Two years ago, everyone knew the script as they mounted the barricades. The theme of the 1997 city council election was sharply drawn, fueled by the fiascos of stadium funding and Nordstrom's HUD loan for a parking garage; there was a strong move to challenge the complacency of an ideologically homogenous council. The neighborhood advocates and progressives who mounted that challenge succeeded beyond their wildest expectations in November, helped in two out of three open-seat races by the implosion of Thomas Goldstein and Sherry Harris. The result was the election of three progressive newcomers (Nick Licata, Peter Steinbrueck, and Richard Conlin) and a fundamental change in how the council has done business since.
This year, there is no such apparent galvanizing issue for voter anger, and no such demand for new voices. If anything, the trend among open seat contestants is for previous officeholders trying to make a comeback: Charlie Chong, Cheryl Chow, Dawn Mason, even Sherry Harris (tell us, please, that she's simply trying to retire old campaign debts). People generally aren't as angry, and for many the economy is booming as never before.
In such a climate, what's a progressive to do? One answer—one that hasn't been tried in a while—is to organize. That's the approach of the Seattle Progressive Coalition (SPC), a group organized last fall with many of Seattle's more experienced local progressive activists.
The group hasn't gotten much attention as it tries to find its feet, but it's an interesting case study in how to try to influence city politics when you don't have the first basic requirement for access: lots of money.
SPC is hoping to challenge that equation—and, in the case of city council, expand from three progressive voices to a reliable majority of five—by visibly hoisting the ideological banner and by tapping volunteers. In 1997, progressive and neighborhood candidacies got a boost from the Civic Foundation, which raised money through monthly membership dues redistributed to two endorsed candidates. SPC's approach is similar, using sweat instead of dough: members are asked to contribute four volunteer hours per month to the group or to one of its endorsed candidates.
So far, SPC has had limited success; its several dozen members, many of them experienced organizers, aren't going to make or break a campaign, but especially in the early stages they can certainly help. The group has debated at some length over whether to run its own candidates or endorse existing ones, opting for its first election to do some of both. In this year's council races, SPC has endorsed three candidates: Peter Steinbrueck, Dawn Mason, and Curt Firestone.
Firestone, challenging incumbent Margaret Pageler, is the group's internal candidate, an SPC co-convener who is running essentially because the group asked him to. So far, he seems to be mounting a credible if not overwhelming challenge, based largely on his network of supporters from SPC, the Seattle Greens, and the Labor Party.
Progressive rock and rule
So what is a "progressive," anyway? SPC, not surprisingly, has spent most of its time over the past several months trying to answer the question by laboriously identifying key issues that will define the group in local politics. It is focusing—if that's the right word—on six issue areas, each with innumerable sub-areas: transportation (Sound Transit issues, greater bus frequency, and more bike lanes); equitable economic planning (bonds for people, not public-private partnerships); basic human needs (child care, universal health care, an end to homelessness); labor rights (a living wage, supporting bargaining rights); electoral reform (specifically some sort of proportional representation system); and criminal justice (police accountability, an end to INS raids).
It's a grab bag of progressive issues, many of which (INS raids, universal health care) have little to do with municipal politics and nothing to do with the city council. Indeed, the easiest criticism of SPC has been that it is a coalition and not an organization. As such, candidates are being asked to "focus" on an endless list of everyone's single pet issue, rather than the one or two heavily repeated themes that carry most successful candidacies. Then again, it is no more idealistic or irrelevant a list than most party platforms—and if Cheryl Chow can run for city council by talking endlessly about schoolchildren (hint to Cheryl: that's the school board's job), then why in the name of Regence shouldn't someone be talking about abolishing the for-profit health insurance industry?
The more serious criticism of SPC—and one for which there is no ready answer but time—is that it's a new group with little in the way of resources or electoral experience. The lack of experience showed when another of SPC's co-conveners, Char Carroll, abruptly withdrew her candidacy challenging Tina Podlodowski only days before Podlodowski herself withdrew. Carroll, by apparently not knowing that Tina was poised to withdraw, lost a chance to be the de facto front-runner for an open seat and to give SPC an enormous boost in credibility.
Those sorts of lost chances don't come often, and volunteer hours alone probably won't be enough to give SPC influence with established candidates like Steinbrueck and Mason. More members, and specific proposals that excite the public, will help. In the interim, this year's campaigns are being used to train SPC stalwarts on how to run a race—with an eye especially toward finding a challenger for Mark Sidran next time. By then, perhaps, SPC will be a force to be noticed. Maybe it will be sooner, if Curt Firestone and Dawn Mason give the council the working majority the Seattle Progressive Coalition wants.