Coup Without a Cause

Even if three challengers win at City Hall, not much will change.

If Seattle voters want fundamental change, they are sure as hell not going to get it from the boxes of oatmeal disguised as City Council challengers in the Nov. 4 general election. There's no doubt that voters are fighting mad. The numbers for incumbents in September's primary were so low, you needed to fall down a mine shaft to see them.

And after the primary, the incumbents' bad news just kept coming. From Sept. 17 through Sept. 20, Stuart Elway, a Seattle pollster known for his fair, thorough, and independent work, asked a representative sample of 460 city voters whom they planned to choose in November. The results, provided to Seattle Weekly by the Fifty Plus One campaign consultancy, showed that all three female council members seeking re-election could lose on Nov. 4 (or whenever King County Elections finds all the ballots scattered around the tavern where they evidently do their tabulation). Among likely votersthose who have voted in three of the past four electionsrowdy renters-rights advocate Judy Nicastro only had 25 percent support, while 35 percent backed her opponent, former Seattle Times columnist Jean Godden, and 40 percent were undecided. The survey also showed unnervingly upbeat environmentalist Heidi Wills trailing her challenger, United Way executive David Della, 31 percent to 32 percent, with 37 percent undecided. Utilities czar Margaret Pageler had a narrow lead with 37 percent over her opponent, senior-citizens advocate Tom Rasmussen, who had 32 percent, with 31 percent undecided. (Alas, council members Peter Steinbrueck and Jim Compton do not face serious opposition and probably will easily win re-election.)

So with three challengers ready to upset their opponents, the Seattle City Council is on the brink of a dramatic change, right? The likes of which we haven't seen since the 1970s reform movement led by Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC)? Nope.

LET'S MEET THE challengers. We have a very nice, soft-spoken man who works for United Way (Della); a very nice, soft-spoken man who helps seniors with their problems (Rasmussen); and a woman who has made her living for the past 20 years writing gossipmaking us chuckle over wacky license plates and twitter over celebrity sightings (Godden). There are those, chiefly the Seattle Times editorial page, who try to spin this bunch as people who will refocus a council that has lost its way in the wilderness of circus-animal bans, resolutions in favor of tearing down Snake River dams for the sake of salmon, and prohibition of Navy nuclear weapons during Seafair. What a load of crap. The Seattle City Council doesn't spend any significant time on those kinds of issues. They spend the overwhelming amount of their time on the boring issues of municipal government, like the budget and land use.

Speaking of land use, won't these challengers clean out a bunch of venal politicians who took money from felons and did their political bidding in Strippergate? Again, no. If the voters want to address the corrupting influence of money in politics, they will have to do something far more radical than change a few faces at City Hall. At the same time, if voters just feel like registering a protest over the incumbents' conduct in Strippergate (and who could blame them), they should remember that Pageler and Steinbrueck didn't have anything to do with it.

What about issues, like the economy, that affect everyone? Perhaps voters think the challengers could do something to reduce our 7-plus percent unemployment rate. Again, that's tooth-fairy thinking. The ability of municipal government to influence the health of the Puget Sound economy is slim, especially when you have the region's biggest employer, Boeing, shedding jobs and demanding ransom for future work here.

THERE ARE THOSE who say these challengers are more mature and will enable the council to work better with Mayor Greg Nickels, not spend so much time infighting. Give me a break. That's like saying if you replace the residents of Tokyo, relations with Godzilla will improve. The mayor has waged an all-out, guns-ablazing war with the council since before taking office. Even if Nickels was as pleasant in politics as he is in person, the tension between the executive and the legislative branches of our city government is built into the system. Says Michael Grossman of Fifty Plus One, who runs Della's hardball campaign, "If Greg Nickels helps to elect one or two more compliant council members, somebody else will see it as being their role to be the challenger to the mayor." Grossman says mayors in city halls across the country find themselves playing whack-a-mole with city council members.

The other overarching issue that is dampening the prospects for fundamental change at Fifth and Cherry is the lack of a reform slate. "What I have been struck by is the lack of an overall effort to replace the incumbents," says Don Hopps, program director of the Institute for Washington's Future and a longtime local political observer. In past years, Hopps recalls, there have been organizations that pushed slates of challengers: the aforementioned CHECC, or Vision Seattle, a slow-growth movement that backed candidates in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The absence of a reform slate means that each race has its own dynamic of issues, personality, and electioneering that will determine the outcome. Likewise, the probability of a change in policy on the council is reliant on the results of each race, rather than a broad trend that all the competitive contests share. Each race being unique, here's a rundown of this year's candidate matchups.

GENERATION GAP

During the primary, Jean Godden and Judy Nicastro downplayed their differences. Nicastro said Godden was sweet, while the former columnist struggled to articulate any strong reason for her last-minute entry into the race. Now the race has sharpened considerably, with both women emphasizing their considerable differences in substance and style.

Nicastro was elected four years ago on a tenants-rights platform and has stayed true to her political roots. While she has not won broad, sweeping changes for renters, she has won important incremental victories, such as guaranteeing tenants the right to organize, boosting relocation assistance for poor renters, and cutting parking requirements for low-income housing developers. Her efforts continue to the present day with her effort to roll back gouging by companies that bill renters for water.

Godden has decided to throw her lot in with property owners. "A lot of landlords are small businesses," she points out. "We have an oversupply of rentals, and renters are going to get some pretty good deals. I wonder if the times haven't passed that [renters] crusade by."

GODDEN THINKS the City Council should focus on jobs. She supports Mayor Nickels' agenda for economic development in the neighborhood south of Lake Union. She is ready to use tax dollars to prime the pump of private enterprise there.

Nickels hopes to use city, regional, state, and federal money for up to $660 million worth of public investment in South Lake Union to aid billionaire Paul Allen's plans to turn the neighborhood into a biotech hub. "It will take some city investment," says Godden. "South Lake Union would be the ideal spot, if developed right."

Nicastro is excited about private development in the area, but she says the city treasury is empty. Seattle's budget deficit of $24 million prohibits the city from spending money for a proposed streetcar or fixes to the Mercer Mess of traffic in the neighborhood, Nicastro notes. "Those are perks," she says. "Jobs are not dependent on the city spending $500 million."

Nicastro says Godden's willingness to sign on with the mayor's plan for South Lake Union is just the beginning. "I don't see Jean challenging the mayor," she says, while Nicastro herself has had several high-profile clashes with Nickels, the most prominent being during last year's budget battles, when she proposed cutting expansion of the mayor's staff. Nicastro wears these battles as a badge of honor in a fight against an executive bent on achieving absolute power.

Godden sees Nicastro's battles with the mayor and the Strippergate imbroglio as immaturity. "I'm older, I'm more experienced, and I have a little bit better view of the larger picture. I do have more perspective and perhaps more judgment," Godden says. "I have some quibbles with the way Nickels has done his job, but he has been showing strong leadership." Earlier this month, Nickels took the unusual step of endorsing the challenger. Godden doesn't want anyone to think she'll be a rubber stamp for the mayor, however. "No one ever accused me of not being outspoken. It's good to have tension between the City Council and the mayor."

There's no doubt that a loss by Nicastro would be widely seen as a victory for the mayor, says Hopps of the Institute for Washington's Future. "And perception is 90 percent of politics," he adds.

THE NARCOLEPSY RACE

One wag dubs the contest between Margaret Pageler and Tom Rasmussen as "the narcolepsy race." Both candidates are wonks and City Hall insiders.

Pageler is a 12-year council veteran who has earned her reputation as a workhorse specializing in utility issues. She is also among the most conservative members on a very liberal City Council, particularly in the areas of public safety and finance.

Rasmussen is an unknown quantity, and he has not rushed to define himself. From 1976 to 1989, he served as legislative aid to City Council member Jeanette Williams. He was a founding member of Washington's first gay-and-lesbian political action committee. Today, he runs the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens.

Probably the clearest area of disagreement between the two is over constituency service, as in, "Who do I call when my garbage doesn't get picked up?" Pageler does not think that council offices should be clearinghouses for citizens' daily hasslesbe it power outages, barking dogs, or backed-up drains. She recalls, "When I ran 12 years ago, the City Council was exactly that kind of Chicago-style politics. You had to call your council member to get your pothole filled." Pageler has worked to get the city's 18 departments and offices, with their 10,000- person workforce, to handle these quotidian complaintsinstead of the nine council members and their 30 or so legislative assistants. Pageler believes the council should be focused on big-picture policy issues instead.

Rasmussen says that's an unnecessary choice. While he believes that the council should keep its eye on the prize, he says playing small ball is important, too. "It drives the public crazy to get the bureaucratic runaround," he notes. "Constituency service does matter to people." He says that in his experience as a council staffer, the volume of citizen inquiries is not overwhelming.

PAGELER'S DIM VIEW of constituent service is illustrative of a larger problem with the council member's performance, Rasmussen says: She is inaccessible. "Citizens have felt they have not been able to have meaningful conversations with Margaret for years," he says. Neighborhood groups, environmentalists, homeless advocates, and labor unions echo his criticism. That's one of the reasons so many interest groups are backing Rasmussen. "Her dismissive, patronizing attitude has resulted in a lot of unnecessary conflict," he says.

Pageler thinks Rasmussen is just telling every interest group what they want to hear. "He is saying yes to everybody. Just because a group says the program is 'Save the environment' or 'Serve the homeless' doesn't mean it's well thought out or effective. Tom doesn't understand the fiscal implications of a lot of the policy decisions that the City Council has to take."

Pageler also makes it clear that she believes Rasmussen is captive to the city's dysfunctional political culture. "We have such a culture of not moving on anything until every last complainer is silenced," she says.

REFRACTED LIGHT

Challenger David Della has leveled harsh criticism in his run against incumbent Heidi Wills. While this has been useful in identifying the differences between the two candidates, it's also made it hard to reconcile the feisty candidate with the low-key, affable Della. "David is almost the epitome of a nice guy," says Hopps, "but he was the most aggressive in his attacks. I don't know how it will play in Seattle."

The race has also been notable for how Wills has responded to Della's criticism: She has remained unflaggingly upbeat and has not veered from her message that her first four years on the council have been about building a progressive, sustainable Seattle.

Della has focused on Wills' oversight of Seattle City Light as chair of the council's energy committee. He says Wills mismanaged crucial decisions by the utility, which led to huge rate increases and debt. Some of this, he argues, is a result of Wills just not paying attention to the many warning signs about the volatility of energy markets, particularly during the power crisis of 2000-01. Other aspects of her failure, he argues, can be attributed to the fact that she is so intent on environmental innovation in the energy field, while failing to watch her constituents' pocketbooks. "My campaign is about bringing accountability back to City Light," he says.

WILLS BLAMES City Light's problems on criminal manipulation of the energy markets by corrupt corporations like Enron. In her view, the council and the utility recognized the mistakes they made and moved to correct them as quickly as possible. She is proud of the plan now in place, which is intended to give City Light security against weather and market variations through the purchase of excess power and creation of a cash surplus. She believes that the environmental innovation she encouraged in the purchase of wind power, for example, or an emphasis on conservation will benefit ratepayers and the environment in the long term.

In the energy debate, Wills tacks left while Della hones close to a more centrist business line. Just to confuse things ideologically, they reverse positions when it comes to the city's "civility" laws. A case in point is 1999's aggressive car-impound law that allows police to seize cars for their owners' failure to pay traffic tickets or their lack of insurance. Wills defends the car-impound law as a necessary stick to ensure that people obey traffic laws and insurance requirements. Della thinks the law goes too far. "It criminalizes poor people. Its greatest impact is on people of color," he says.

NORM, NOT REFORM

There you have it. Utility rates, infrastructure investment, constituent service, the rental market. Those issues, and not some ideological uprising or grassroots vision, is what passes for City Hall politics this election season. Voters will have to make their choices one at a time, and in the end it might not matter much who wins.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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