In 2008 a group of “political reformers” * placed a successful measure on the November ballot to make King County government non-partisan. Fourteen months later that “reform” has failed its first three tests — filling two vacancies (Sims and Constantine) and a weird election for County Executive. Three pitches, three groundouts, inning over.
(* The non-partisan ballot measure was financed by the same special interests who backed Susan Hutchison’s Executive race.)
Succession of office is an important test of our democracy. When a government official resigns or passes away, provisions are made for that position to be filled and for government to continue.
For partisan offices, state law assigns the political parties a role which has allowed vacancies to be filled in an orderly, timely, and predictable fashion. The Precinct Committee Officers (PCO’s) from the affected jurisdiction meet and choose three member of the party of the departed official, and forward that list to the County Council or County Commissioners, who pick one person.
That process took place thirteen years ago when the Democratic PCO’s met at the gym of Nathan Hale High School to designate a list of three Democrats to fill the last year of the term of then-County Executive Gary Locke, who was departing to be Governor. On that day, Ron Sims was chosen over the very able Greg Nickels to lead the County as the next Executive. On that day no one called for a “caretaker” or a “placeholder”. Sims served for ten months as the appointed Executive, then was elected to the post three times.
I was chosen the next month by the PCO’s to fill Sims’ seat on the County Council, just as Constantine was chosen to succeed Nickels in 2002 when he was elected Mayor. Sims, Pelz, and Constantine were chosen by the PCO’s, then rubber stamped by the County Council, and provided strong leadership for many years.
The PCO’s now play no role in filling King County vacancies. The County Council, freed from the shackles of the political parties, now makes the decision based on in-house politics and personalities. Rather than choosing strong leaders to replace Sims and Constantine, the County Council twice appointed Lois – Lois Common Denominator. Both Kurt Triplett and Jan Drago (fine public servants in their previous roles) effectively ran saying they would not provide leadership for the County in future years. The test of succession of office failed as a “caretaker” was inserted.
A Weird Election
King County voters were asked two questions in recent elections:
In 2008, they were asked, “Do you want County elections to be partisan or non- partisan?” They chose to take the political parties out of County elections.
In 2009 they were asked, “Do you want to know which candidate for County Executive is the Democrat and which one is the Republican?” Their answer was an emphatic “YES”.
The fact is that Dow Constantine spent the entire election proving that he is a Democrat and that Susan Hutchison is a Republican. Hutchison spent the entire election trying to hide her Republican stripes. For months the election was close, but polling showed that as voters learned that Constantine was a Democrat, they made the decision to vote for him.
If the election had been partisan, Hutchison would have run as the Republican and Constantine as the Democrat, and they would actually have spent the election debating the issues, not dodging or defining which party they belong to. Dow spent a great deal of money on TV ads defining Susan as “anti-choice”, which is just a euphemism for “Republican”.
I once asked former Governor (and former King County Councilmember) Mike Lowry what he thought about the move to non-partisanship at King County. He smiled sadly and said, “It takes important information away from the voters”.
If Susan Hutchison files as a Republican, then she is making a public statement that she largely believes in the values of the Republican Party. If Dow Constantine files as a Democrat, then he is making a public statement that he largely believes in the values of the Democratic Party. Voters now have important information about these candidates.
With those labels established and relegated to the background of the campaign, Hutchison can debate the issues and paint herself as a moderate or even liberal Republican, and appeal to the swing voters, who by definition decide the outcome of almost every election in America. Instead we have a weird election, where Hutchison hides in the closet and Constantine works to “out” her.
Where Will We Get Our Information?
Advocates for non-partisan government hate the fact that voters want to know what party the candidate belongs to. They want voters to ask “Which candidate is strongest on the issues I believe in”, not “Is the candidate a Democrat or a Republican?”
We have made King County elections non-partisan, at the same time we have diluted the party label in state Top Two primaries by allowing a candidate such as Dino Rossi to be listed on the ballot as “prefers the GOP Party”.
But the ironic reality is that we have reduced the important information of party label in Washington at the very time that the information available to voters is shrinking. Newspapers are dying as a source of information that might tell the voters: “Which candidate is strongest on the issues I believe in”. Ten years ago King County had three daily newspapers and maybe ten political reporters and today it has one newspaper with 2-3 political reporters. Olympia had a “press corps” covering the Legislature, and today it has a half dozen reporters and no daily TV coverage.
Advocates for non-partisan government tout the Muni League, not the Democratic or Republican parties, as a credible source for information on candidates. They might say:
“Don’t rely on the label of Democrats to define a candidate. You know what the Democrats favor – big government, higher taxes, peace, women’s right to choose, gay marriage, and the environment.”
“Instead rely on the Muni League recommendation, because they bring together a panel of a dozen citizens with random political views who thoughtfully interview the candidates to see which ones are stronger, not which party they belong to.”
In other words:
“You know what the Democratic and Republican Parties stand for but you have no clue what a Muni League endorsement represents.”
I supported Joe Mallahan for Mayor, but looking back, does it really make sense that the Muni League rated Mallahan “Outstanding” and rated Greg Nickels merely “Very Good”? Or that David Irons was rated “Outstanding” for King County Elections Director? The fact is that a dozen citizens with random political views will produce random candidate evaluations that contain little useful information.
Seattle or King County?
In the course of this first year of non-partisan government, the King County Courthouse has begun to steadily morph into Seattle City Hall. Kent Pullen is rolling over in his grave as his beloved King County government is slowly beguiled by the Seattle sirens of non-partisanship and never ending process:
“Odysseus and his men soon encountered another danger…the Isle of the Sirens. The song of the sirens bewitched men and drew them in to the island where they would be smashed against the rock and shipwrecked.”
Seattle politicians have long since grown to understand that when they make decisions, they make enemies. (Are you listening Greg?) In order to not make enemies, they have increasingly empanelled task forces to study an issue or a pending appointment, hoping that the task force will make or considerably shape the decision so the politician won’t take the heat. We elect the politicians to make decisions, but they hand the decisions off to appointed citizens.
The County Council, now that is non-partisan, appears to be following the Seattle script.
Lacking the input of the political party in 2009, the Council twice appointed very Seattleesque “Blue Ribbon Panels” to screen candidates and advise the County Council on whom to appoint to replace Sims, and then Constantine. The first panel included the Muni League, the League of Women Voters, four Chambers of Commerce, and no representatives of the Democratic or Republican parties.
In the Constantine vacancy, the Blue Ribbon Panel “accepted applications” for the Council vacancy, and identified Jan Drago, Zach Hudgins, Joe McDermott, and Sharon Nelson as qualified for the job. The Council then restricted itself to those four choices, abdicating the power of nomination to non-elected citizens.
Where Will Our Leaders Come From?
Over the last 35 years Seattle and King County have diverged widely on the nature of the citizens who are elected to office and what they do when they leave. In summary, experienced politicians don’t run for the City Council, and Seattle elected officials do not go on to higher office after they serve. By contrast, experienced politicians frequently seek to be on the County Council, and many County elected officials have gone on to higher office.
Paul Kraabel was the last legislator, and the last elected official to join the Seattle City Council, in 1974. Legislators rarely run for the City Council, despite the 200% pay and pension increase they would receive. They simply cannot relate to the “Seattle Way”, with no districts, no political parties, and endless process. (Seattle draws high quality, but inexperienced candidates. If Seattle voters wanted to attract legislators to run for City Council they could move to district elections. Partisanship would not make a difference, since EVERYONE in Seattle is a Democrat!)
By contrast legislators flock to the County Council. In the past ten years alone, former legislators Louise Miller, Kathy Lambert, Larry Phillips, Pete Von Reichbaur, Kent Pullen, Julia Patterson, Dow Constantine, Caroline Edmonds, Chris Vance, and I all left Olympia for the Courthouse. Legislators appeared comfortable with the County format of partisan, district elections. They are experienced politicians by the time they join the County Council, making it a stronger body. A City Council which had included the likes of Pullen, Pelz, Patterson, and Pete would have competed just fine with Greg Nickels and Tim Ceis.
After they leave office, Seattle politicians generally leave the field of politics. In the past twenty years, only Norm Rice went from the City Council to be Mayor in 1990. (Bruce Chapman left the City Council to serve as Secretary of State in 1975. John Miller went from the Legislature to the Council in 1972, then to Congress in 1985, and Randy Revelle and then Tim Hill moved from the City Council to be County Executive in 1981 and 1985 respectively.)
King County has a far more robust track record of grooming future political leaders. Mike Lowry went from the Council to Congress to the Governor’s mansion. John Spellman and Gary Locke became Governors. Ron Sims and Dow Constantine went from the Council to the Executive office. Greg Nickels became Mayor and Rob McKenna became Attorney General. Chris Vance, Dwight Pelz, (and Luke Esser) went from the Council to become Party Chairs.
The fact is that the County’s partisan offices have attracted Democratic and Republican legislators in the past, and groomed Democrats and Republicans Councilmembers and Executives to run for higher office. I fear that with the advent of nonpartisan County elected office this tradition of developing future leaders with be lost, and this power will be shifted to other counties and cities in Washington.
It was a mistake to make King County elected offices non-partisan. The voters should roll back the 2008 law and restore traditional politics – and with it greater voter clarity and information, and a focus on the issues – to the Courthouse.
[Dwight Pelz is the Chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, and a former member of the King County Council.]