The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has found Councilmember M. Lorena González did not participate in enough debates during this year’s primary election season to satisfy the requirements for the new Democracy Voucher program.
However, rather than booting her from the program, the Commission on Thursday decided to use it as a learning experience in the voucher system’s inaugural year. That decision follows recommendations made by Wayne Barnett, executive director of the elections oversight office in charge of Democracy Vouchers.
“It was important to say she did not comply,” Barnett says in a followup interview. But “I didn’t see the nuclear option as being the right choice,” referring to kicking González out of the program.
Per the voter initiative passed in 2015 that created Democracy Vouchers, candidates who want to collect them must participate in three “public debates” before both the primary election and the general election. “Debates” are defined as “a live event, open to the general public, at which all the candidates in a particular race have an opportunity to respond to questions.” However, several of González’s opponents for the Position 9 seat say she was largely MIA on the campaign trail leading up to her large primary night victory.
“It was always like, ‘Where’s Lorena?’” says David Preston, who came in third in the primary race. “She thinks she’s too good to meet the people.”
Pat Murakami, who placed second in the primary and will face González in the general election, says González has continued to be scarce at public events.
“She’s not been to one forum since the primary—she sent a staff person to one forum during work hours,” Murakami says.
It’s typical for incumbents to limit the number of debates they participate in, lest they give their opponents more media exposure and open themselves up to damaging gaffs. That said, the voucher program is designed to work against that conventional wisdom. Preston says the intentions are clear.
“The purpose of it is to get candidates out there speaking to the public with other candidates present, so the public gets a chance to compare and contrast,” he says.
Candidates must self-report what candidate forums they attended to fulfill the requirement. In González’s form filed shortly after the primary, she listed a “women of color in politics panel,” the 36th Legislative District Democrats straw poll, and a neighborhood forum in Delridge as her three events.
Preston, in a complaint filed to the SEEC, argued that González was the only woman of color in the primary race, meaning it could not have fulfilled the law’s definition of “debate;” he also argued that he was not invited to the Democrats event.
Barnett wasn’t persuaded, writing in a memo that González should have known that Democratic Party events are not open to all candidates (he leaves alone the women of color event, though the same logic would presumably apply).
However, in the same memo he argues that this year is the “maiden voyage” of the program, and so the commission should be judicious about kicking people out—especially since many voters have given their vouchers to González.
“If the Commission terminates the candidate’s participation in the Program, it will invalidate the choice of more than 2,100 residents to date who have assigned their vouchers to Councilmember González,” Barnett wrote.
Murakami says she’s unsatisfied with that logic. As a lawyer, González should not have trouble complying with a provision.
“It’s disappointing that there’s not a standard of quality for the program,” she says.
We have a call into González’s campaign for comment.
A previous version of this story stated David Preston is a Republican. He is not.