It figures that the 2001 mayoral campaign would start not with a bang, but with an adverb.
"Probably" was Mayor Paul Schell's response at a recent forum when asked if he planned to run for reelection. Perhaps not the fire-in-the-belly rejoinder you'd like from a big-city mayor—but this, after all, is Seattle. At least he didn't say "whatever."
Schell already has a serious opponent in King County Council member Greg Nickels. The West Seattle pol fell about 1,100 votes short of advancing to the final election against Schell in 1997 and has already collected some $47,824 for next year's campaign. It's way too early to start the 2001 campaign, but the mayor's bold public pronouncement at least kicks off the campaign speculation season.
But, in order to speculate wisely (or even competently), you need to understand two terms—"safe seat" and "mayoral majority."
A politician is said to have a safe seat when they run for higher office in a year in which they don't have to stand for reelection to the seat they currently hold (so the five council members elected in 1999 have safe seats for a mayoral race, but their four colleagues facing reelection in 2001 don't).
A mayoral majority is the higher hurdle Seattle City Council members must negotiate before moving up to the mayor's post. The city's incumbent-friendly method of electing council members means that many veteran officeholders never face serious opposition and routinely ring up victories by at least a two-to-one margin. However, when you've got several serious candidates in the same race, everybody can't get 70 percent (as council incumbents Jane Noland and Cheryl Chow found out in 1997, when both tanked in the mayoral primary).
Let's throw out a few names and let the speculation begin:
Mark Sidran: The incumbent city attorney doesn't have a safe seat and is a shrewd political operator, two reasons why he wouldn't dare be the third guy in a Nickels-Schell race. As the city's designated black hat—promoting laws that adversely impact minorities and low-income residents—Sidran could be our lawyer for years to come, but he's just not nice enough to be our mayor.
Jan Drago: This council member might run if Schell doesn't, but she lacks both a safe seat and a distinct enough constituency to muster a mayoral majority.
Nick Licata: The more-or-less leader of the council's opposition wing has to run for reelection next year and seems more concerned about keeping his job than moving upstairs.
Jim Compton: The power of this ex-TV commentator's name recognition amazed politicos in his 1999 campaign, and he's got a safe seat. Still, with only two years in office, a mayoral majority may be just beyond his reach.
Martha Choe, Sue Donaldson, and Tina Podlodowski: No, they aren't considering running as a job-sharing trio, but the fact that none of these three ex-council members has ever lost an election makes them a focus of speculation. However, all three could have easily won reelection in 1999 and been poised to run from safe seats, but none did so. Choe was so eager to bolt City Hall that she resigned from office two months before the end of her term. Podlodowski qualifies as a long-shot candidate, but only because she's a millionaire.
That mystery candidate we don't know about yet: This is a favorite construct of the political elite, because, if such a candidate does show up, then you can claim you knew it all along. Barring the entrance of another TV name (Jean Enersen, Mike James, or, yes, even Tony Ventrella), don't expect any surprises.
Peter Steinbrueck: Schell and Nickels take note—this guy could be trouble. He's got a safe council seat and matchless name recognition, and he could jump into a three-way tilt and cause complete chaos. Sure, his recent decision to endorse Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader means he wouldn't get many Democratic endorsements, but it gave him a ton of extra credibility with enviros and independent voters. Maybe he wouldn't win the final election, but he could send someone (even Schell) home early.
Mike Lowry: Hey, after the whipping he's going to take in this year's state lands commissioner race, he's going to need something to do. . . .
No help from court
There's no official decision yet, but it seems the state Court of Appeals won't be issuing any swats to city officials over their sleight of hand with a 1998 initiative.
Originally slated as an alternative to the successful, library-building City Proposition No. 1, Initiative 45 failed to reach the ballot in 1998. Before it could be submitted to voters the following year, it was sentenced to death-by-approval by the City Council—which simply enacted it and then went ahead with its own library plan. (Officially, the city now has two library plans; at least until two years elapse and the council can legally repeal I-45).
But although members of a three-judge appeals panel agreed that the city violated provisions of its own charter, they also stated that there isn't any appropriate legal remedy for them to take in response to a suit filed against the city by activist Linda Jordan.
At least city lawyer Sandra Cohen's explanation of the initiative process proved entertaining. She seems to think it's a petition drive to get policy-makers' attention. "The whole purpose of the initiative feature is to get the City Council to enact that law," she claimed.
Cohen should reread the first sentence of the city charter's legislative provisions—the purpose of the "initiative feature" is to allow the public to enact the law itself.