The only people who discuss negative campaigning seriously in Seattle are unsuccessful candidates who wish they'd done more of it. Charlie Chong, the once and former savior of the neighborhoods, is the latest postelection convert—he now says that outsider candidates should come out slugging both in campaign appearances and literature.
This sounds a bit like the guy who watches his pickup basketball opponent score the first five points and then announces he's now ready to play. But Charlie's got a point. Perhaps the sharpest mail piece of the campaign was a last-minute postcard from the Chong campaign featuring quotes from five Seattle newspapers touting Charlie's credentials as a neighborhood leader and painting opponent Heidi Wills as a tool of big-money interests. This 11th-hour swat was more a matter of personal pique (and clearing the last $1,200 from the campaign treasury) than a refined, targeted hit. But it was a rare sign of life in an otherwise dreary campaign season. As the old joke goes, if you're running a one-issue campaign in Seattle, you've generally got one more issue than your opponent.
The mean lil' postcard was a response to a Wills mailer on which a chinless young fellow looked warily at the camera, accompanied by this quote: "In the past, I voted for Charlie Chong. But this time, Seattle's facing tough problems, so I'm voting for Heidi Wills." (Oh, for those glory days of '96, when the problems were easy.) The Chong camp was more annoyed by a comparison chart claiming (falsely, they say) that Charlie opposed both extending light rail to Northgate and growth management efforts to control urban sprawl. Of course, the Wills mailer (and a second, oh-so-positive piece) found its way into mailboxes citywide; Chong's dwindling war chest meant his response only made it into two zip codes.
In the recent City Council elections, only a few other candidates went after their opponents in their mailers. Cheryl Chow sought to portray opponent Judy Nicastro as waffling on the issues (bet that was a challenge). Curt Firestone zinged opponent Margaret Pageler with the scurrilous charge that she was out of touch with Seattle's diverse communities. No doubt Margaret was in tears for weeks. Even the live gibes were a bit stilted. Chow continued her "waffler" theme in depicting her opponent as young and inexperienced; Wills saved her sharpest criticisms of Chong for newspaper reporters, but smiled her way through campaign appearances.
You'd have to move on to other races to find honest-to-goodness hit pieces—most notably Port commission candidate Laurie McDonald Jonsson's cartoon mailer depicting opponent Bob Edwards as two-faced and County Council member Larry Phillips' hilarious slap at Libertarian opponent Chris Caputo (featuring a phony cereal box labeled "Caputo's Wackos").
Even the much-discussed independent expenditure campaigns kept it clean. Instead of blasting tenant advocate Nicastro, a landlord-financed mailer merely praised Chow. Likewise, the watchdog Civic Foundation, criticized in the press as a divisive bunch trying to pit neighborhoods against downtown interests, just pushed their chosen candidates in their mailings.
Why does political Seattle remain so upbeat? Here's one theory: Nobody can cite any candidate who won big with negative ads—and everyone remembers the pounding that former state legislator Jesse Wineberry took in 1991 after unwisely claiming that a citation for drinking a beer in a park made his opponent the "criminal candidate."
Negative campaigning may be the rule elsewhere, but in this town, it's an unproven strategy.
Charlie Chong whipped challenger Heidi Wills by an almost 2-to-1 margin; Dawn Mason polled 61 percent of the vote to easily defeat Jim Compton. Election totals from a parallel universe? No, these are the numbers from these candidates' home legislative districts.
Chong swept the 34th District despite the opposition of his the local Democratic Party organization. (34th District Democratic Chairman Joe McDermott might be cover boy material if The Stranger ever does another piece on Seattle's Least Powerful People.) Mason actually went out and doorbelled the 37th, which she represented for four years in the state legislature. These numbers give you an idea of why outsider types talk fondly about electing council members by geographic district—and why the powers that be (daily newspapers, big business) hate the idea.
We're not worthy
Let's observe a moment of silence for members of the Seattle City Council, who voted to ditch tradition and stress their environmental credentials by forcing themselves to pay for parking at City Hall. In the future, council zealots hope to someday force their colleagues to take the stairs instead of the elevator, read newspapers only over other people's shoulders, and save paper cups by having lattes poured directly into their mouths.
Get the guy with the hat
The WTO Hysteria Award goes to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which issued its staff members hard hats and gas masks. What, no machine guns?