Want Wards? Move to N.Y.

Seattle's elected-at-large City Council ain't broke.

IF YOU WANT politics more like New York or Chicago or my hometown of Boston, please relocate posthaste. In fact, can we hold a benefit to help pay for your bus ticket, perhaps on Emmett Watson's birthday?

The weakest argument put forth by backers of district elections, aka Seattle Charter Amendment No. 5, is that other cities elect their city councils by neighborhood wards, so we should, too. I simply cannot comprehend why people who went to all the trouble of moving thousands of miles away from the corrupt infighting of East Coast and Midwest big-city politics want to emulate those failed systems in their new hometown. Next they'll be calling for the long, bitterly cold winters, horrifically humid summers, unbelievable racial animosity, and generalized quotidian hostility that characterizes those unfortunate metropolitan areas.

As someone who has covered Seattle City Hall for more than a decade, I'm quite familiar with the current system of citywide or "at-large" electionstheir strengths and their weaknesses. I would be the first to admit that we can improve the current system, but no one has convinced me that district elections are, on balance, an improvement.

ONE OF THE Seattle City Council's great strengths is a result of the at-large system. It is, as council member Richard McIver likes to say, a council of ones. There are no reliable factions or voting blocks. The council doesn't cut a lot of political deals. Instead, when operating at their best, each member considers each issue that comes before them carefully, on the merits, and tries to decide what is in the best interest of the entire city. Admittedly council members don't always operate this way. Sometimes they are influenced by special interests, political arm-twisting, or long-standing relationships. But the idea that dividing up the council by districts will end these faults is ridiculous.

The fact that the City Council resists political wheeling and dealing, vote trading, carving up pork, and operating with strict factional discipline, and instead tries to hew to some lofty notion of a generalized, citywide public interest, drives other local politicians crazy. Especially Mayor Greg Nickels, who can't figure out how to assemble a reliable faction of votes so he can just ram his proposals through.

You hear the same message from liberal Democrats, like King County Council member Dwight Pelz, and conservative Republicans, like Washington State Republican Party Chair Chris Vance. In their eyes, these fools on the City Council operate in some dream world and act all high and mighty and try to hold themselves to some Platonic ideal instead of dealing with the real world of street fighting among political interests.

I say good for the City Council. Keep aiming high.

To be fair, advocates of council elections by districts have stronger arguments than emulating other failed political models. There are very smart people whom I respect, including political outsider John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and political insider John Wyble of the Moxie Media campaign consultancy, who argue that district elections will make City Council elections more competitive. They stress that grassroots challengers can rely on shoe leather in nine 60,000-person districts, whereas the at-large system drives candidates into the arms of big-money donors in order to fund citywide campaigns.

I have a couple of big problems with this argument. First, I see no evidence locally that elected offices based on districts are more competitive than the races for at-large positions. Who can argue that Seattle races for King County Council or the Legislature are more closely contested than elections to the City Council? More often than not in recent years, Seattle City Council races have featured feisty challenges while King County Council members and state Legislators are frequently unopposed or face only marginal challengers. Very few challengers win in Seattle (or anywhere else, for that matter), whether they are running in districts or at large.

Secondly, I don't see how districts reduce the power of the almighty dollar. If deep-pocketed, powerful people decide to dump a whole bunch of money into a district race, why isn't it even more influential than when they spread it around citywide? Public financing of elections seems like a much better way to attack the influence of money in politics. (Although, admittedly, due to state law and the U.S. Constitution, it is also a hell of a lot more complicated than that.)

FINALLY, WHEN IT comes to changing the way we vote, there are more interesting alternatives out there than districts: proportional representation and instant runoff voting come immediately to mind. (See the Center for Voting and Democracy at www.fairvote.org.)

So while New York, Chicago, and Boston are great places to visitI dutifully trek back to the Beantown twice a yearthey can keep their electoral system, and until something better comes along, let's keep ours.

George Howland Jr. is Seattle Weekly's political editor. The real Mossback, Editor in Chief Knute Berger, is taking a few weeks off.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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