Only one year after Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in” election, and in the midst of a crushing economic recession that has caused home prices to plummet, unemployment to spike, and state and local budgets to plunge into nearly unprecedented crisis, you might have expected incumbents to face more than a little pressure in our recent local elections.
Well… not so much.
In countywide races the sheriff, the one port commissioner seeking reelection and four of five county council incumbents faced no opposition at all, while Councilmember Reagan Dunn easily trounced his unfunded challenger 77-23. In Seattle, City Council President Richard Conlin easily waltzed to victory, while fellow incumbent Nick Licata beat highly touted Jesse Israel by a more than comfortable margin.
And of course in the marquee matchup this election season, longtime county councilmember Dow Constantine ran on experience in walloping putative reformer Susan Hutchison by a better than 18-point margin in the King County Executive race.
So what happened?
While most of the post-election punditry, including my own, has thus far focused on the horse race usuals of fundraising, messaging, strategy, and candidate performance, I think it fair to offer a suggestion that some may find somewhat heretical, and which is sure to disappoint those who feel themselves on the political outside: perhaps incumbents did so well in our recent elections because voters are largely satisfied with the status quo?
Perhaps voters are generally okay with the level and quality of services provided by local government, and the level of taxes levied to pay for them? Perhaps voters appreciate the near total lack of public corruption our region has enjoyed since… well… at least since I moved here in 1992. Perhaps, despite the current economic downturn and our much publicized fits of paralysis when it comes to making a decision on important infrastructure projects, voters generally feel that our region is moving in the right direction?
Yes, much has been made in the news about the huge budget shortfalls hitting both the city and the county, and there has been much effort to blame this crisis on the overspending and mismanagement of the incumbents in charge, but perhaps local voters understand that with a few exceptions, both Seattle and King County have been pretty well managed in recent years, as evidenced by some of the highest municipal bond ratings in nation?
Perhaps voters are smart enough to look around and see that nearly every local government in every state is facing equal or worse financial difficulties, and thus it would be foolish to blame local budget writers for the inevitable consequences of the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression?
And with the one Seattle levy on the ballot passing by a two to one margin, while Tim Eyman’s tax slashing I-1033 failed countywide with an overwhelming 69% no vote, perhaps the majority of local voters have even come to accept that it is a structural revenue deficit that threatens city and county budgets long term, not the out-of-control government spending that is the favored boogeyman of Republicans and Seattle Times editorialists alike?
Yes, I know, two-term Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels came in an embarrassing third in the August primary, but that was really the exception this election, not the rule, and considering the buyer’s remorse expressed in the weeks following, it’s not hard to imagine him having beaten either Joe Mallahan or Mike McGinn in the general. But regardless, beyond that and the disastrously run campaign of ousted City Attorney Tom Carr, there really wasn’t much anti-incumbent/anti-government mood to speak of.
While I have my own well founded criticism of the general lack of passion, creativity and, well, balls of our state’s elected officials as a whole, voters here enjoy some of the cleanest, most transparent, scandal free local government in the nation. And while the Seattle metropolitan area certainly faces its own problems, they ain’t nothing like those confronting most other big cities.
Let’s face it, relatively speaking, things around here don’t suck, and perhaps, in rewarding incumbents, voters are giving credit where at least a little bit of credit is due?
In fact, as much as I might have a reputation with some as being a cheerleader for local Democrats, I’m arguably less sanguine about the direction in which our region is headed than the vast majority of voters. I know that the long term structural revenue deficit afflicting both state and local budgets threatens the quality of life and economic prosperity we’ve come to expect here in the Puget Sound region, and I have little faith in the current Democratic leadership to adequately address our present and looming fiscal crisis headlong. And without even a hint of a viable, reasonable, pro-government Republican faction to challenge it, I fear for the ability and willingness of our Democratic majority to challenge its leaders from within.
That said, at least for the moment, it’s pretty hard to run around these parts on a throw the bums out platform, when voters for the most part seem somewhat satisfied with the local government their getting. And all the usual horse race bullshit notwithstanding, that perhaps explains the woeful performance of challengers and self-proclaimed outsiders in this November’s election.