AN INDELIBLE IMAGE lingers from the raucous, jammed election-night party jointly thrown by four Seattle School Board candidates last week in the basement of the Labor Temple. As a master of ceremonies announced the first substantive polling results of the night to a jubilant crowd, results that gave each candidate a lead that was only to widen as the night went on, the newly crowned board members came forward out of the crowd. And as the crowd erupted, two or three of the candidates, in her turn, actually blushed.
That's something one doesn't see too often on election night. But then, nobody presentcandidates, campaign workers, or supporterswas much used to being on the good end of an election-night tally, let alone a landslide victory, a mandate for change. Let alone several of them. This was a singularly inexperienced crowd. Given the minimal TV coverage the races got, it is entirely possible that last Tuesday, Nov. 4, was the first time any of the four candidates had actually been on a newscast.
THE FOUR NEW School Board membersBrita Butler-Wall, Darlene Flynn, Sally Soriano, and Irene Stewartwon on a night when their victories, combined with City Council results, prompted media accounts focusing on voters' anti-incumbent mood and the "message" they sent. In the council races, any such message was murky at best; all three winning challengers (David Della, Jean Godden, and Tom Rasmussen) have spent many years among the city's political movers and shakers, and each campaigned on different themes. Meanwhile, the significance of the School Board races was unmistakable. The four women had not met before this year's campaign; their similar themes led to an organically grown slate when each survived the primary, and the slate was cemented as sitting board members, led by now-ousted President Nancy Waldman, turned the search for a new superintendent into an embarrassing farce. The results were victories ranging from 12 to 40 percentage points.
The joint landslide was due to more than a common foe. Three of Seattle's four new School Board membersButler-Wall, Flynn, and Stewartwere politicized by their experiences as parents of Seattle public school students, parents who became frustrated by dealings with the district. All four made transparency and public accountability a main issue of their campaigns. They knew well enough that the challenges facing the district defy quick fixes. But having district leadership that listens to and respects the district's constituents was a change that could, and will, begin instantly.
All this is, hopefully, well and good for Seattle's schoolchildren and their families; but what gives the School Board change wider resonance is who ran the winning candidates' campaigns. While each campaign developed a number of more experienced people by whom to run ideas, the campaigns were run by relative political neophytes and outsiders. Flynn was her own campaign manager. Several of Butler-Wall's inner circle were local Green Party stalwarts, marking the first time that Seattle's Greens have been central to a local candidate's victory. Soriano was best known for her decade-plus of local fair-trade activism, including a pivotal early role in organizing 1999's anti-WTO demonstrationsnot exactly a résumé-builder among local power brokers or much of the public. All four campaigns relied heavily on unpaid volunteers. Flynn and Butler-Wall, in particular, waged remarkably well-organized, well-funded grassroots campaigns.
If there is to be revolution, this would be how to do it: untelevised but also well organized, populist, inclusive, and responding to real (as opposed to predetermined) issues that matter in our daily lives. And it never hurts that, as invariably seems to be the case when opposition gels, the status quo shows itself at every turn as arrogant, incompetent, and clueless.
IN MANY WAYS for these four, winning office was the easy part. What they've won is the chance to be part (with first-term board member Mary Bass) of a likely five-of-seven-vote-majority bloc on a school board charged with determining policy and providing oversight for a 42,000-child urban district bedeviled with myriad, often conflicting constituencies and a host of seemingly intractable problems involving funding, performance, racial disproportion, and much more. It's easiest to please everyone before you've cast your first vote.
But in an era when the prevailing wisdom is that caring is futile because no one can make a difference, these four, and their supporters, have already made one. That was, and is, well worth celebrating.