Election '09: Jessie Israel Says Despite Offending Our Delicate Sensibilites With Negative Campaigning, She'll Be Back

She convinced the business community to support her once. Can she do it again?
King County Parks employee Jessie Israel took on a nearly insurmountable challenge--unseat beloved, liberal lefty Nick Licata, a City Council member since 1998. But armed with a working knowledge of city government, and a promise to be more open to big business than the incumbent, Israel racked up endorsements from the Alki Foundation (political arm of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce), a trade union and the guilds representing Seattle cops and firefighters. Even greenies like Friends of Seattle and Washington Conservation Voters gave her the nod.

She made it through to the general, but Licata broke the virtually insurmountable threshold of 50 percent in a three-way primary. Nevertheless, in the final month of the race, Israel took a chance with Seattle sensibilities and poured money into negative mailers. (She spent over $80,000 in the final month of the campaign, nearly half the total she spent throughout her entire run).

Publicola posted one of her flyers attacking Licata as an "obstructionist," and pointing out that he shared a stage with Ralph Nader in 2000, the year Al Gore lost the White House to Bush II. She also handed out fliers at the premier of Sonicsgate, quoting Licata saying the Sonics weren't a significant local institution.

The internets retaliated. "At the start of the campaign she seemed decent. But after the attacks on Nick, I'll never support her for anything," one Publicola commenter wrote after another post. Nina Shapiro spoke with Licata about the hard swing to the negative at his election fete last night. He called Israel's attacks desperate. "I think [the entire election] reached a new level of negativity," he added.

Longtime local political consultant Rollin Fatland says that from his perspective, Israel didn't so much switch to negative as campaign that way from the start. "She'd been saying [Licata is obstructionist] all along hadn't she?" he argues. "I think that she ran, at least from what I saw, a pretty decent campaign."

Israel's bigger mistake, in Fatland's mind, wasn't going negative--it was attacking Licata for being irascible. "People like him for that," he says. Fatland adds that he'd like to see Israel take another crack at public office. "I think she's an attractive, intelligent candidate," he says.

As for the last minute money dump, Israel says: "We were expecting that the vast majority of ballots would be mailed in in the last few days, so most of our spending was targeted at those voters." And she claims it wasn't negative. "I see that I was running against a 12-year incumbent and talking very specifically about his track record. I actually think that Nick Licata did a laudable job focusing on the issues, and I think that's what he expected of me, and I think that's what I did. [The perception of negativity] plays more to Seattle's sensibilities than the race at hand."

Israel adds the city still needs new people at City Hall and she's just getting started. "I'm not going anywhere, I'm still going to be involved in the political mix," she says.

Though if she takes another shot, she probably won't have Licata's vote, he says by phone today. "I will be supporting progressive candidates," he says. "And especially those that eschew negative campaigning, and Jessie hasn't been that candidate this go around."

Online commenters are hardly the pulse of the body politic. If the last-minute, pricey Licata attacks do increase her total vote take--currently at almost 43 percent--Israel's gamble may pay off longer term. Not a single election-watcher, wonk, or politico seemed to think Israel had a real shot against Licata. But she did worlds better than another political newbie, David Ginsberg who managed less than 25 percent in the first count against Richard Conlin, who by all accounts should have been a weaker incumbent than Licata. She also beat out long-time Seattle activist David Bloom who received only 31 percent of the vote against Jan Drago's anointed successor, Sally Bagshaw.

So we probably haven't seen the last of Israel, if Seattle voters can forgive any perceived bullying on her part. As to what she might go after next, Israel says she still doesn't know. "At this point, I need to take a deep breath, go and see a movie, and get a good night's sleep."

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