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How to thin the herd vying for your City Council vote

Voters this year will face a lot of choices on ballots to be sorted by King County Elections employees, as they did here at their Renton headquarters on Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Over dinner, another well-connected, upper middle class, politically active, liberal, white woman tells me how disappointed she is at Jenny Durkan’s performance: her seeming complacency about the police contract, choice of large employers over resources for homeless people and, most recent, her silence as Seattle police placed a guard tower in the middle of a Safeway parking lot in Columbia City. Immediately the image of the scorpion crossing the river on the turtle’s back comes into my mind. These women, enjoying relative comfort, seem to have assumed that a woman elected to public office would govern with more compassion and humility than a man, so they put aside their concerns and filled in the circle for Durkan on the primary and general election ballots. Anyone who studied Durkan’s actions as attorney, federal prosecutor or civic leader would have easily anticipated her actions as mayor. She is, was and will ever be, an enforcer of the status quo.

If you’re surprised by something, it’s because your analysis of that thing was flawed. After more than a half-century of immersion in marketing, the public, you’d think, would recognize a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but apparently not. As we yet again enter the political season, with official filings for local elective positions due by May 17, it might be a good time to suggest some guidelines and procedures for assessing political candidates.

There will be so many candidates — there are already more than 50 seeking Seattle City Council seats — discipline will be needed just to keep track of the choices. It would be easy to opt out simply because of the amount of thought it will take to make good selections, but if we’ve learned anything over the past three years, it should be to give our democratic process full attention. We need to spend more time up front selecting those who will steer our ship of state and less time down the river struggling to keep it from running aground. Over the years, I’ve developed a way of approaching voting decisions seriously.

First, turn off the sound. Mute the TV ads. Don’t bother to listen. We already know what they’re going to say:

  • They are almost perfect except for that one thing they got caught doing and now have deep remorse about.
  • Their opponent eats babies or, if no babies are available, puppies and kittens.
  • Equity is the most important thing in their lives even though all of their friends look, act, believe and live just like them (except that one person, of course).
  • They meant to hire a more diverse workforce in their previous positions, but … there just weren’t enough qualified candidates.
  • Jobs must be protected, even if they don’t pay enough to provide economic stability.

Make it easy on yourself and just don’t listen. Instead, create your own job description for each office. Here, for example, is a peek into some of my criteria for the Seattle council candidates:

  • A record as a doer, not a talker.
  • Proven ability to think critically and consider nuance rather than knee-jerk responses to dog whistles.
  • Evidence of creative problem-solving.
  • Evidence they put the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society first.
  • Actions that show proof of an ongoing, fact-based analysis of why people have become vulnerable.
  • A view of human basic needs as part of the environment.
  • Understanding of the complexities of our region.
  • Humane treatment of their staff.
  • Actions that match their stated values.
  • Actions that conform to the preamble of our nation’s Constitution.

My list is long; yours doesn’t have to be. Simply identify the characteristics and qualities important to you. After creating the job description, give each item a priority. I use a scale from zero to 10 to consider the importance of each factor, where zero equals little importance and 10 indicates a make-or-break issue.

Next, rate each candidate against your list. Again I use a zero-to-10 scale, where zero means the candidate has no relation to the item and 10, they’ve nailed it. I’ve done this for so long I no longer use a written process, but with this year’s ever-growing pool of office seekers, I may have to create a database.

Remember, if you are human, you have biases. One of mine is purple. I cringe when confronted by people wearing purple in any of its myriad shades. For reasons related to a bad experience with a co-worker who always wore purple, I have a reflexive, physical reaction. I realize not everyone who wears purple is selfish, self-centered and viciously destructive. I’m hyperaware of my bias, so consciously adjust in conversation or negotiation with someone wearing it, and make myself listen more carefully and watch more vigilantly. Your biases will be different, so be aware as you evaluate and score candidates.

Check out each candidate’s website for information on their past actions. Only pay enough attention to their promises for the future to gauge the gap between those promises and their past actions. Use your search engine to check for articles about them, the older the better. Old articles are more likely to tell you how the candidate thought and behaved before putting on the kaleidoscopic public relations filters of running for this particular office. As you research, write down questions that aren’t answered in the materials. One of the best questions is always, “Why isn’t there any information about the candidate’s relationship to [this subject]?”

When possible, attend public forums and debates, especially those neither in your neighborhood nor sponsored by organizations you belong to. I find this very rewarding, as people with life experience different from mine raise questions and issues I may not have considered. Occasionally it even changes my list of questions. These settings also give me the opportunity to see the candidates in action. Are they physically aggressive toward the moderator or opponent? What makes them laugh, or do they laugh at all? Do they emphasize different issues in different neighborhoods? What themes can I extrapolate from their answers: Are they more interested in an action’s impact on the stock market or people’s lives, more focused on the cost of policies than their outcomes? Do their actions reveal an analysis of social, economic, educational or other key systems. and what are the implications of that analysis?

Pay close attention to the questions an interviewer asks. Are they banal or truly intended to inform? Has the interviewer done research as well as you have, and do they show any biases? Does the candidate actually answer the question or do that annoying, passive-aggressive, media consultant coached “tell them what you want to tell them” thing, a sure indicator they will do the same once elected.

At social gatherings, instead of asking what candidate someone is supporting, ask what criteria they’re using to make their choices or what resources they’ve explored in making their decisions. Ask what your friend, colleague or acquaintance sees as the priorities of our town or region. Find out if their community or business involvement gives them special insight into a particular office or candidate.

Learn to identify a straw dog: a solution to a problem that has no chance of adoption but makes the candidate appear strong on the issue. These are feints meant to give the illusion of commitment to an idea without being accountable for its implementation. They’re easy to spot, especially if the candidate has no track record on the subject.

Need an excuse for a barbecue? Make this campaign season an opportunity for connection. Invite friends over for a candidate information swap where each of you learns all you can about a single candidate and shares it. Be sure to exchange your job descriptions as well. In addition to learning about candidates, you will better understand one another’s values and priorities and gain a better understanding of potential differences in your voting choices.

Developing our democracy requires each of us to lift our heads above the daily routine of work, family, faith and self to view society from a higher level. Those who choose the person steering the ship have the best chance of getting where they want to go. The more off course you believe us to be, the more important it is that you take the time to understand the candidates offering to take over our direction.

Most important of all, gather your knowledge, then vote!

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How to thin the herd vying for your City Council vote

About the Authors & Contributors

Lola E. Peters

Lola E. Peters is a contributing columnist covering politics, culture and social justice.