When Seattle City Council member and former journalist Jim Compton suddenly announced his retirement from the council effective Jan. 6, the timing was suitably bizarre for the strange political career of a very talented news reporter. His Dec. 14 surprise also reopened fierce jockeying for the City Council presidency between former columnist Jean Godden and Richard Conlin. Compton was a vote for Conlin, and now there would be a 4-4 tie.
Compton spent 35 years in broadcasting, including stints with NBC News, the PBS NewsHour, and, of course, KING-TV in Seattle, where he hosted the award-winning Compton Report. His television career helped him win election to the City Council in 1999, and quickly there was speculation that he might one day be a mayoral candidate. Compton was one of the more conservative members on the very liberal council. After Mayor Greg Nickels was elected in 2001, he and Compton clashed over matters of style and substance, including an infamous 2002 incident in which Compton and other members on the dais changed their votes on the budget of the mayor's office after receiving a note from mayoral staffers that threatened to pull funding for a fire engine.
Compton's political career was derailed in 2003, however, by two scandals. "Strippergate" prompted him to return thousands of dollars of campaign donations from strip-club magnate Frank Colacurcio's friends, relatives, employees, and business associates. Compton also paid a fine for failing to report improper lobbying by Colacurcio's allies. The second scandal involved Vulcan, the holding company of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Compton improperly accepted an airplane ride to Portland and basketball tickets from Vulcan, which is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
After re-election in 2003, Compton took on low-profile, wonky committee assignments. Today he chairs the Utilities and Technology Committee. City Hall insiders say he has seemed disengaged, but his council colleagues insist that isn't the case. "I don't buy that," says City Council budget Chair Richard McIver. Godden admits that Compton has been out of his council office a great deal in recent months, but she assumes he does a lot of his work elsewhere. "Sometimes it's been frustrating that he isn't on-site, but he's very good at getting back to me by phone," says Godden.
Godden will be spending a lot of time on the phone in coming weeks as she vies again for City Council president, now that the remaining eight members are deadlocked without Compton. The largely ceremonial post is important because he or she sets the tone for council cooperation and plays an important role in council-mayoral relations.
On Dec. 2, a month before the actual vote to choose, Conlin sent out a press release declaring that he was the new council president, based on what seemed would be a 5-4 vote in his favor. Besides his own vote and Compton's, Conlin had the votes of Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen, and Peter Steinbrueck. Godden's supporters are David Della, present council President Jan Drago, and McIver. Since the actual vote for president will not be held until Jan. 9 at the earliest, Conlin may have spoken too soon. "I was surprised anybody would release a press release until there had been an actual vote," Godden says. "It's an interesting time at City Hall. Nothing has been concluded." Conlin was on vacation in Mexico and unavailable for comment.
In 1997, the last time there was a vacancy when council member John Manning resigned after being arrested, there were more than 100 applicants. Ultimately, McIver was chosen. "I'm convinced that the only reason I was appointed was nobody knew who I was," he says now. That would rule out some of the many people who are putting themselves forward, including real estate agent and 2003 council candidate Darryl Smith and former City Council member Tina Podlodowski.
The council must make the appointment to replace Compton by Jan. 20, or meet every day thereafter until it reaches a decision. The council presidency, however, has no deadline. With eight members, someone will have to change their vote. After appointment of a ninth council member, a vote for the presidency would mean the newcomer would be quite popular.
For information on how to apply for the City Council vacancy, go to www.ci.seattle.wa.us/council.