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Election 2013: A Mayoral Conundrum and a Chance to Shake Up City Council

By • on October 26, 2013 at 1:24 am

Editors’ note: We hope to have the companion piece to this, looking at the mayor’s race in depth, up later today! Apologies for the delay.

Media coverage in this year’s election has been dominated by the race for Seattle Mayor, but for local politics this year’s election is unusually important. Beyond a mayor’s race that’s a clear referendum on the climate-change-friendly, developer-friendly, poor-people-hostile approach to governing championed by Mike McGinn (and Richard Conlin in the only seriously contested city council race), there’s a historic opportunity to reshape our homogenous, moribund city council; an important school board race; and some other exciting (and not-so-exciting) ballot measures and offices. This is the rare local election where there are real choices, and, for progressives, real opportunities.

As has been true for each of the 18 years we’ve been passing on our recommendations, the usual caveats apply: this is one opinion. Take it for what it’s worth, which is, well, one opinion. Do your own research. And be sure to vote by November 5 – this time it’s worth it – but don’t think for a second the job of changing the world will be over afterwards. Social change comes from below. Voting becomes most useful when – as has happened with several of the items this year – people have already organized, not when the people and policies we empower are approved. Without the organizing, we’ll never get that chance, and even if everything we want to see happen this time around takes place, it only opens up that many more opportunities. Get out and make yourself heard all the time, not just by mailing in a piece of paper.

On to it!

Seattle Mayor: In those 18 years, I can never remember one – let alone both – candidates in a general election race being so good on some things, and so awful on others. It’s a serious conundrum, and one we can’t resolve. Both incumbent Mike McGinn and challenger Ed Murray are exceptional on this, deeply troubling on that, and we don’t want to spend this entire article spelling it all out.

Pity we can’t somehow combine the good bits of both and leave out the really terrible bits of each? Granted, in a few places (e.g., management style, corporate welfare) that would leave a void where the mayor should be, but that’d be OK, too…Just know that of the four core ETS! people consulted on ETS! endorsements this year, we’ve got one strong McGinn supporter, one narrow McGinn supporter, one narrow Murray supporter, and one strong Murray supporter – and those are four people who, while politically heterogeneous, come to consensus on most races and measures. It’s pretty well unprecedented to have such a wide spread of opinion, and among progressives in town many are conflicted. Consensus on this one was impossible.

So, in the accompanying article, we’ve spelled out the very good, very bad, and downright ugly for each. Some of it you already know; other items might surprise you. Depending on what’s most important to you, make up your own mind. And, of course, not voting for either one is also an option!

Seattle City Attorney: Incumbent Pete Holmes has mostly done a good job and is a vast improvement over his two predecessors, Tom Carr and Mark Sidran. But, he’s unopposed, and ETS! never, ever makes endorsements of unopposed candidates. This ain’t a North Korean election. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Skip it.

Seattle City Council #2: Full disclosure: I’m in the core leadership of Kshama Sawant’s campaign, coordinating fundraising and communications. (Go here to donate. OK, day job obligation executed…). So I’m not exactly a neutral observer. But the other election ETS!ers are, and they’re just as enthusiastic as I am. The Sawant campaign has become a phenomenon, and easily the most significant grass roots movement of any kind since Occupy (which Sawant was heavily involved in). At least.

Sawant is an openly socialist candidate, which normally gives us pause, since the local history of socialist groups putting forward candidates for office is that they’re fringe groups not running serious campaigns, but using the platform of a campaign to spout irrelevant party dogma while knowing virtually nothing about the office they allegedly want. (In fact, there’s a couple of these below.) That’s not Sawant. She’s passionate, and ideologically committed, but also likeable, whip-smart, a fast learner, deeply knowledgable on a lot of local issues (she’s a PhD economics instructor at Seattle Central), and as of this writing she has over 300 volunteers and has raised nearly $100,000 in her campaign. There’s a reason The Stranger, often hostile to grass roots activism, adores Sawant and has been pushing her hard: she’s good. It’s been a long, long time in Seattle since any kind of progressive campaign has generated this kind of buzz – at least since Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck first ran in 1997.

That’s when Sawant’s opponent, Richard Conlin, also ran, and a lot of people thought he was the third staunch progressive being elected that year. Conlin was never as consistent as the other two, though, and has been drifting rightward ever since, to the point where he is today the most reactionary (and also the most smugly arrogant) member of council. Conlin has been, among many other things, the sole vote against paid sick leave; the chief council proponent of the downtown tunnel and the new (and unfunded) 520 bridge; a strong advocate for making life more punitive and miserable for the homeless and poor; and an unerring errand boy for big developers in genreal and in particular anything Paul Allen wants. Even his environmentalism, which is his supposed strength, is skin-deep; along with the tunnel (which has no transit capacity) and the new freeway over Lake Washington, he’s pulled money from public transit, as council president sat on funding for the Bicycle Master Plan for two years, and on, and on. In 1997, Conlin associated himself with the Green Party. This year, the Green Party endorsed Sawant. That pretty much tells you what the arc of Conlin’s career has been. He’s a cancer on the council – or, to use The Stranger’s memorable phrase, a “greenwashing liberal fraud.”

Richard Conlin has largely campaigned this year on the idea that he “gets stuff done,” but rarely specifies what that “stuff” is, because he knows voters would riot if he was honest about his behind-the-scenes priorities. There hasn’t been this clear a contrast between viable candidates in a Seattle race – in either ideology, personality, or style – in many years. It’s a rare chance to replace the worst council member with someone who would be the best. Vote for Kshama Sawant – and then donate and volunteer. You’ll be glad you did.

Seattle City Council #4: Incumbent Sally Bagshaw is, like Conlin, a creature of the downtown establishment – though at least she’s nicer than he is. But she could still use the same sort of challenge Conlin is getting. Alas, not this year. Opponent Sam Bellomio – a self-identified Republican, though he’s all over the map politically – is legendary for his unhinged rants (er, “testimony”) to city council. There’s no nice way to say it – he’s nuts. Skip it. Or write in Sawant

Seattle City Council #6: Above, we mentioned socialist candidates that run in order “to spout irrelevant party dogma while knowing virtually nothing about the office they allegedly want.” Edwin Fruit, this is your life. And Fruit – spouse of fellow SWPer Mary Martin, who ran an identical primary campaign for mayor this summer – is running a head-scratching challenge to the most progressive member of council, Nick Licata. Licata, like at least half the council, has been there a long time, but he still gets good stuff done – see the paid sick leave ordinance, for one, and a host of less high profile things that specifically improve people’s lives. Nick Licata.

Seattle City Council #8: When first elected four years ago, Mike O’Brien was largely seen as little more than a reliable council ally for Mike McGinn (both are Sierra Club veterans). But O’Brien has grown into his job in ways that McGinn has not, and very much been his own person in the last couple of years, establishing himself as (usually) the second progressive voice on council after Licata. That’s why the business community has poured money into the campaign of his opponent, Albert Shen, who has adjusted his views accordingly and run a surprisingly reactionary campaign. As with Licata and Sawant, this is a no-brainer: Mike O’Brien.

Seattle School District Board #1: For the first time in a decade, a genuinely progressive grass roots activist is running for school board: Sue Peters. Her opponent, Suzanne Dale Estey, says some of the same things but has gotten a lot of her funding from the anti-public-school, pro-privatization charter school movement. It’s another sharp contrast between good and bad, or between fresh blood and more of the insular good ‘ol boys/gals that have kept the Seattle district remarkably consistent in its contempt for teachers, students, parents, and the community for decades now. Another easy – and exciting – choice: Sue Peters.

Seattle School District Board #5: (Sigh) Stephan Blan(d)ford is yet another establishment candidate with stolid credentials and, in all likelihood, a natural predelection for business as usual. Alas, you kinda need to vote for him, because opponent LaCrese Green wants to make school superintendent an elected position – meaning he doesn’t even understand the distinction between board and staff. Green isn’t even qualified to pick her nose, let alone help run a large urban school district. So, alas, Stephan Blanford.

Seattle School District Board #7: Incumbent Betty Patu is unopposed. Skip it.

King County Executive: Dow Constantine has done a solid job in the wake of replacing local legend Rom Sims, and deserves a second term. Especially so since his opponent is a Republican wingnut named Alan Lobdell. Dow Constantine.

King County Sheriff: John Urquhart has been least a modest improvement over his predecessors, Sue Rahr and Dave “Hairspray” Reichert. Doesn’t matter – he’s unopposed. Skip it.

King County Council #1: Rod Dembowski was appointed to this seat when Bob Ferguson became Washington’s attorney general last year, and by all accounts he’s done a solid job. Opponent Naomi Wilson is also progressive but has given no real reason why Dembowski should be replaced. So don’t. Rod Dembowski.

King County Council #5: State senator Dave Upthegrove is running for this open Burien-centered seat against former deputy sheriff Andy Massagli. Upthegrove is a much, much better choice. Dave Upthegrove.

King County Council 9: Dreadful Tea Partier (and the spoiled kid of his long-time Congresswoman mom) Reagan Dunn is finally getting a spirited challenge in this Newcastle district, from progressive Korean-American businesswoman Shari Song. She’s great. He’s awful. Shari Song.

Port of Seattle Commissioner #1: I remember when new commissioner John Creighton, maybe a decade ago, responded thoughtfully to a critical ETS! piece noting his business connections by insisting he was progressive and reform-minded. He got credit for responding, and over the years he’s become one of the only consistent voices for challenging the cronyism that has long plagued the port. He deserves another term. John Creighton.

Port of Seattle Commissioner #2: Courtney Gregoire will probably be really, really glad when articles about her stop mentioning her famous mother – but then, it’s hard to avoid given her very similar business-friendly, centrist Democrat approach. Alas, her opponent is another one of those socialists, SWPer John Naubert, who literally says in the voters guide that he wants to emulate Cuba. Fine. Go tell the Port of Havana you want to help. Know what? They’ll think you’re an ignorant idiot, too, because they need people who actually know something about ports, shipping, and transportation. So does Seattle. Courtney Gregoire.

Port of Seattle Commissioner #3: Michael Wolfe at least is focused on “what about the airport?” instead of the incumbent (Stephanie Bowman) and every other commissioner that oozes forth to this corrupt little fiefdom from working for the shipping industry, cruise lines, or any of the other big companies seeking and getting favors from the Port. Michael Wolfe.

Port of Seattle Commissioner #4: Another case where there’s two candidates, but only one can actually do the job. The second, in this case, is perma-candidate Richard Pope, who’s well on his way to having run for every elected office – including judgeships – in King County. Incumbent Tom Albro.

BALLOT MEASURES

Initiative 517: Yes, this is a Tim Eyman initiative, and yes, it’s incredibly self-serving. But it also happens to be a good idea. And if Eyman’s name weren’t attached, more progressives would realize that.

I-517 does three main things: extend the time available to collect signatures; prevents governments or third parties from dismissing or suing to dismiss valid signatures from being counted; and protects signature gatherers from harassment.

Those first two are the most important. With longer signature periods, we would have had marijuana legalization on the ballot two years earlier. At the city level, any number of underfunded progressive initiative efforts using volunteers have simply run out of time. And as recently as this year in SeaTac (see below), a lawsuit from Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association nearly kept its living wage initiative off the ballot (by demanding, among other things, that if someone accidentally signed the petition twice, neither signature should count). Two years ago, Richard Conlin got the city of Seattle to sue to keep an anti-tunnel initiative off the ballot (before a judge told him he couldn’t do it). There’s a long list of initiatives in this state that should have been on the ballot, but for one of these two reasons weren’t, and that has nothing to do with Tim Eyman.

The third provision, protection for signature gatherers, has gotten the most attention, with a lot of progressives claiming it would prevent them from challenging Eyman’s bullshit claims and mounting counter-signature drives. Here’s the actual language of what that section bans:

“Interfering with a person trying to sign a petition, stalking a person who signs a petition, or stalking or retaliating against a person who gathers petition signatures would [be disorderly conduct]…Interfering with petition signing and signature gathering would be defined to include, but not limited to, pushing, shoving, touching, spitting, throwing objects, yelling, screaming, being verbally abusive, or other tumultuous conduct, blocking or intimidating, or maintaining an intimidating presence w/in 25 feet.”

Do anti-Eyman people do that stuff? Usually not. I hope not. And if they do, it’s usually already illegal behavior. Can a signature gatherer or Eyman supporter claim it’s happening when it isn’t? Sure, but they can do that now, too.

In other words, the intimidation clause is a pretty minor feature of an initiative that helps all citizens, progressive, Tea Party, or in between, get things on the ballot. And progressives have their agenda ignored a lot more in legislatures than anti-tax people do. Yes.

Inititiative 522: The initiative requiring labelling of most foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has drawn a huge amount of out-of-state money, much of it from big agribusiness and food corporations like Monsanto and Pepsico. That in itself is a warning sign, because big companies on principle shouldn’t be allowed to buy election results.

But ask yourself: If GMOs are the scientific miracles these companies claim everyone should want, why don’t they want us to know about them? Why aren’t they shouting from the rooftops instead? “DRINK NEW, NUTRITIOUS PEPSI BLAST, great for your health because it’s made with specially designed, protein-rich TOAD LIVER COLA BEANS!!!”

Or, alternatively, if a lot of people would think what these global corporations are putting in our food is disgusting, maybe we should have the right to know about it. Yes.

King County Charter Amendment #1: This creates a new county Department of Public Defense. Historically, public defenders worked for a separate nonprofit entity that contracted to the county to protect PDs from having to answer to politically motivated bosses. Now the defenders, thanks to a court ruling last year, are county employees – but they still need that independence and protection in order to do their jobs properly. Yes.

King County Proposition #1: Ah, it’s the old and trusted trick, especially locally: put funding for essential services everyone will support – libraries, parks, ambulances, education – in a special levy on the ballot, so that general fund money the public doesn’t get to vote on can be saved for the stuff nobody would ever vote for (corporate welfare, new sports palaces, etc.) But whaddaya gonna do? Medic One does need money, and a “no” vote will (as past history has shown) just keep getting it sent back to the ballot, wasting time and taxpayer money, until the rubes inevitably get tired of it all and vote yes. So just get it over with, support our great emergency health care system, and then vote the assholes who keep relying on this trick out of office. Yes.

SeaTac Proposition #1: We don’t usually cover suburban ballot measures, but this one’s being watched across the country, and is, like I-522, drawing corporate money in opposition from all over the country. This would establish a $15 an hour minimum wage, grant paid sick leave, ensure that restaurant workers, bartenders, baristas et al can keep their tips rather than turning them over to the house, and a host of other useful things. It’s basically a Worker Bill of Rights, and every city – including Seattle – should pass it. SeaTac first. If you live there, vote for it; if you have friends who live there, get them to vote for it. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin. Yes.

Seattle Charter Amendment #19: The first of two measures on the ballot that would dramatically alter the city council’s balance of power away from lifetime sinecures for socially liberal, corporate-friendly Democrats. (With nine seats, the council now has six white guys, and only one non-white, and the average age is 64. Does that sound like the city you know? Yes, we have a problem.)

Amendment #19 would bring Seattle into line with other major US cities by moving us away from electing all our council members citywide. Only three other cities, among the 50 largest in the US, still use a completely at-large system, and most have moved away from the at-large model in recent years due to exactly the same problem Seattle has: with the very high cost these days of running for office, having to run city-wide keeps grassroots candidates from running, from being competitive, and from winning, and makes for a sclerotic decision-making body.

The proposal in this case is for a 7-2 split of districts (roughly West Seattle, Southeast Seattle, Capitol Hill/CD/Mount Baker, Downtown/Queen Anne/Magnolia, U-District/Roosevelt, Ballard/North Ballard, and North Seattle, and two remaining at-large seats. Districts make it easier for underfunded candidates who have a geographic base, makes it easier for them to campaign and get themselves known (try doorknocking, let alone buying advertising, for a city of 630,000), and most importantly means everyone in the city has at least one councilperson who will pay attention to your concerns. That’s at least one more than the current norm.

The most common objection – that it will create “ward politics” or “NIMBYism” – is patently ridiculous. These districts are roughly the size of the ones we elect state legislators for now, and that’s simply never been a problem in Olympia. (Our state folks have a different problem – those are partisan positions, and both major parties strongly discourage primary challengers, leading to lifetime sinecures in single-party districts like Seattle’s.)

And even if districts leads to a Balkanized council, that’s still better than the status quo – seven or eight council members representing downtown and South Lake Union, while the rest of the city can go fuck itself. Yes.

Seattle Proposition #1: This measure would bring publicly financed campaigns – which was the law here from 1979-92 – back to Seattle. This should be a great thing, for the same reasons #19 is good – it levels the playing field for underfunded campaigns. But there’s a catch.

The way city council wrote the law requires 600 discreet donors for a campaign to qualify for 6-1 matching funds from the city. Pretty cool, huh? Until you realize that every incumbent makes this threshold, but most challengers don’t. This is essentially the Seattle law from the ’80s, except with the qualifying minimum doubled (it was 300 back then). A similar system in Los Angeles – a city over five times Seattle’s size – requires 200. As written, this is basically public financing for incumbents only, and would accomplish exactly the opposite of what its proponents intend.

Proponents claim that by incentivizing smaller, more numerous donations, more campaigns will focus on them and most challengers will qualify. Maybe. It’s not as though populist campaigns haven’t tried that approach, even without matching funds at the other end. Few have made it, at least in Seattle.

But there’s two other, more reliable reasons to vote for this. First, it’s a lot easier to amend an existing law than create a brand new system, and public financing is good if you don’t have greedy incumbents messing with the details. More importantly, this is likely to lose – if you believe the polls, it’s likely to lose by a lot. And that would be terrible – it would keep other attempts to create any sort of public financing system, no matter how much better than this one, off the ballot for years, if not decades. The chances that we can revisit this with a better law improve a lot if the final margin is competitive. A very, very qualified Yes.

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