Generation landslide

Youthful challenger Wills hopes to block Chong's planned return to City Hall.

Expect intergenerational warfare for Council position 7, in which most observers see a smart-alecky maverick and a steady, hard-working bureaucrat surviving the six-way primary.

Of course, in this race, the troublemaker is the old guy—73-year-old West Seattle populist Charlie Chong. He’s facing 31-year-old Heidi Wills, the youthful but poised straight-arrow political aide to County Executive Ron Sims.

Chong still carries the name recognition from two runs for City Council and a mayoral race in the three years from 1995 to 1997. And Seattle’s political establishment still shivers at the memory of Chong’s shocking 1996 victory over Bob Rohan for a special one-year City Council term. In that race, Rohan had three times the campaign cash, plus the support of the Democratic Party, the enviros, both newspapers, and the Muni League. Chong’s only support came from the voters—56.8 percent of the electorate, to be exact.

Wills hopes to counter Chong’s superior name recognition with aggressive fundraising (her $72,177 is the best haul so far for any council candidate) and endorsements from any and all organizations and officeholders. So far, so good. She’s scored the backing of the King County Labor Council, 11 state legislators, and Tina Podlodowski, the City Council member vacating the position 7 seat. Chong’s endorsers are mostly private citizens and his $34,614 war chest is adequate, he says, for a candidate who has been outspent at least 2-to-1 in every campaign.

Wills claims Chong capitalized on voter discontent to earn his short stay in office and is trying to pull the same trick again. “I think Charlie underestimates the sophistication of the voters,” she says. “Naysaying is not enough—we need to proactively address the problems associated with growth.”

Chong responds that Wills lacks real-world experience and is a creation of Democratic Party kingmakers, not a seasoned activist like himself. “Heidi does well because she tells people what they want to hear,” he says.

There’s some evidence for both these criticisms. Wills went straight from the University of Washington to a Democratic Party fundraising job, then served as a political aide to Democratic officeholders, first King County Council member Cynthia Sullivan, then Sims. In order to conjure up images of herself as a fiery activist, she’s had to hearken back to her term as UW student body president.

Chong had no shortage of battles in his year as a council member, but few big wins. He led opposition to the Parks Exclusion Ordinance, mandatory city drug testing of new hires, and the Seattle Housing Authority’s reconstruction of the Holly Park housing development. An early opponent of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, he never really got behind the neighborhood planning efforts it spurred.

The two combatants haven’t quite hit their stride on the campaign trail. When Wills announces that “I want to take people beyond being cynical with government and into restoring their faith in elected officials,” she comes off more as Capitol tour guide than political heavyweight. And, when Chong notes that Seattle could battle traffic congestion through strict enforcement of the state Growth Management Act’s concurrency requirements (thus shutting down new development), it’s hard to tell whether you’re getting a pithy policy quip or just another Chong non sequitur.

There’s a third strong candidate in the race, but Ballard’s Thomas Whittemore isn’t expected to survive the primary. A major figure in recent planning efforts in his neighborhood, the 48-year-old Whittemore boasts “a consistent record of putting the time in and working on the issues.” But the respected activist simply knows far more about government than his listeners, and his earnest examinations of city policy often fly over the heads of campaign audiences.

Chong rode his fiery naysayer reputation to victory in 1996, but opponent Rohan was a low-key insider who could never quite establish his personality or his message with voters. But things have changed since this big victory. While Wills is personally reminiscent of 30-something council candidates of the last decade such as Tom Weeks or Martha Choe, she comes from more politically formidable stock. A would-be activist who decided to join the system to get things done, Wills has a slew of crowd-pleasing progressive-sounding stands on environmental and social issues, yet still has the staunch support of the mainstream Democratic political establishment.

And Chong has noticed. He actively courted the Seattle Green Party for its endorsement and has been introducing himself at campaign forums by endorsing the city’s Seattle Center/community centers levy. Although it was through fighting to save open space that Chong burst onto the city’s political scene a decade ago, it’s only now that he’s telling people “I’ve always considered myself to be an environmentalist.”

Wills and Chong also agree on many issues. They are equally skeptical of Mayor Schell’s plan to fund zoo and aquarium improvements through new taxes on city residents—regional parks facilities deserve regional funding, say both candidates. Neither is convinced that rent control will solve Seattle’s housing problems. Both support repealing the law banning the posting of flyers on utility poles. Neither support new regulation of nightclubs.

But Chong has some issues that aren’t even on his opponent’s radar screen. He wants to see greater oversight of the city’s public development authorities, especially the Seattle Housing Authority and the Pike Place Market. He’d support a $50 million senior housing bond, but only if the SHA isn’t involved in the ownership or management of the buildings. He also strikes a note of the old Charlie by saying that Seattle should take charge of its own in-city transit planning rather than defer to regional boards. The surface rail proposal for the Rainier Valley is being driven by regional interests, he says. “We’re damaging Seattle neighborhoods so that suburbanites can get downtown quicker.”

Wills is keeping her message clean and green: She wants to see governmental entities and other major employers offer transit passes to employees. Wills backs Mayor Schell’s proposal for a local-option gas tax for road repair funding. She supports a re-evaluation of the Sound Transit light rail plan, but stresses that any new proposal would have to include improved transit for the Rainier Valley.

Whittemore wants to decentralize city services by expanding neighborhood service centers. He supports greater protections for renters, including the right to sign a lease. He’d also like to see the city mix up its housing programs a bit, trying housing vouchers and tax abatement programs for builders who would agree to reserve some units for low- and moderate-income tenants.

Voters also have three more choices in this race due to a trio of last-minute entrants. David Lawton, 39, a ferry captain, wants the city to prevent the loss of federally subsidized Section 8 housing units. He also pitches city-subsidized 24-hour day care. “We no longer live in a 9-to-5 society with weekends off,” says Lawton. “You can use the resources of the city in order to get these good things going.”

George Freeman, 62, a former nightclub owner, has proposed a 49-point plan for Seattle city government, with provisions ranging from fixing the “Mercer Mess” to greater oversight of cops by installing video cameras in all patrol cars.

And if it’s September, it’s time for a visit from Elbert Brooks, 54, one of the city’s most persistent perennial candidates. Brooks, a retired federal employee, wants to see the city focus on small businesses, jobs for youth, and increased home ownership.

But in a couple weeks, this race will be trimmed to a two-candidate joust— most likely between Chong and Wills. Given the intense interest in this battle (and the accompanying big money), we’ll see if Chong can repeat his boast that the campaign “has not been uncivil in any way” come November.