Last week, I was actually invited to a house party for Barack Obama. Twenty freakin’ months before the election. Out of curiosity and loyalty to the friends who were hosting it, I went. It was a great discussion. But amidst all the earnest expressions of Seattle liberalism, one topic remained completely, curiously absent.
Before Barack or anyone else matters, we’ve got an election here, this year.
You would never know it from either the headlines or the local political chatter, much of which already seems obsessed with next year’s presidential race. But we have five city council seats, plus four seats on county council, two Port of Seattle commissioners, four Seattle School Board members, lots of suburban positions, and a host of ballot measures, including some critical transportation votes, coming up this summer and fall. Yes, summer; the primary has been moved back to August (when fewer people will be paying attention), and the filing deadline for candidates is now June 8, exactly two months away.
Why hasn’t there been more attention? Well, local media never does a very good job of covering local elections. (Quick: When was the last time you saw a Port of Seattle race discussed on TV? And why not? It’s a countywide election for a position that will oversee $442 million in public revenue in 2007.) But beyond that, in the marquee races -– the citywide votes for five Seattle City Council members -– 2007 is not shaping up so far as a very competitive year.
Of the five seats, incumbents are defending four; Peter Steinbrueck is leaving his seat open as he moves on to waterfront advocacy and, perhaps, a 2009 mayoral bid. Four candidates have already announced for Steinbrueck’s vacated position, but there’s a distinct lack of drama elsewhere. Only one candidate has announced against any of the four council members running for reelection (Tim Burgess, running against David Della). The other three incumbents –- Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, and appointee Sally Clark –- are thus far unopposed.
At first glance this seems mystifying. There’s plenty of neighborhood dissatisfaction over the way Seattle is being run, and the way its middle and working class residents are being run off. And the incumbents are beatable. Clark was appointed to her seat in 2006 and has never run any electoral race, let alone a citywide one; she has no electoral base and has done little in her year on the council. Godden is in her first term, having won in 2003 on her name recognition from years as a local gossip columnist. She’s famously clueless on civic issues and has done little beyond attending all the right parties and keeping a seat warm -– if that –- in her four years on council. And Rasmussen is also in his first term (as is Della). Three council incumbents lost in 2003. Why isn’t anyone stepping forward to challenge incumbents this year?
More pointedly, why aren’t any progressives running? Steinbrueck’s departure leaves only one council member (President Nick Licata) who consistently stands out from the dull, establishment consensus that is the Seattle City Council: all good liberal Democrats, tolerant on social issues and always quick with a corporate handout. Two of the challengers for Steinbrueck’s open seat, Venus Velasquez and Bruce Harrell, portray themselves as progressive, but both are very much part of establishment Seattle. (The other two announced candidates for the seat are moderate Republican Jim Nobles and the execrable John Manning, who resigned a council seat a decade ago after his third domestic violence complaint.) Progressives are losing one of their only two strong allies on council, and it’s been years since there’s been a credible progressive challenger campaigning for city council.
There are any number of reasons for this state of affairs, but the most obvious is money. It takes a lot of it to run a citywide race for Seattle’s exclusively at-large city council seats. As of late March, Rasmussen had already raised a whopping $112,501 for his reelection bid; Godden was not far behind at $100,629. By contrast, Velasquez, the first to announce for Steinbrueck’s seat when he withdraw from the race (and the most progressive of his would-be successors to date), leads her rivals in donations with “only” $27,275. Incumbency is clearly a major advantage this year, and any successful challenger had better spend most of her or his time raising money between now and August.
That said, it can be done: Della, Godden, and Rasmussen all beat incumbents in 2003. There’s still two months before the filing deadline. Godden and Clark in particular could be vulnerable to a well-organized challenge. Goodness knows that as Seattle densifies the council needs principled members who will listen to the neighborhoods and don’t sell out to every developer-backed scheme that comes along. There’s still time. Anyone willing to step up to the plate?