King County voting: Where the surprises are

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Claudia Balducci, right, visits with an Eastside family during her campaign for King County Council.

Last week, King County voters decisively tossed out two longtime politicians while, almost paradoxically, expressing considerable faith in local government.

In a stunning defeat that seemed to reflect a sea change in politics along the east shore of Lake Washington, Jane Hague lost a seat she had held for more than 20 years on the County Council. In a nominally nonpartisan contest, the winner, Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci, had boldly articulated a message that the changing Eastside needed a leader that more clearly reflected the increasingly Democratic leanings in council District 6, which includes Kirkland, Redmond and several smaller cities as well as Bellevue.

Hague, first elected as a Republican before a charter amendment made the council nonpartisan, was generally regarded as a moderate. Balducci made it clear that she envisioned a more activist role for the council, particularly on transit and environmental issues.

The other upset involved a less ideological contest, with first-time political candidate John Wilson, a former deputy assessor, largely arguing that he could run a more efficient tax office than the incumbent, longtime local leader Lloyd Hara. But Wilson also made a point of saying that he would explore ways that the assessor's office, whose duties largely consist of technical determinations of property values, could help address housing affordability questions.

At the same time, King County voters – who include Seattle residents – decided to increase their own property taxes for the next six years to support expanded family services focused on children's development. As this story went to press, the Best Start for Kids measure was receiving a little more than 55 percent of the vote, a clear although not overwhelming decision in a vote that was certainly helped by Seattle's liberal leanings.

In contrast to the tax levy vote, Balducci's victory amounted to a landslide, something that not even she had foreseen. As of Friday afternoon, she was hovering just under 60 percent of the vote, at 59.6, for a nearly 20 percentage point lead over Hague.

Balducci said her prediction from the beginning of her nine-month campaign was that one candidate would get somewhere between 52 to 54 percent of the vote.

"I always thought that it was going to be decisive," she said this week. "I thought that either we would get our message across and we would win, or we would not get our message across, and we would lose."

While simply stressing that it was time for a change in a changing district – one that has become much more diverse ethnically as well as generally Democratic -- she had also criticized Hague's spotty attendance and voting record on the council. But in nine months of talking with voters, she said the criticism mainly drew non-committal nods. In contrast, while talking about Hague's tenure on the council going back to a 1994 election, "I heard, 'Gee, that is a long time.' … I just think people felt it was time for a change."

The area, solidly Republican when Hague was first elected, has elected legislators from both parties, leading it to sometimes be described as purple. And she noted that the Bellevue City Council remains almost evenly split between more conservative and progressive members. But, Balducci said, she thinks of it as blue and solidly Democratic in voting for president.

She said that, while she will take her time to listen to community groups and voters, she is eager to work on transit, infrastructure and environmental issues.

While Balducci won with a message that was largely partisan, newly chosen assessor Wilson's race was essentially bipartisan. In fact, although Wilson had held positions with Democratic politicians in the past, Hara had widespread support among Democratic organizations. Wilson said he concentrated on getting support from leaders of strong repute across the political spectrum, including former Republican Gov. Dan Evans and former Attorney General Rob McKenna, the most recent Republican candidate for governor.

Wilson said he believes people essentially want fairness in tax assessments but also paid attention to his record of working to modernize practices as deputy assessor, and liked the idea of looking for solutions to affordability.  And he said his campaign effectively focused its advertising efforts on Facebook, finding it could target spending to the heaviest voting times, the first few days after ballots arrived and the final days before the Nov. 3 balloting deadline. He compared the losses for Hara (who left him a gracious message of congratulations and whose career Wilson praised) and Hague to Seattle voters' primary defeat of 12-year City Councilmember Jean Godden, a popular local figure who also had a pioneering career as a prominent editor and writer at local daily papers. He said there was clearly a factor of people believing that there comes a time for new ideas and changes, even when leaders are well regarded.

On Friday, Godden said, "Sure, I understand. I think we have all felt that somebody had used up their creative ideas and wasn't really leading anymore. That is perfectly fair."

Wilson said he saw a larger Northwest mentality that might help explain his success in unseating an incumbent at the same time that voters were willing to trust government enough to support the Best Start for Kids measure. "We are, by our nature, a generous people in the Northwest," he said. "But I also think we are a thrifty people. ... We expect to get our money's worth." He suggested that tightened management practices, initiated by County Executive Dow Constantine and his deputy, former Republican state Sen. Fred Jarrett, may have contributed to the confidence that the money would be well spent.

Constantine said Friday that another factor in the levy vote is that support for helping children transcends many party and ideological lines. But he agreed with Wilson, saying, "I think, over the past six years, we've increased the confidence of voters in county government."

In the case of Wilson and Balducci, two new officials will get a chance to build on that confidence in an activist approach.


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