-wide. That pushes candidates to adopt positions that please monied interests. It also give a huge advantage to those who can establish (or come with) a citywide "brand." Prop. 1 looks to squeeze money out of council campaigns, whether at-large or district, and open the field to more credible candidates.

On the other hand, will it really solve anything? Big money can still be spent (look how President Barack Obama and others have slipped matching fund campaigns and still flourished). Entrenched interests might have to reset their tactics and develop new strategies, but this doesn't really take money out of politics by setting hard limits or insisting on 100% public funding.

And here's a question: Campaign donations are voluntary, even a contribution to federal matching funds on your tax return. Do we really want to make public campaign matching funding mandatory through a property tax? Isn't that money better spent on schools and roads instead of going into some campaign consultant's pocket or for TV ads and endless junk mail? The proposal might deliver much less in terms of actual campaign reform, and it almost certainly won't be a panacea for those who want a better shot at unseating council incumbents. The fact that Prop. 1 has drawn the endorsement of a majority of council incumbents (Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Richard Conlin, Bruce Harrell, Jean Godden, Mike O'Brien, Nick Licata) should be a signal that the status quo will feel well served by the change.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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