"EVERYONE HAS identified [the 13th District King County Council race] as being key to who controls King County for the next 12 years," says state Senator Pam Roach, who is herself a candidate for the office.
Although several other County Council seats are at stake in this election, their party affiliation will almost certainly not change given the political complexion of the districts they represent. The 13th, in contrast, is a wild card, having been specifically created as a swing district. Making things even more unpredictable is a recent influx of minorities and immigrants into this largely blue-collar swath of South King County stretching from Auburn to Burien, a demographic change that could push to the district to the Democrats. Previously, Chris Vance, who now heads the State Republican Party, represented the 13th District.
Whoever wins this hot contest will determine which party controls the 13-member King County Council. (For more on this race, including GOP dirty tricks recruiting Greens, see 4th and James, "Vance Bottoms Out," p. 11.)
Of the three candidates—Roach, fellow Republican Les Thomas (who was appointed to the seat earlier this year), and Democratic state Senator Julia Patterson—Roach is the most colorful and well known. Not only is she a state senator, but she has also run unsuccessfully for Congress and governor. A Mormon, she has sometimes been identified with the religious right, although she doesn't label herself that way, and one self-identified Christian Republican remarks to me that Thomas talks about his faith more than Roach talks about hers. Having once worked the overnight shift as a postal worker to support five kids after her husband got laid off, she also has a populist streak that translates into periodic support for labor.
She is, however, undeniably conservative and occasionally ventures into extremist—and bizarre—territory, particularly when it comes to her support for guns. She was once quoted as saying that teachers should deal with crime in schools by carrying weapons themselves.
Crime is one of the big issues in this campaign, she says, looking relaxed and friendly. The reason crime is so important is because of the looming crisis in the budget. The county is $36 million in the hole, leaving huge cuts to be made. An ongoing debate centers on whether those cuts should be made in the justice system or human services. The winner in the 13th will get to vote on this year's budget because he or she, replacing an appointee, will take office in November, rather than January.
Roach is critical of proposed cuts to the justice system outlined by county executive Ron Sims, even though he has also suggested deep cuts in human services. Roach saves most of her fire on this issue, however, for one of her opponents. This year, "Julia Patterson introduced legislation that would have allowed for [imprisoned] cocaine and heroin pushers to go back on the street a year early," she says.
What she doesn't say is that the legislation, which died in the House, was instigated by King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, a Republican, as part of a national effort to reform the failed war on drugs. The money saved in jail costs would have gone to providing drug treatment for offenders who are addicted. Patterson also points out that the bill would have applied only to first-time minor drug offenders. Sweeping aside details, Roach intends to make Patterson's bill a central part of the campaign.
LES THOMAS, who won appointment to his current seat with the help of King County Council's Democrats, is considered more of a moderate than Roach, though that probably has a lot to do with the difference in their styles. He calls himself "meek," though he says that shouldn't be confused with "weak," a term Roach often applies to him. His predecessor, Chris Vance, calls him a "typical guy who went to work, went to Kiwanis, and raised his kids." He has four of them, now grown, whom he supported as a jeweler; for many years he had his own store. Before his appointment to council, he served as a state representative and prides himself on getting a record 70 bills through the Legislature in five years.
On issues, Thomas and Roach have much in common. He wants to make sure that there are no criminal justice cuts this year. He also wants to guard against hikes in property taxes and supports Tim Eyman's latest initiative, I-747, which would limit property-tax increases to 1 percent without a public vote.
He has shown a proclivity to compromise, however, sponsoring a bill on controversial limits to church and school construction in rural areas that was the result of negotiations between churches and environmentalists. He also is more of an advocate for public transportation than you might expect of a suburban Republican. "Roads are part of the solution," he says of the region's transportation mess. "But at this point, we've got to focus more on buses."
Ironically, Democrat Julia Patterson says the exact opposite. "Roads are the highest priority," she declares over coffee at a hotel restaurant across from the airport. And the affable but feisty state senator goes into more depth on needed road projects in her district than either of her opponents. Also running contrary to type, she erupts when I suggest that she is not the tough-on-crime, hold-the-line-on-property-taxes kind of politician that her district might want. "Absolutely I am," she says.
She says that crime, in particular, is "one of the reasons why I got involved in the effort to incorporate the city of SeaTac. The county was ignoring our area. This was the home of the infamous Green River killer. There was rampant drug and prostitution on I-99. I had three small children at home."
Try as they might, therefore, Republicans are going to have a hard time painting her as a "typical Seattle liberal." While she adheres to classic democratic values like preserving the environment, she is closely attuned to the needs of middle-class suburban life. She is wary of Seattle's grip on county resources and believes the county itself, when trying to get suburban cities to pay for services, at times acts like a "bully." The issue she considers most important in her council district, other than roads, has to do with nuts-and-bolts suburban management. She believes the county could act as a facilitator in delivering social, law enforcement, and other services more efficiently among the six cities that make up the 13th District.
She also resists the "Seattle liberal" tag by pointing out that she is as local as they come. She grew up on a little hazelnut farm in SeaTac, when the area was rural and unincorporated. She used to ride her horse down the street that is now I-99. She lives in SeaTac still; touring the area after coffee, she stops to feed the three horses she keeps in a small pasture there.
Will such local credentials be enough to swing a district that has elected Republican Vance to council ever since it was created in 1993? Stay tuned—the future of King County depends on the outcome.