Guest post, Dwight Pelz: King County Non-Partisan Government Strikes Out

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.)

Choosing Leaders

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”.

Important Information

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”.

It does.

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.]

Comments

  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    It should be the same in every county. Either King County Council should revert to partisan elections, or county commissioner elections in all the other counties should be nonpartisan. The Legislature should pass a law making all the counties either one or the other.

  2. 2

    hmmmm spews:

    good post.

    Can we expect him to lead the process to change the county charter back, or is this just talk?

  3. 3

    J. Whorfin spews:

    Thank you Mr. Pelz for your thoughts.

    I would agree with Roger @ 1; either all or none. That said, the way in King County is what we have currently, so what to do? I’m not that concerned about the move to non-political offices, and the 2009 election bore that out. County voters are not dumb; they knew which candidate was the best for the County and voted accordingly by a wide margin. Just because someone doesn’t self-identify themselves as “Democrat” or “Republican” doesn’t mean that the voters can’t figure it out fairly easily, as seen in Hutchinson’s case.

    If bringing back partisan races is important to enough people in the County, then as hmmmm said, please lead the process to change the law.

  4. 4

    spews:

    Shorter Pelz: party control, and PCO’s choosing who is in power, has been diminished, and I don’t like it.

    There was way too much “choosing”, and “chosen”, in your story and model for my tastes. It is different, but no better than the seat filling that just happened.

  5. 5

    Michael spews:

    Of course it’s failed so far, we’ve had the same group of partisan folks running for office. We all know that the Right put this on the ballot to sneak their guys in and I’m most voters knew that too. Maybe they voted it in for thier own reasons, like limiting the ammount of power political parties have, which this will over time. And just maybe, our political parties don’t like NP elections and wide open primaries because they know that they will reduce the Influance and power of political parties.

  6. 6

    Proud To Be An Ass spews:

    You can bet your bippy that if the shoe was on the other foot, and republiconartists were the overwhelming majority in King County, that this measure would never have been proposed. Basically, what they lack in numbers here, they make up for with money.

    I’d wager that in counties where the dems are in the perennial minority, we don’t have this nonsense.

  7. 7

    spews:

    I agree with 6.

    A way to force the issue would be to have the majority dems “vote” for a caretaker dem the next time a republican seat opens, and at the same time place a bipartisan measure on the ballot to make the position partisan.

    Otherwise, I do not see a popular vote changing this on its own.

  8. 8

    Michael spews:

    @6

    Pierce Co. Goes back and forth between the parties. Switching to NP has been proposed a couple of times.

  9. 10

    Michael spews:

    @9

    I’m not sure if the are any other NP county councils around. The last time Pierce County talked about going NP, I believe the idea was brought to the council by a citizens group. The council considered it, but voted it down. I don’t recall many of the specifics on that one.

    It might be worth trying to get an initiative going in Pierce County and try it again. We might be able to beat the Republicans at their own game.

    At a minimum we could watch Pelz, The Great Defender (and decider) Of All Things Progressive, buddy up to whomever the unlucky fuck that’s the head of the WSRP right is right now and do their little song and dance together about how non-partisan councils are a bad thing.

    It’s funny how these guys, that are at each others throats 24/7, can get real chummy , real quick, when their access to money and power is threatened.

    Dance Peltz, dance!

  10. 11

    eridani spews:

    Paraphrasing Krist Novoselic–people who want to take parties out of politics want to take the politics out of politics. It won’t work.

  11. 12

    proud leftist spews:

    The notion of the non-partisan politician is nonsense. A politician is by nature partisan. There is nothing wrong with that. The naivete involved in “non-partisan elections” is rather deep. Though it has not always been so, the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans right now is quite substantial. The difference is enough that a voter should not even need to know the name or what he or she stands for to know who to vote for–anyone who would have an R after his or her name on the ballot is a nutcake. Simply, that’s how easy voting has become, unless we get to this King County non-partisan crap.

  12. 14

    Michael spews:

    @11, 12

    The notion of the non-partisan politician is nonsense. A politician is by nature partisan. There is nothing wrong with that. The naivete involved in “non-partisan elections” is rather deep.

    I’ve been active in all things political since the mid 1980’s. Served on non-profit boards. Worked in community justice programs. I’ve been around the block. I’m not naive.

    Paraphrasing Krist Novoselic–people who want to take parties out of politics want to take the politics out of politics. It won’t work.

    Krist should stop trying to tell people that he doesn’t know what to think, or what they think they’re doing, or whatever the fuck he’s trying to do, he’s not very good at it.

    I get my electricity from a small co-op. It being a co-op, it’s run by a board that is elected from it’s members. It’s NP. There’s plenty of politicking going on there.

    Our school boards are run by NP boards. I’d say it’s the hight of naivete to think that there’s not politicking going on at your local school board.

    My city council and mayor are NP. No, no politicking going on there…

    Water board, NP: politicking.

    Library board, NP: politicking.

    My neighborhood Memorial Day potluck, NP: politicking.

    No one is trying to take the politicking out of politics.

    What the two of you are talking about and what I’m talking about are two entirely different things.

    But, it’s late so I’m off to bed.

  13. 15

    proud leftist spews:

    Michael,
    You are not a politician. Being involved in politics does not make you a politician. You quite miss my point. And, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the library board. When we’re talking the King County Council, people need to lay their partisan cards on the table. It ain’t that hard to do so.

  14. 16

    countrygirl spews:

    @1 I disagree that we need to have a boilerplate policy for all counties. What works (or doesn’t) in one county is not necessarily what’s best for another jurisdiction and that removes the local voters’ self determination. I live in a county where all county offices are partisan excepting judges and it works. The issue with non-partisan is that there is no elected body that handles vetting potential appointees. This is going to get messier before it gets fixed. Just wait until there’s a legislative appointment of a representative that has caucused with a party but did not designate “prefers X Party” on the ballot. It’ll make the cluster f#%k that is the current appointment process in King County seem simple. I’d be pretty pissed if the legislature took away our working process and forced us to deal with King County’s misguided bulls#*t.

  15. 17

    Michael spews:

    @15

    Ah… Maybe so. My posts were directed at NP in general, not King County. In KC you have NP being exploited for partisan reasons.

    I’ve met plenty of really effective politicians that weren’t very partisan. It’s pretty hard to “work a room”, when half the room hates you. Politics is the “art of the possible”* and not much is possible when you have two sides of a room yelling at each other and not willing to work together.

    And still, what you see as NP and what I’m talking about aren’t even close to the same thing. Maybe we can discuss this some other day when you’re willing to be a tad more open minded about things.

    *Otto von Bismarck
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_von_Bismarck

  16. 18

    spews:

    With our “winner takes all” form of elections, there will always be two parties. (Cite: Duverger’s Law)

    These Republican sponsored election reforms deny voters crucial information about the candidates. So that more voters can be tricked into voting for Republicans.

    Non-partisan ballots eliminate the ‘D’ and ‘R’ identifiers. The more local the race, the more of a difference that makes.

    Reed’s Top Two Primary fiasco allows candidates to make up their own party labels.

    Republican’s preyed on voter’s honorable independent streak. Classic bait and switch.

  17. 19

    spews:

    Michael @ 17

    You’re confusing partisanship and platforms.

    Have you read the various party platforms? Illuminating.

    Say I’m voting for library board candidates. I would very much want to know if a candidate holds creationism, young earth, misogynist, Dominionist, tea bagging beliefs.

    Sadly, right now the best indicator of those beliefs is their party.

    Should many/most of the Republicans stop the hate speech, stop being anti-intellectuals, and resume being conservatives, then I’ll probably feel a lot less strongly about this issue.

  18. 20

    Michael spews:

    @19

    You’re confusing partisanship and platforms.

    Actually, I’m not.

    Say I’m voting for library board candidates. I would very much want to know if a candidate holds creationism, young earth, misogynist, Dominionist, tea bagging beliefs

    What I’m saying (among other things) is that you can have an elected board of folks that does good work and (and I provided examples of them) that functions just fine outside of the political party system.

  19. 21

    ivan spews:

    @ 19:

    What I’m saying (among other things) is that you can have an elected board of folks that does good work and (and I provided examples of them) that functions just fine outside of the political party system.

    None of what you say applies to the legislative branch of government, and it is naive and uninformed beyond belief to tell people who know better that it ever could.

  20. 22

    roots spews:

    The STAND a person takes on an issue is determined by where they SIT for dinner.

    If Pelz didn’t rely on spitting out this 19th century partisan horse crap for a living he would be a lot more believable. What do you expect him to say when his mere existence and grocery budget comes from a batch of ancient thinkers like the state democrat party executive board?

    Pelz sits every night for dinner, at a table covered with food paid for by tradition! And he wants us to believe he is a 21st century thinker….sorry.

  21. 23

    Michael spews:

    @21

    LOL… King County hasn’t dried up and blown away…

    And neither has the state of Nebraska.

    Nebraska’s Legislature is unusual in that it is unicameral and nonpartisan.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebraska_Legislature

    Most of the functions that political parties traditionally performed can now be done without them. Anyone with a little moxie can raise cash and get their message out to the voters.

  22. 24

    spews:

    Michael @ 23

    I like how that wiki page lists the party affiliation of each representative for “informational purposes only”.

    The only result of making the NE leg contests, the KCC races, etc. “non-partisan” is removing the party identifier from the ballot. Thereby denying voters crucial information about the candidate.

    These “nonpartisan” NE electeds still have platforms, caucuses, agendas, tribes.

    Just like Reed’s Top Two fiasco, my hunch is that non-partisan races also increase the costs of campaigning, further raising the bar to entry.

    Anyone with a little moxie can raise cash and get their message out to the voters.

    You’ve done call time (aka dialing for dollars)?

    To win, a candidate needs both money and party support.

    (Having the opponent in the news defending themselves in court helps too.)

  23. 25

    Michael spews:

    @24

    You’ve done call time (aka dialing for dollars)?

    Done it? My friend, I’ve help run it. Obama, H. Dean, Ron Paul, Mike H. They all raised a hell of a lot of money on their own outside of “the system” and they did it with volunteers & small donors. From my prospective, traditional dialing for dollars isn’t very effective and is getting less so all the time. If I had a dollar for every message I’ve left on an answering machine while dialing for dollars I’d be a rich man. I’m pretty sure those messages resulted in about zero dollars being donated to a campaign.

    These days you’re as, or maybe more, likely to get your message to people using email, Youtube, Face Book and a blog as you are using traditional media that you have to pay and by interrupting peoples dinner with a phone call.

    I doubt top two will change much, other than making races where all the candidates are from the same party take part in the general election. I think having everyone elected to office in the general election is a good thing.

    The only result of making the NE leg contests, the KCC races, etc. “non-partisan” is removing the party identifier from the ballot. Thereby denying voters crucial information about the candidate.

    The KCC went NP as part of a political ploy, so maybe it’s a mistake to call it NP. I, also, think it’s a mistake to think that we know why voters voted it in. Maybe they had their own agenda?

    It’s not surprising the the KCC has failed as a NP so far, you have the same structures backing the same people as before. Why would it be any different? That will change over time and here’s a big part of why it will:

    Party politics ain’t much of a party
    by Goldy, 01/12/2010, 11:50 AM
    I soldiered my way through the 37th LD Dems monthly meeting last night, a grueling three-plus hour affair that helps to explain why it’s so difficult to bring young blood into these sort of organizations. It’s not that the topics of discussion weren’t for the most part interesting or worthy, and it’s not like I didn’t learn anything from the debate, it’s just that the proceedings would have been much more enjoyable had they been conducted in half the time, and under the influence of caffeine and/or beer.

    Sitting next to me near the back of the room was a brand spanking new Precinct Committee Officer who, while one of the youngest people in the room, I’m guessing was still past the age beyond which Jerry Rubin warned us never to trust.
    http://horsesass.org/?m=201001&paged=2

    Are people going to wait until they’re 40* and then line up and run for office using the system we use now?

    We already have all sorts of folks that are under 40 sitting on school boards, park boards, city councils, and so on. When they look to run for a higher office they are going to use the tools and networks that they are familiar with. And that isn’t their local D’s and R’s (see HA post above). Some will use the D’s and the R’s, but I suspect that they will be using them to a lesser extent than current candidates. And many will just skip that step. You can build the networks you need to run for office w/o the D’s, the R’s and the backing of the local paper. Maybe I’m 5 or 10 years ahead of my self on this one, but I doubt it.

    As for Nebraska, it was included to shoot down the comment that a NP Ledg. would and could never work, nothing more.

    “non-partisan” is removing the party identifier from the ballot. Thereby denying voters crucial information about the candidate.

    I can read damn near every newspaper on the planet via my phone. I don’t think we’re denying anyone any information. We would have been denying them info 10 years back, for sure.

    If you don’t put a D or an R by your name you have to do a better job explaining yourself to get people to vote for you because they don’t know what you’re like or what you’ll do. Just ask Suzy and Dino.

    These “nonpartisan” NE electeds still have platforms, caucuses, agendas, tribes.

    Yep, never said they didn’t.

    Really, the point I was trying to make here is that there are all sorts of ways to get things done, not just our current one.

    From my personal prospective, we are in a hell of a lot of trouble, both the US and the world, and I doubt the people and structures that were in place while we were getting into this mess are capable of getting us out of it. It’s time to start looking at different ways of doing things.

    *Yes I’m aware Rubin said 30, not 40.

  24. 26

    spews:

    @21, I agree with your opinion, though your self sourcing Because I said so type answer was very Ted Van Dyk.

    I do think the race should be partisan, and candidates say what party preference they hold, but, I am against seat filling by PCOs. The person that won an election had that seat by vote, not by caucus. The party does not have a right to the open public seat, they have a right to run their private party business.

    Strangely enough, that is one conclusion that can be drawn from the two votes Mr. Pelz cites.
    It happens to be what I believe.

  25. 27

    Phil spews:

    Wow. The Dem machine is awesome.

    Dwight, is there any way that Patty can run as a non-Democrat? Can we make the Senate seats non-partisan? Cuz party affiliation will doom our candidates until after the 2012 election.