Seattle politics: The making of a fed-up voter

Commentary: In this city, politicians once stood with the people. As the elections approach, it's clear that quality is all too rare these days.
Crosscut archive image.

A light rail train gets ready to pull out of the Rainier Beach station.

Commentary: In this city, politicians once stood with the people. As the elections approach, it's clear that quality is all too rare these days.

With each electoral cycle here, I have mixed feelings. First, our democratic process is precious and its exercise, to me, is always a treasured moment. But that feeling invariably is balanced by my sense that this highly educated, generally well-intentioned city keeps making choices that make it less than it could be.

Each political generation carries with it mindsets formed in its growing-up and young-adult years. Coming out of the Depression and World War II, my own generation was animated by civil rights and social- and economic-justice agendas that had been kept waiting for many years.  Our leading politicians of the time, Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, were characterized as "For the People," in the phrase of the day.

"For the People" meant being for ordinary hard-working, taxpaying nurses, police and firefighters,  teachers, skilled and unskilled workers, small-business owners and, most of all, for those encountering discrimination or struggling to lift themselves and their families.

It did not mean complacent acceptance of agendas set by local interests and people already possessing wealth and power. Seattle, in particular, was a feisty, disputative political venue exemplifying the For the People mindset.

Examining next Tuesday's ballot I find myself enthusiastic only about the presence of City Councilmember Nick Licata and the proposal to elect most city council members by district rather than at large.

Licata, among council members, has been the only one to consistently challenge a go-along, get-along agenda to which a council majority generally adheres. The Seattle City Council has in recent years mindlessly endorsed huge tax-wasting, cost-ineffective projects such as Sound Transit light rail, downtown streetcars, the Mercer Mess redo and the demolition of the historic, nationally significant Yesler Terrace. Its residents are being carelessly dumped into an unaffordable housing market. Any of these actions would have been unthinkable in the For the People era. All were promoted by developers and powerful local interests making maximum political contributions to council incumbents and mayoral candidates.

This state of things leads me to vote for election of the council by district. Seattle is one of only three major American cities that do not elect their councils by district.

Earnest TV discussions locally have been examining the election-by-district notion as if it were some abstract, alien and untried concept. Surely we are not that innocent and provincial. Almost all U.S. cities elect their councils by district because they know that, otherwise, downtown money and power will dictate their civic agendas and the interests of neighborhoods will be overlooked — exactly the situation presently prevailing here.

My greatest single disappointment since returning home to Seattle nearly 13 years ago has been the absence of critical faculties among officeholders who should have recognized the light-rail boondoggle for what it is. I've liked rails since childhood and, on my return, made it a first order of business to examine the light-rail project, then getting underway, as I had been accustomed to examining many public proposals over a lifetime in national policymaking. Examination yielded the obvious information that light rail made sense only where rails already had been laid or, as in Chicago, where people commuted in huge numbers up and down limited corridors. Bus rapid transit and ordinary bus service, here as in most places, could carry far more passengers to far more destinations for far less cost than light rail. At that time major American cities already using light rail were finding themselves financially unable to repair and replace worn-out equipment.

The original local light-rail system already was way behind schedule, beyond its cost estimates and missing several promised stations when a three-county ballot measure, supported by massive spending by interests eating at the light-rail trough, was approved narrowly. It imposed the largest local-level tax increase in American history — all in regressive taxes — in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to construct a light rail net over many years which will, in the end, not reduce traffic congestion.

Expansion of existing bus service would have done that immediately at a fraction of the cost.

Mayoral candidates Mike McGinn and Ed Murray not only back light rail but want it expanded to  Ballard, West Seattle and other neighborhoods as soon as possible.


There are several possible reasons. The first, which I hope is not true, is because they know it assures them a generous flow of present and future campaign dollars from the contractors, sub-contractors, banks, engineers, construction firms, law and p.r. firms, and unions that derive billions in taxpayer dollars from light rail. For the donors, it is a handsome bargain: thousands in campaign dollars in exchange for billions in public money.

A second reason -- probably the strongest reason for light rail support among non-contractors and financial beneficiaries -- is because light rail seems cool, modern, and what a world-class city should have. Buses may be cheaper and more efficient, but they are dull. The "light rail is cool" notion is the one I hear most cited by otherwise informed local folk who have not examined costs and benefits of transportation systems.

McGinn and Murray, as most local elected officials, no doubt figure it easier to go with the flow than ask questions. Neither apparently recognizes that the light-rail beast is eating money that otherwise could be repairing the Magnolia bridge, fixing local streets and highways, saving deteriorating local bus service or going to meet many other pressing public needs. Easier not to ask, collect the campaign money and win an election.

Doug MacDonald, the former state transportation czar, has it right when he describes light rail as "not a transportation project but a construction project." That is what it is and a wastefully expensive one.

Several years ago, I asked a former city council member — a highly respected one — why he was supporting a several-hundred-million dollar Mercer Mess redo which, in the end, would conform to Vulcan development plans in the area but not reduce traffic congestion at all. 

"What else can we (the council) do?" he replied.  "Vulcan and its allies are all over City Hall every day."

"You could just say no," I suggested. I just did not understand, he said, the council could not withstand such pressure.

Yes, I'm voting for council elections by district and, in most of the contested races I'm voting as a matter of principle for non-incumbents. I've reached the "fed up and not going to take it anymore" stage as a Seattle voter. Perhaps a cleanout will start a movement back to the For the People political ethos that Seattle once proudly grasped.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of