Someone very wise (my colleague James Bush) wrote, at the height of Charlie Chong's glory circa 1996, that neighborhood politics as a force in citywide races are strictly cyclical, arising every few years to challenge the established order and then vanishing again.
They're gone again.
The most obvious examples are this year's mayoral and city council races, where for mayor, until recently, populism was best expressed by civility laws (City Attorney Mark Sidran) and Sound Transit board membership (King County Council member Greg Nickels). The feelers for a Charlie Chong candidacy were met with hoots of derision. And after only two years on council, now-potential candidate Judy Nicastro's populism is still most closely associated with renters—by definition not close to owner-dominated neighborhood politics. No apparent neighborhood pit bull in the race.
In Seattle City Council races, we'll almost certainly get four well-heeled incumbents re-coronated. The most visible malcontent, Curt Firestone, who has spent the last year telling fans of his 1999 race that he's rarin' to go again, says, "I'm sure not finding a lot of energy out in the community this year compared to two years ago." He's referring both to his campaign and neighborhood activism in general, and now says that he's ambivalent about whether to run this year if no incumbent steps out. No revolution here.
The Civic Foundation—a once-burgeoning PAC set up five years ago specifically to advance neighborhood causes—seems nearly broke and rudderless; Firestone wistfully observes, "The Civic Foundation has kind of withered."
Nothing has arisen to take its place. The biggest current pro-neighborhood proposal out there, electing city council members by district rather than through the current citywide system has had a number of proponents but is still waiting for a well-thought-out, well-funded initiative campaign to magically coalesce. The danger: After one disastrous districts campaign in 1995, another misstep could doom this badly needed reform forever.
One group is planning a poll, with an eye toward getting signatures for a ballot measure in time for a July deadline and fall ballot. But time is short, and so far, there's no organization, no wording, no money, no strategy, and no clamor.
Why aren't neighborhood proponents a factor this year? After all, many issues that were important five years ago—potholes, transportation, South End inequities—are still problems. And while the usual problems encountered by populist organizing all apply, the explanation comes down to two simple words: Paul Schell.
Schell hasn't gotten the credit he deserves for a masterful job of continuing to serve his big business backers, avoiding controversial government handouts, and steering three successive ballot measures to passage in the last three years that all tied big ticket items to significant resources for neighborhood parks, libraries, and community centers.
Political consultant Greg Dewar says Schell used the neighborhood planning process effectively. "The neighborhood councils have basically become part of the establishment, so those people are [now] part of the process; they're [often] co-opted." And in return neighborhoods did get real tangible infrastructure improvements from the city, far more than the lip service of former Mayor Norm Rice.
In neighborhood politics, there's not necessarily anything wrong with being co-opted—it means you're getting something for the hood. And in return, Paul Schell may have a lot more allies in his re-election bid than some observers think.
Sticks and stones
Schell's biggest campaign Achilles' heel is his alarming performances during crises, again reprised during Fat Tuesday. But in the aftermath of that horror, Schell also confirmed another shortcoming revealed by WTO: his frightening problems with free speech (first revealed by the infamous "No-Protest Zone"). On March 7, Schell responded to a questioner that critics of the Mardi Gras performance of the police and/or Schell were engaging in "the moral equivalent of throwing rocks and bottles." Rock, please.
The comment is a reminder that Schell still doesn't understand the role of either the Bill of Rights or accountability in a democratic society. Suggesting that our public employees screwed up is not a violent crime.
It also suggests that Schell didn't pay attention on the playground in first grade. Let's send him back. Repeat after us, Paul: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. . . ." And then, since first-graders can't run a large city . . . well, you know where I'm going with this.
While the slaying last week of a young Des Moines officer was indeed awful, the lead story treatment in the daily newspapers given to his "blue funeral" contrasted strikingly with the services of Joel Robert Silvesan, the bicyclist killed by a speeding patrol car on North Aurora the previous week. According to a family friend, only one media member even showed up at Silvesan's funeral. The fetishization of "blue funerals" is, frankly, in poor taste as well as appalling. It's important when public servants die, even accidentally, while doing their job—but no more so than when public servants kill, even accidentally, while doing their job.*