Take two grand ballrooms at the Westin Hotel. Stir in five hundred paying politicos. Add $22,440 worth of contributions in the first month of serious campaigning. Fold in a political family name that has been winning elections in this town since 1973. Sprinkle support from political kingmakers like former mayor and power landlord Wes Uhlman, ex-Commonsista turned high-tech deal maker Joel Horn, and ber-lawyer Gerry Johnson. Let it simmer. That's Cheryl Chow's recipe for success in the upcoming Seattle City Council elections. And back in April, it smelled scrumptious.
Then came May, during which she raised only $1,422 in donations. June produced a piddling $2,037. No campaign manager was hired. No visible electioneering took place, other than the obligatory appearances at Democratic district organizations. Meanwhile, other candidates are furiously shaking the money tree and pumping out faxes, slim jims, and yard signs. Has Cheryl's souffl頦allen? No way, she says. She just stepped out of the electoral kitchen for a bit. What's she been doing? She's back in school—what'd ya expect? This is Cheryl Chow, after all.
In May and June of this year, when she should have been raising enough money to discourage any big names from challenging her (TV guys Mike James and Jim Compton are the latest ones toying with council candidacy), Chow was working at Meany Middle School. The school district needed her help and she, as usual, responded.
Chow, her supporters, and her detractors all agree on one thing—she is devoted to children. She explains that since she has none of her own, she has taken care of other people's children—first during her 18 years in education, including time as a middle school principal, then in her two terms on Seattle City Council, which began in 1990. She points to the passage of the Families and Education levy, which funded after-school programs, and the building of five community centers during her council tenure as two of her proudest achievements.
Yet her political career has been consistently dogged by charges that she really wants to be in education—something peripheral to the city council's business. During her unsuccessful run for mayor in 1997, many said she sounded more like a school board candidate.
In 1996, while serving on the council, the Seattle Times reported Chow had accepted an unpaid job as interim principal at West Seattle's Madison Middle School. Asked how she could juggle both jobs, Chow told the Times, "There are a lot of rubber-chicken lunches we [council members] attend. I think I could give up some of those."
Greg Hill, a longtime transit activist, was appalled. "My father was a high school principal for 13 years. They work extremely hard, far more than 8 to 5. Some city council members do a great deal of work. Chow found [the council] so uninvolving that she could be a school principal as well. She wasn't even interested."
Chow says the whole incident was overblown and poorly reported. "I didn't say I wanted to be principal [at Madison]," she claims. When she heard about problems at the school, she offered to volunteer and ended up helping with drop-out prevention for a few months.
Chow remains unapologetic about wanting to use her post as a city council member to benefit kids. "Parents can't do it by themselves. The world is too complex. The child only goes to school 9 to 3 or 8 to 2. All that other time is city time or community time." Chow believes being on the city council gives her "impact citywide instead of just in one school building" as a principal.
Hill doesn't see the connection. He finds it odd "that people support her city council candidacy because of her interest in the schools," and believes that the city council's role in the public schools is limited and adequate. He continues, "She'd make a great school board member."
Hill's sentiments are echoed by other activists who not only think she's running for the wrong office but also that her kid-friendly agenda is a diversion from her record of hostility to neighborhoods and consistent support for downtown gigantism and sanitizing the city.
John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition says Chow voted for the "antihomeless laws" pushed by City Attorney Mark Sidran. "I've been around the city council a lot of years. On issues of economic justice and homelessness, she was one of the most unresponsive. She showed a lack of knowledge, interest, or understanding. She should stick with kids."
Chow defends her support for the "no-sitting-on-the-sidewalk" law and similar legislation by describing a city out of control. "There was a point where there were so many panhandlers being aggressive, blocking entrances to buildings—it was uncomfortable. People felt threatened."
Jorgen Bader of the Seattle Community Council Federation lobbied Chow on a variety of issues, from excessive airplane noise in schools to inadequate library funding. "Chow would not help us. She just ignored us. On neighborhood issues, Chow does not support us." Bader was also troubled by Chow's consistent support for the city's bankrolling of downtown development.
Chow believes the city's investments in Benaroya Hall, the Pacific Place parking garage, and the Convention Center have paid off. "They have made a huge positive impact. I have seen cities where the center is gone. We voted to have a vibrant, money-generating downtown core."
While Chow acknowledges that there is a fiery debate over how much help government should provide to downtown business, she believes the electorate will appreciate her business-friendly voting record. But she's not counting on it.
Chow has won two previous city council elections, and while she ran poorly in the mayor's race, her name was plastered all over the city. The cornerstone of her electoral strategy is clearly name recognition. That's why she is so confident despite her lack of electoral activity: "It's a lull in the campaign season unless you're a brand new candidate. I know what to do and I know the timing."
Her recipe—fundraising + kids + name = success—may seem like a thin gruel, but she's been living off it for years.