Power politics

A close mayor's race boosts the Seattle City Council.

THE SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL emerged the clear winner on election night. Three incumbents, Richard Conlin, Jan Drago, and Nick Licata, coasted to easy victories while another, city transportation czar Richard McIver, clung to a small lead over the monorail man, Grant Cogswell. In the mayoral matchup, the liberal nice guy, King County Council member Greg Nickels, enjoyed a 6,914-vote lead over law-and-order conservative Mark Sidran at the end of the evening.

Tens of thousands of absentee ballots remained to be counted, however, making the race too close to call. Which means the only sure thing about the mayor’s race is that whoever wins will be a rookie executive facing a strong City Council with veteran incumbents who plan on pushing their own agendas. That City Council will try to develop unity around the key issues facing the city: the budget and transportation. Both are downers. The budget numbers got even gloomier as the statewide tax revolt continued in full force with the passage of Tim Eyman’s latest nasty, Initiative 747, which will bring deeper cuts at City Hall. And without money, it will be nearly impossible for the city to tackle its transportation problems.

WHILE THE FUTURE might be dire, the mood at Nickels’ party at Carpenters Hall in Belltown was anything but. Instead, Nickels clearly felt victory close at hand as he grabbed the lead and built a large margin by the end of election night. The veteran King County Council member turned cheerleader, announcing: “It’s a great evening. I’m having a good time—are you guys having a good time?” The crowd roared back, realizing that Nickels had passed rival Sidran. Just like during the primary election, Sidran led in the first tally (all early-filing absentee voters), but Nickels was buoyed the thousands of poll votes counted during the evening.

In a packed room smelling of booze and barbecue chicken, Nickels took the podium accompanied by his family, former Mayor Norm Rice, and King County Council colleague Larry Phillips. Nickels kept his nice-guy image intact, praising his campaign workers, challenger Sidran, and outgoing Mayor Paul Schell. “However this turns out tonight, it’s very important we come together as leadership in this city,” said Nickels, ending with a cheerful “Seattle Way” tagline: “This is a great city and better times are ahead.”

Sidran supporters are hoping he’s right, although the better times they’re envisioning would come during this week’s absentee vote counts. Just a few blocks from the Nickels party, in a First Avenue storefront, a gathering that had enthusiastically celebrated Sidran’s early lead was losing steam as their candidate fell behind in the late returns.

Even as Sidran addressed his supporters at the opening of the 11 p.m. local television news broadcasts, the final set of election night numbers were emblazoned across the screen below him. One Sidran supporter jockeyed for a view of the TV screen, then gasped and stood teary-eyed as she saw that her candidate had fallen almost 7,000 votes behind Nickels.

At least the Sidran party had quality props. A huge, backlit American flag filled the front windows and supporters wore heart-shaped lapel pins with flashing red lights. In case anyone had missed the point, the Tin Woodsman from The Wizard of Oz stood by the podium with a sign reading “Sidran has heart.”

Sidran began his speech with a trademark humorous touch. “Seven months ago, we began this campaign with a commitment to bring new leadership to our city and a belief that we could win,” said Sidran, before adding mischievously. “Now, this was not a widely held belief…”

The three-term city attorney made reference to the conventional wisdom that his past tough-on-crime stands are a bit conservative by Seattle standards, expressing appreciation for those who were willing to lend their names to his campaign “even when that might have seemed imprudent politically.”

Can Sidran come back in the absentee count? To do so, he would have to take more than 53 percent of the estimated 95,000 absentee ballots waiting to be counted. Given that Nickels was the choice of more than 56 percent of those who voted at the polls, that could be a tall order. But Sidran backers haven’t given up on a comeback in the absentee tallies. As one prominent supporter said on his way out the door, “I hope we’re all smiling by Thursday or Friday.”

SPEAKING OF CLOSE RACES, folks weren’t exactly jubilant over at Richard McIver’s headquarters Tuesday night, as the city council member’s strong early lead over maverick opponent Grant Cogswell wavered, dwindled, then almost disappeared altogether as late poll results came in. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen: Cogswell, a single-issue candidate dismissed by many as the most credible of a pack of certain losers, proved far more formidable than anyone could have predicted. By the end of the night, McIver was ahead by a slim, 4 percent margin, and Cogswell wasn’t conceding anything.

The McIver crowd shouldn’t worry too much. At the end of the evening, the incumbent led his opponent by 3,118 out of just over 69,000 votes cast; to make up that shortfall in the 75,000 votes still waiting to be counted, Cogswell would have to win those ballots by a four-point margin. Nothing happened on election night to indicate that would occur.

Still, though Paul Elliott, McIver’s campaign manager and the only one in the room who seemed absorbed by poll returns, was “a little surprised” by Cogswell’s strong showing at the polls, he remained convinced his candidate would pull through by a handy margin. “Grant was the most credible of all the challengers,” Elliott said. Still, “there’s a ton of absentee votes still out there.”

McIver said he was impressed, if not exactly floored, by Cogswell’s shoestring campaign. “I think Grant has tapped into a part of Seattle that’s fascinated with change,” said the incumbent. If McIver wins, don’t count on much of that. “I tend to be a quiet person who works behind the scenes,” McIver noted. “When I came up, you were raised to not be noticed, and that’s how I work.”

Cogswell, who showed up for his party at the Re-Bar fiery and brash as ever, has labored throughout his campaign to show that his is a different agenda entirely. Surrounded by a flood of scruffy young volunteers in blue “He said Monorail” T-shirts, Cogswell credited his success to “a lot of grassroots, word-of-mouth support, the endorsements of the small papers, and people wanting to get out of traffic.” But did the monorail—Cogswell’s only major campaign issue, and the one he’s fought for longest and hardest—turn the race his way? Phil Campbell, Cogswell’s rookie campaign manager, thinks Cogswell tapped into a deep well of dissatisfaction with the current City Council’s policies, particularly on housing and transportation. “There’s been a lot of naysayers throughout this campaign, but we got in this to win and we don’t expect anything else,” Campbell said. A Cogswell win wouldn’t shake the foundations of this solid, experienced council, but it might make the meetings a bit more interesting—or, at the very least, rowdier.

But perhaps the most unexpected thing to come out of this race was the revelation that, despite their sometimes bitter relationship on the campaign trail, Cogswell and McIver had only nice things to say about each other on election night. Turns out, McIver actually drove Cogswell to his polling place. “He’s a great guy,” Cogswell said. McIver was even more effusive in his praise. “I think Grant is a nice young man who ran a very positive campaign. The gentleman in him came out during this campaign.”

THE OTHER City Council incumbents, Richard Conlin, Jan Drago, and Nick Licata, were in such lopsided races that their opponents didn’t occupy much of their minds. Instead they were concerned with governing, using the power of the council to set the city government’s agenda while a rookie mayor figures out where the bathrooms are.

Conlin, normally a low key, low profile kind of guy, was emphatic about power sharing between the new mayor and the City Council. The relationship between the mayor and City Council has to be one of “real equality, not just the perception of equality,” he asserted. “That’s the only way we can make things happen.”

Drago, an eight-year incumbent and the current council budget chair, echoed the theme of the council as an equal to the mayor. “The last guy (Schell) flunked Mayor 101 and now we have to start all over again. You can imagine how thrilled we are with that,” she joked. “It will take any administration at least six months to get up and running. The City Council is much more powerful” now, she said.

Licata, a strong progressive, showed his usual diplomacy. He acknowledged the council’s new strength but quickly added, “We have to exercise our judgment with restraint and foresight.”

All three incumbents mentioned transportation as one of their top priorities—and the issue, particularly in regard to Sound Transit’s troubled light rail project, dominated the mayor’s race as well.

Conlin is a strong supporter of light rail but tepid on Sound Transit’s current 14-mile plan that would go from downtown to just shy of the airport. He wants light rail to go as far north as Northgate and thinks it may be necessary to go back to the voters in order to get the funding to build a workable system.

Clearly this is a plan that “light-rail-or-die” Nickels could sign onto. But surprisingly, Conlin claimed that “kill-light-rail-now” Sidran is also open to his ideas. After the primary election, Sidran and Conlin had an extensive conversation about light rail. “We were not that far apart,” said Conlin. “His views on [light rail] were a little different than how he was using it politically.”

Drago, who has a strong ties to the downtown business community, has been a light-rail backer, but is clearly wavering as key business constituencies raise doubts about the latest plan. “As Sound Transit unravels, [the city council] has not been on the same page,” she frankly admitted. “We need to take the time to find out where the common ground is among us on light rail and monorail.” Drago sees power in unity. “Let’s see if we can’t come together with a City Council position on transportation. The two mayoral candidates have laid down their positions.”

Licata, who was the council’s lonely light rail opponent four years ago, also hopes to forge a common agenda—making life more difficult for Sound Transit. “The city council needs to figure out where it is on light rail,” he said. “One of the first issues we need to wrestle with is the transfer of the [downtown bus tunnel to Sound Transit for light rail].” Licata wants the city council to ask the federal government to demand an Environmental Impact Statement from Sound Transit before the tunnel is turned over. “It’s critical to the economic welfare of the city,” he claimed.

From this range of views on a single subject, light rail, one can see the challenge ahead for the city council. Their seniority and knowledge give them a great advantage in the battle for power at City Hall. But if they cannot forge a common position, all their smarts and experience won’t mean a thing. After all, there will only be one mayor, and he only has to ask himself what his agenda is going to be.



Tabulations based on election night totals.

Absentee ballots may change outcomes.

Initiative 747 (more tax cuts)

*Yes 549,199 (59.16%)

No 379,125 (40.84 %)

Initiative 773 (tax smoking, fund insurance)

*Yes 600,506 (64.72%)

No 327,384 (35.28%)

Initiative 775 (home health care changes)

*Yes 580,584 (63.86%)

No 328,514 (36.14%)

King County Charter Amendment No. 1 (megachurch crusade)

*Yes 129,427 (59.33%)

No 88,710 (40.67%)

King County Proposition No. 1 (Medic One funding)

*Yes 183,529 (80,37%)

No 44,831 (19.63%)

King County Executive

*Ron Sims (D) 139,168 (62.00 %)

Santos Contreras (R) 75,402 (33.59)%

King County Council, Dist. 1

*Carolyn Edmonds (D) 11,272 (62.32%) Ed Sterner (R) 6,816 (37.68 %)

King County Council, Dist. 3

*Kathy Lambert (R) 9,051 (63.27 %)

Kristy Sullivan (D) 5,255 (36.73 %)

King County Council, Dist. 13

*Julia Patterson (D) 8,673 (58.96 %)

Pam Roach (R) 6,037 (41.04 %)

Port of Seattle, Dist. 1

Lawrence Molloy 80,743 (50.05%)

Jack Block 80,589 (49.95%)

Port of Seattle, Dist. 3

*Paige Miller 106,028 (63.16 %)

Richard Pope 61,843 (36.84%)

Port of Seattle, Dist. 4

*Pat Davis 87,078 (55.51%)

Christopher Cain 69,796 (44.49%)

Seattle Mayor

Greg Nickels 48,612 (53.83%)

Mark Sidran 41,698 (46.17%)

Seattle City Attorney

*Tom Carr 43,748 (60.20%)

Edsonya Charles 28,929 (39.80%)

Seattle City Council, Pos. 2

*Richard Conlin 42,605 (60.36%)

Michael Preston 27,977 (39.64%)

Seattle City Council, Pos. 4

*Jan Drago 42,659 (57.38%)

Curt Firestone 31,690 (42.62%)

Seattle City Council, Pos. 6

*Nick Licata 54,541 (76.92%)

Peter Olive 16,362 (23.08%)

Seattle City Council, Pos. 8

Richard McIver 36,246 (52.25%)

Grant Cogswell 33,128 (47.75%)

Seattle School Board, Dist. 4

*Dick Lilly 34,672 (55.34%)

Pat Griffith 27,984 (44.66%)

Seattle School Board, Dist. 5

*Mary Bass 37,416 (60.23%)

Juan Cotto 24,701 (39.77%)

Seattle School Board, Dist. 7

*Jan Kumasaka 45,615 (71.97%)

Garry Breitstein 17,763 (28.03%)

*= Likely winner