Growing the money tree

You've got to credit enterprise when you see it, so let's give it up for the folks who want to raise the city election contribution limit from the current $400 to $800.

A report prepared by the three members of the city's Ethics and Elections Commission pushing this "double your money" proposal includes a history of city donation limits, a review of inflation rates, and a fine collection of unsupported (and unsupportable) statements to rationalize the latest attempt to sell out local government to big spenders.

City Council President Margaret Pageler liked what she saw, too. She told commissioner Paul Dayton, spokesman for the big-money wing of the commission, that she was pleased to find actual data behind the recommendation. Pageler admitted she was surprised by the proposal and had feared commissioners had just pulled the $800 figure out of the air. Of course, as none of Dayton's facts and figures (save his naive contention that money is speech, and therefore more money means better speech) were included in the commission's debate on the issue, Pageler was probably right the first time.

Dayton also deserves kudos for his valiant attempt to flip the burden of proof to his critics. Unless people can prove that a higher contribution limit would have ill effects, he told the council, the city should make the change. Well, that's one way of looking at it.

But he does have a point. Money, while important in local elections, is far from the only factor in winning a seat on the City Council. In the last nine seriously contested council races (eight open seat races and one in which an incumbent got tossed), the bigger spender only won four times.

Seattle voters are an odd lot. After they gave several older council incumbents involuntary retirement in the early 1990s, the only officeholder to get a pink slip at the polls since has been Sherry Harris, whose major crime was not answering the phone. They've also welcomed young up-and-comers (Heidi Wills, Judy Nicastro, Peter Steinbrueck), scorned ex-council members seeking to return to office (Harris, Charlie Chong, Cheryl Chow), and rated a thoughtful demeanor as the ultimate political asset (Nick Licata, Jim Compton, Richard Conlin).

Sure, incumbents are hard to beat, but it's not just a money thing. In a one-party town like Seattle, every council member is a Democratic officeholder, so you challenge an incumbent at your own political peril. Since John Manning ousted Harris in 1995, not one council incumbent has faced a serious fight at the polls.

As for commissioner Dayton's claim that more money means a better political debate, you can only assume he's never witnessed a Seattle campaign. In this town, a single-issue candidate is always running on one more issue than his or her opponent. Nicastro's 1999 victory over Chow can probably be credited to the rent control issue—even though Nicastro never quite managed to solidify her position, voters got the message that she was sympathetic to tenants. Wills' $198,433 campaign, the most expensive since Microsoft millionaire Tina Podlodowski's partially self-financed 1995 run, was perhaps the slickest and least substantial in memory. Wills contrasted herself as a young optimist with that "can-do" spirit, running against grumpy old man Chong. She won, of course—Seattle voters are far more forgiving on issues of substance than they are on issues of style.

The lesson money mongers like Dayton should keep in mind is that Seattleites enjoy our goofy style of politics. It's hard to argue that campaigns are having a hard time raising money when a first-time council candidate can gather $200,000. And, if we want more people to run for office, a change destined to raise the total cost of all campaigns seems counterproductive. The council used solid reasoning in 1994 when it set the minimum contribution at a relatively low $400. Let's hope it accepts the Ethics and Elections Commission's minority report and raises the limit only to $500—if at all.

Mayor trumps train

Just because people say something all the time doesn't mean it's true.

One popular Seattle urban legend getting a lot of play these days is the claim that more people voted for the Monorail Initiative in the 1997 election than voted for Mayor Paul Schell. It's a compelling bit of information, but it's wrong: Schell got 106,414 votes, the monorail managed just 95,693. However, the single-track special did get almost 400 more votes than City Attorney Mark Sidran, a figure made all the more impressive by the fact that Sidran ran unopposed.

None of your business

Washington voters are fond of boasting about their independent nature, but we've got a formidable competitor in Alaska, our neighbor to the north.

Along with California and Washington, Alaska was one of the three states with so-called blanket primaries, which allow voters to choose between candidates from various political parties. The US Supreme Court recently struck down the California blanket primary and Alaska and Washington are expected to change their election systems. As Alaska has long required voters to register their party preference, it should see a relatively easy transition to a party-based electoral system. Or, at least it seems that way until you look at the figures. Of the 422,222 registered Alaska voters, about 18 percent claim to be Democrats, 26.5 percent say they're Republicans, and another 18 percent call themselves independents. Which leaves a full 37.5 percent of voters classified as "undeclared," which roughly translates to "It's none of your damn business what party I belong to." It's nice that our state has such a good role model.

 
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