ANSWER THAT PHONE—it's the environment calling.
While other issue-oriented political groups are resting up for next year's state and federal elections, the Washington Conservation Voters don't believe there is any such thing as an "off-year election." The group sees city and county elections as fertile ground for its efforts to swing races through personal appeals to voters who value the environment.
Armed with a list of voters who have supported environmental causes and candidates in the past, the WCV tries to give political hopefuls the extra margin they need to win close elections, says the group's King County political director Sarah Jaynes. "We basically endorse candidates that have the potential to win, that are already viable, and we try to give them the extra 2,000 to 3,000 votes they need to win."
Although the group has been around for some 20 years (many under its former name of the Washington Environmental PAC, or WENPAC), the WCV has become more aggressive in its tactics in the last several elections. The key is voter contact, says Liz Banse, board member for King County Conservation Voters (the local WCV affiliate). "We're known as a PAC, but money can't buy volunteers, and they're a lot more convincing than a telemarketer from Texas," she says.
Through their Green Voter Captain program, volunteers agree to call some 50 neighbors and advocate for WCV-endorsed candidates. Both national research and the WCV's own experience show these appeals from other local residents are extremely effective. The group uses a goal of contacting the most environmental 6 percent of the voters in a district. "If you're calling 6 percent of the vote, you're swinging 2 percent to 3 percent of the vote," says Jaynes.
This sort of attention can also spotlight races voters might otherwise ignore. Last year, the WCV helped Laura Gene Middaugh unseat King County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Burrage in a close race. (Before becoming a judge, Burrage was a noted property rights advocate.)
Although the WCV has endorsed many more Democrats than Republicans in partisan races, the group is bipartisan and sometimes endorses in Republican primaries, especially in districts where there is no viable Democratic candidate.
Long active in Seattle city elections, WCV has two horses in the mayor's race: They've dual-endorsed incumbent Paul Schell and challenger Greg Nickels. "There were no surprises there for the board," says Banse. "I think the rest of the world was expecting us to come out one way or another." Both Schell, as Seattle mayor, and Nickels, as a King County Council member, have strong environmental records and a history of WCV support, says Jaynes. "We'd be happy if either one of those guys gets elected mayor."
The group also expects to weigh in on the city attorney's race once all candidates have signed up. Current city attorney Mark Sidran's focus on criminal issues has many people looking at the office as the "city cop," says Banse, but the city attorney also drafts legal opinions dealing with land use and other environmental issues. "The environmental side of the city attorney's office is fairly overlooked," she notes.
What other races are hot this year? Here's a list of the three top local election battles the WCV is targeting:
King County Council #13
As this South King County district swings, so swings control of the King County Council from one political party to another. A win by Julia Patterson, a state senator who hopes to return control of the council to the Democrats, could also mean a pro-environmental majority at the courthouse. "A race like Julia Patterson is something we've been gearing up for a long time," says Jaynes. "That's pretty much our top race." About 100 WCV volunteers are expected to aid with doorbelling and other voter contact activities. "[Patterson] is somebody that has been a friend of WCV for a long time," says Banse. "We've been very supportive of her and know that she will vote our way." There will also be a Republican primary fight between appointed incumbent Les Thomas and conservative state Sen. Pam Roach (whose concern for nature doesn't extend beyond the roses on her desk), a battle the enviros see as a duel between bad and worse.
Seattle Port Commission
The business-oriented Port of Seattle could use an environmental watchdog, and longtime King County Conservation Voters board member Lawrence Molloy seems a good fit for the role. Molloy is challenging incumbent Port Commissioner Jack Block. Critics say Block, long known for his longshoreman past, has blended in with the commission majority and may not draw significant union support. Environmentalists have taken on Block before but haven't laid a glove on him. "We've been waiting for an excellent Port candidate for quite a long time, and we think Lawrence can take us over the top," says Jaynes. This countywide race is one in which WCV thinks it can have a major impact—voters often know little about Port Commission candidates, and being anointed as the environmental candidate could be a huge boost to Molloy.
21st Legislative District special election
Political money will flood the streets of Mukilteo over the next few months because of this race. The State House of Representatives is gridlocked in a stultifying 49-49 tie between Republicans and Democrats. The 21st District seat, currently held by Republican Joe Marine, is one of only two House seats up for election this year and is by far the most competitive. This is hardly the typical "below the radar" WCV race—as the Republican Party will lose a great deal of power if it loses this seat.
WCV's Snohomish County affiliate is supporting a young activist Democrat, D.J. Wilson, in the primary. WCV member Ellen Gray says, "We looked at the primary race between the two Democrats, and we felt that D.J. Wilson had a stronger interest in environmental issues" than his opponent, Brian Sullivan, former mayor of Mukilteo. Gray notes Wilson has chosen water quality, in both local streams and Puget Sound, as the theme of his campaign. "All the streams in Snohomish County have basically been categorized as undrinkable and unswimmable," she says. "Puget Sound is also in trouble, and as a community we need to step up to the plate and fix it."