Where it matters

Welcome to the first edition of "Impolitics," a free-ranging regular column of political opinion and humor that will consider any and all fair game for comment: neighborhood, local, state, national, whatever's on the radar. I aim to thrill and/or irritate equitably.

By way of brief disclosure, my background is as a community activist; I'm currently co-coordinator of Nonviolent Action Community of Cascadia, a Seattle social justice and peace group. In 1996 I started a zine called Eat the State!, which seems to have landed me in a second career as a pundit. Since then I've done weekly commentary on KCMU-FM 90.3's Mind Over Matters (Saturdays, 8:30-9am; if I can get up that early on a Saturday, the least you can do is tune in!); the last two years as weekly political columnist for The Stranger; and occasional guest gigs on everything from cable access to KVI (right after The Best of Rush Limbaugh).

That populist range pretty much informs what "Impolitics" will be. My desire is to put the "public" back into public policy. I want to do what modest things I can to make arrogant politicians, blind bureaucracies, roughshod corporations, and others who would control our daily lives accountable for their actions. And, conversely, to make sure pols and civilians who are trying to make our community and world better places get some props. Your suggestions, news tips, and story ideas are welcome!

That brings me to the Weekly, and us to the November 3 elections. Folks who benefit from voter apathy and disgust—the religious right and Fortune 500 spring to mind—must be delighted this fall, as the interminable "I didn't really want to know that" Clinton/Starr headlines obscure the country's real business. Voter turnout keeps declining, and fewer and fewer people decide issues of enormous importance.

THIS YEAR BRINGS only a couple of interesting high-profile races, and one of them—Murray vs. Smith—is interesting only for the sheer wretch-edness of both candidates (Linda's a bit higher on the retchometer), plus a slew of important and fairly clear-cut ballot measures. Briefly, these can be divided into good ideas—I-688 raising minimum wages, I-692 allowing doctors to practice medicine when medicine means pot, Prop. 1 to build a new Seattle library and expand branches—and awful ideas: I-200 banning affirmative action, I-694 potentially limiting abortions, the Republicans' breathtakingly irresponsible transportation levy (Referendum 49), I-45 hamstringing Seattle's ability to fund projects.

But the most important election-night results could be buried in the small print on the suburbs. That's where a few swing Senate districts could determine whether the Republicans will again control both houses in Olympia, or whether the Democrats, who already hold the governor's mansion, will gain the Senate and the upper hand. At stake is the future of public education and higher ed in the state, the possible dismantling of the Basic Health Plan (the last remnant of health-care reform), the survival of the last six or seven salmon and old-growth trees under state care, and budgets that continue to insist, in a time of plenty, that the best way to help the poor (and everyone else) is to transfer money from the middle class to the rich.

The key lies in places like Federal Way and Everett. The Democrats are in no risk of losing any of their current Senate seats, and need to take only two more to regain a majority. If the September primary were final, they would have succeeded. Now, four races that look promising: Paull Shin handily beat incumbent Jeannette Wood in the 21st District (south Snohomish) and likely will again; Tracey Eide stunned political observers by finishing in a dead heat with powerful incumbent Ray Schow in the 30th (Federal Way); state Rep. Jeri Costa edged past incumbent Sen. Gary Strannigan in Everett's 38th; and Georgia Gardner leads Ward Nelson for a vacated seat, in Bellingham's 42nd.

BUT WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE to have the Democrats in office? That's where more public pressure is needed, to overcome recent history. With near-majorities in the Legislature, plus a popular new governor, the Democrats have essentially rolled over and played dead for the last two years. The Republican anti-government juggernaut has rolled through Olympia with its mind-boggling array of whacked-out legislation, from the tough-on-crime bills the cops begged them not to pass to biblical social engineering, corporate welfare, and the gutting of anything that hinted at help for society's less fortunate.

In the face of this determined ideological onslaught, photogenic Gov. Gary Locke has played moderate Republican with his budgets and vetoes, auditioning (dream on) as Al Gore's running mate. Seattle legislators, the ones with safe, unopposed seats, the ones who can take risks and rally the public on key issues, have mostly chosen to sit around and whine about how uncivil it all is.

Encouragingly, since Frank Chopp (D43rd District) took over as Democratic caucus head a few months ago, he's been much more aggressive about articulating a grassroots, citizen-driven vision of what government could be. That's the kind of party support Linda Smith and Bruce Craswell started cultivating 10 years ago, which translates (eventually) into legislative and ballot muscle.

If the Democrats in Oly are serious about having an alternative, now is the time. Whether they get the opportunity, and whether we should care about the party of Sims, Locke, and Patty—and whether we are in for two more years of the Dickensian same around here—is the big question on the November 3 ballot.

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