You may be surprised to learn that I don’t necessarily disagree with today’s Seattle Times editorial urging voters to “stick with electing council members citywide.” But while there are strong arguments on both sides of the district elections issue, it’s too bad that the Times tends to focus on the weak ones.
The typical pitch for the change is to encourage more candidates who can raise sufficient campaign cash to run for office and let neighborhood voices be heard more clearly.
Election 2009 has more candidates running for council than any time in recent memory. At last count, 14 challengers were seeking two open seats or taking on incumbents. Many are solid candidates.
Define “solid candidate.” Nearly half of the challengers have declared for the same open seat, and most serious political observers would describe only a handful of the candidates as solid. And no disrespect to either Jesse Israel or David Ginsberg, but unless they can crank the fundraising up to eleven, I doubt incumbents Nick Licata and Richard Conlin will ever feel particularly threatened.
At best, this slate represents a triumph of quantity over quality, yet even with that caveat still qualifies as one of the strongest fields in years. For whatever reason, recruiting dynamic council candidates has proven more difficult than pulling teeth, and this cycle’s atypical surge in political lemmings does little to recommend the current citywide system.
The council is neither stagnant nor a place of minimum turnover. In 2007, Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess joined after running citywide. Both are solid additions.
I forgot Bruce Harrell was even on the council, and while there’s no doubt that Tim Burgess ranks as one of the most competant challengers to run in recent memory, he defeated the polar opposite in the form of David Della. The 2007 cycle did not produce an inspiring field, and likewise does little to recommend citywide elections.
The city needs experts in broader, complicated areas, such as electricity and land use. Members elected by district are programmed to fight for a neighborhood, not a more encompassing citywide interest.
And we’re electing those electricity and land use experts now? Successful politicians tend to be generalists, which is why they hire experts to advise them and run specific departments. Besides, why exactly would an expert be less likely to come from a neighborhood district? Our neighborhoods don’t have electricity or land?
“The bedrock of good government is cooperation, not Balkanization,” said George Allen, senior vice president for government relations at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Uh-oh… the business establishment is arguing to maintain the status quo. Now you’re really beginning to lose me.
I voted against district elections the last time it was on the ballot, but after reading this Times editorial I may be leaning the other way. This proposal is less drastic than the last, electing five council members by district, while retaining four at-large seats, so it theoretically balances the best and worst features of both systems. And I’m not so sure that adding a few narrowly focused neighborhood voices would be a bad thing for a council whose culture of polite cooperation has left it incapable of serving as a necessary check and balance on our politically adept mayor and his ruthless henchmen.
Or maybe not. The most dubious claim I’ve heard from district proponents is that it would help take the influence of money out of the election equation. Yeah… right. In fact, just the opposite might be true. Smaller, lower profile, district elections would provide a juicy target for political consultants and wealthy special interests, creating demographically condensed races in which a large donation or an even larger independent expenditure could have a lot more impact than in a citywide contest.
But regardless of all the arguments pro and con, my instinct tells me that the debate may be moot. The previous measure just barely failed after little if any campaign on its behalf, and in our current, Obama-inspired, reformist political climate, I’m guessing that this new district/at-large hybrid proposal will be damn hard to beat without a well-financed campaign against it… and damn better rhetoric than we saw today in the Seattle Times.