Musical chair

With only one vacant seat coming up, the Seattle City Council race figures to be uncommonly interesting.

WITH THE CITY COUNCIL primary elections coming up this September, prognostication already has taken on a complexity on the order of Fermat's Last Theorem. Among the variables to consider are not only which newcomers might be running for the council, and why, but how many vacant seats there might be. Depending on whether council member Martha Choe decides to run for a third term—City Hall insiders call that an even bet—there will either be one or two vacant seats, since Sue Donaldson already has announced her retirement. And council wannabes can also assess the potential vulnerability of three other members—Margaret Pageler, Tina Podlodowski, and Peter Steinbrueck—all of whom are up for re-election, and all of whom have announced their intention to run.

Three new candidates have already registered their campaigns with city elections officials: housing activist Judy Nicastro, Monorail Initiative leader Grant Cogswill, and music producer Douglas Alan Mays. However, three all-but-declared candidates are drawing far more attention: Dawn Mason, a former state representative who lost in her bid to move up to the state Senate last November; Daniel Norton, the former county chair for the Democratic Party; and excouncil member and mayoral candidate Charlie Chong, who has expressed interest in a possible run either for the city or the county council.

Mason and Norton were the star attractions at a recent issues forum held by the Civic Foundation, a government watchdog organization. Although the forum was held for the specific purpose of selecting an issues agenda for its candidate endorsement interviews, potential candidates were strongly encouraged to present issue papers. Mason and Norton were the only two to take the bait. (Chong was convalescing from heart-bypass surgery.) Mason's proposal that the city should adopt a detailed economic plan was given a thumbs-up from the Civic Foundation's membership.

The three unsuccessful open-seat finalists from the 1997 elections are out of the running. Aaron Ostrom, who lost a close race to council member Nick Licata in 1997, last week accepted the position of executive director for environmental nonprofit 1,000 Friends of Washington. "I'm not driven to be an elected official," says Ostrom. Also planning to sit out the race are former council member Sherry Harris and Pike Place Market PDA board member Thomas Goldstein.

Even three viable candidates would represent quite a crowd, since there will be only one open seat. Chong would prefer not to challenge Mason, and might choose to square off against an incumbent.

Other incumbents might also find themselves facing serious challenge through the Seattle Progressive Coalition. The group, founded in the wake of 1997's election of three new council members with strong environmental and progressive credentials, seeks to expand its influence on the nine-member council. Headed by activist Curt Firestone, the progressives are working on an issues statement now, and plan to select candidates later this month. Council member Peter Steinbrueck, elected with the support of the Seattle Green Party and other progressive groups, is expected to be among the endorsees.

The Progressive initiative raises the question of whether grassroots fervor can beat back the powers of money and incumbency. Recent history is encouraging. Adding Chong's 1996 special-election win into the mix, of the last four open seat races, three have been won by the candidate who spent less money and two by candidates whose opponents were endorsed by both of Seattle's politically powerful daily newspapers. (However, each of the winners raised more than $45,000.)

EVEN IF THERE ISN'T much chance of electoral success, Green Party coordinating council member Scott Denburg argues that progressives should try to assure that each incumbent is challenged by a quality candidate. He called last year's re-election of council member Jan Drago a shame, because she was "essentially unopposed."

Although representatives of two business-oriented organizations recently told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that they were seeking candidates more supportive of Mayor Paul Schell's agenda, there isn't any organized effort there. Rollin Fatland, chair of the Alki Foundation, says his organization is simply interested in supporting candidates who understand the importance of a healthy economy. "It's not like I'm in any sort of official capacity recruiting people to run," he says.

Port commissioner Paige Miller, considered to be the top name on the business lobby's wish list, says she's busy co-chairing the Seattle Chinese Garden's $6.3 million capital campaign. "One campaign at a time is plenty," she notes. Former council member Cheryl Chow is also on the recruitment list. Although Chow, a 1997 mayoral candidate, is more closely associated with children's issues, she was considered a dependable vote on downtown business issues during her eight years on the council.

A few more possible candidates: Former city treasurer Lloyd Hara, a founding member of the Civic Foundation, says he's still "checking things out" before he decides on a run. ExSchool Board president Linda Harris has been meeting with current council members to ask about the specifics of their jobs. Onetime Snohomish County Council member Peter Hurley, now a city of Seattle employee, says it's unlikely he'll enter the race. State Rep. Dow Constantine acknowledges he's been contacted about a possible council run, but isn't giving it serious consideration until the Legislature's session ends. "I enjoy the issues in the Legislature," says Constantine, "but I wouldn't rule out running for the City Council—if not this year, someday."

No matter how everything shakes out, it promises to be a colorful election. As Brian Livingston, Civic Foundation administrator, observes, even with only one open seat available, "between Charlie Chong, Dawn Mason, and Daniel Norton, we'll have plenty of excitement this year, even if no other candidates decide to jump in."

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