IT WAS A LONG TIME—since Clinton beat Dole, to be precise—since state voters faced as unappealing a choice as Patty Murray vs. Linda Smith. If you believe the polls (I'm writing this before Election Day), Murray will be safely cocooned in office for another six years. And this raises a depressing question: What could Murray, as an incumbent, do to lose?
It's hard to imagine a more incompetent first term than Murray's six years on the job, measured by either her utter lack of substantive legislative achievement or her systematic betrayal of all the core Democratic constituencies (labor, environment, women, etc.) that elected her in 1992. But she lucked out and ran against Linda Smith, who (justly) scares enough people to assure her continued employment. If Patty had run against Rod Chandler again, or against Chandler's 8th District congressional successor, Gingrich/GOPAC favorite Jennifer Dunn, her clock would probably have been cleaned. Instead, Patty can spend six more years refusing to give the people who originally elected her the time of day.
Six (or 12) years is a long time to wait for accountability, and accountability seems in shorter and shorter supply among public officials at all levels these days. Consider, for instance, one lightly reported item concerning the US Department of Energy, whose new secretary, Bill Richardson, was in Seattle last month smiling for photo ops with Murray and pledging a new spirit of openness. Last week the DOE published, in the Federal Register, a new proposal to use the Hanford Nuclear Reservation's Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) reactor to produce plutonium 238 for the space program, contingent on the enactment of a prior controversial proposal to start tritium production at Hanford. The DOE allowed exactly seven working days for public comments, with no notification to the states of Washington or Oregon, any other official stakeholders, or the some 8,400 folks who commented (most negatively) on its original proposal to restart the FFTF. As Gregory deBruler of the Hanford Public Interest Network noted in a scathing letter to Richardson, the sweeping proposal could only be interpreted as an attempt to "sneak one by" the public. And at what cost to the DOE?
OR TAKE COUNTY EXEC Ron Sims. To all appearances the job Sims really wants is Slade Gorton's US Senate seat in 2000. To that end, Sims has busily distanced himself from his past as a Seattle liberal and cozied up to Eastside developers. He's also, of late, proposed a dramatic property-tax increase (to pay to combat a crime wave that may or may not exist) while quietly chopping social services and expanding his own office. Sims, originally tapped by his fellow County Council members when Gary Locke became governor, was re-coronated last year after sailing to victory as the more moderate Republican in a suspense-free race. If you object to the job he's doing, you're out of luck, since his courtship of donors from both sides of the aisle means he's likely to get little opposition for as long as he wants the job—which is an open question.
Or take this gem that floated across my desk last week. A few months ago the Seattle City Council, after initial support, caved in to pressure from the Washington Council on International Trade (WCIT) and other business groups and refused to pass a largely symbolic ordinance giving preference in city contracting to firms that don't do business with the illegal military dictatorship of Burma. (All current contractors would qualify, and a number of other cities have passed such laws.) The council substituted a lame resolution promising to "monitor" the issue. Guess what? According to its prime backer, council president Sue Donaldson, there are no plans under way to implement any aspects of that measure. In other words, "Those who took time to get involved in the civic process can take a flying leap—we passed the substitute measure to get rid of them while the cameras were rolling."
Similar examples abound; I hadn't even mentioned the Seattle School Board, which writes the book on fear and loathing of the public. We've just survived another season of endless reminders that we must vote, it's our chance to hold politicians accountable, we're not entitled to complain if we don't, blah blah blah. But voting's a dispiriting act, especially in one-party Seattle, which had nearly no competitive races and lots of Soviet-style unopposed elections.
So voting's not enough; to get anywhere we must take time from the rest of our lives and become politically active. But those few of us who do often as not meet with contempt. Bureaucrats like Hanford's fear our involvement. We run up against paid lobbyists like the WCIT's, who can work full-time to advance their interests in the public-private trough. And at every stage, we encounter elected and unelected experts who will pat you on the head and remind you that they know better than the dozens or hundreds or thousands of concerned citizens you've assembled.
There are, of course, exceptions; good elected officials, and instances like the apparent killing of the 2012 Olympic bid where common sense sinks in. But these are far too infrequent, and the result is a public that is largely cynical and apathetic about our public decisionmaking process. Solutions? We have many possibilities, but none are immediately likely and all take work: alternative parties, campaign finance reform, and above all, mass disgust with the corporate hijacking of our local and national public policies. Once upon a time, there was a phrase to describe this: taxation without representation. It's not enough to get angry; the public has to get organized, or we'll continue to get screwed instead.