I couldn’t help but be amused by the headline of this morning’s Seattle Times editorial: “Crushing the illusion of nonpartisan King County Council.”
IN an election overshadowed by gubernatorial and presidential contests, voters last year opted to change the Metropolitan King County Council from a partisan to a nonpartisan office. The vote was one thing, the reality quite another.
A perfect example includes the political high jinks associated with naming the council replacement for longtime Democrat Dow Constantine, the new county executive. His departure leaves eight members — four Democrats and four Republicans — or, four former Democrats and Republicans.
At risk of crushing the illusion, harsh partisanship reigns.
Just because a charter amendment officially declares an office nonpartisan doesn’t make it magically so. City councils throughout the county have long been putatively nonpartisan, yet even the most casual local political observers all know which council members hail from which party. Without the “R” or “D” next to their name on the ballot, the average voter might not always know who’s who, but as the Times points out, that sort of skin-deep nonpartisanship is merely an illusion.
Or in the Times’ case, perhaps it’s a delusion? I’ve long wondered if the Times’ ardent support for nonpartisan races was disingenuous or delusional, but now I’m guessing it’s a bit of both. The hope was, I suppose, that eliminating partisan labels might break the Democrat’s stranglehold on county government, but instead, it’s just ended up breaking county government itself. Without an officially partisan means of appointing an unofficially partisan official, and with no procedural method for breaking a tie, a fiasco like we’re seeing in the deadlock over Constantine’s replacement was both predictable and inevitable.
Now, thanks to the pleasant-sounding but boneheaded measure to make county offices nonpartisan, the council’s post-Dow row has sucked three legislative districts into political limbo with it. At least one, and perhaps two legislative seats will certainly change hands after the start of the 2010 session (Fred Jarrett’s replacement, and perhaps Joe McDermott’s or Zack Hudgins’), and that sort of disruption is simply inexcusable.
Or, of course, this all could have been avoided if, as the Times had previously advocated, the Democrats on the council had merely caved to the Republican block from the start. That’s likely the only way this dispute will be settled in the end, because Democrats do tend to care about governance, and are no match for Republicans when it comes to harsh partisan discipline. I suppose such a “compromise” could be spun as an act of nonpartisan collaboration… but more in the spirit of the way the Vichy French collaborated with the Germans, than the sort of high minded collaboration the supporters of the charter amendment fancifully imagined.
No doubt nonpartisanship is a noble ideal, and was roundly espoused as such by the founding fathers, but even they quickly fell into deeply partisan camps not long after the ink on the Constitution had dried. While our two party system is nowhere to be found in our nation’s charter, its spontaneous development represented one of the most ingenious aspects of the American experiment, for by institutionalizing and legitimizing political dissent it was here that the notion of a loyal opposition first reached full fruition.
Yes, institutional partisanship can be nasty and messy and chaotic, and as we’re currently seeing in the Senate health care debate, with strict party discipline, the minority can often exploit the system to obstruct both necessary reforms and the will of the people. But over the past 220 years, this system has also granted our nation extraordinary political stability, without which it never could have grown into the greatest political, economic and military power the world has ever known. It was through the institutionalized dissent of our two party system that we survived the Great Depression without succumbing to either communism or fascism, and went on to simultaneously defeat the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, our democratic values largely intact.
Some might argue that if party politics was good enough for the so-called “greatest generation,” it should be good enough for us, but that really misses the point. Partisanship is part of human nature, and as such it will be part of any system of government we humans create, regardless of whether that self-realization is embodied in law.
The Times, the Municipal League and other cynics and do-gooders can rail all they want about the mere illusion of a nonpartisan council, but it can never be any more than that. Nor should it.