Democracy's dullards

Bill Gates' net worth is roughly equivalent to that of the entire lower 50 percent of the American population.

This is really all you need to know to figure out why the party nominations for the 2000 US presidential race are already all but decided, on a one-dollar, one-vote basis. And why presidential hopefuls keep stumbling through Seattle. It's not to visit the libraries, or Boys and Girls Clubs, or black journalists conventions. It's cuz Seattle is the closest major airport to Medina.

Democracy in this country is in trouble, and the effects are trickling down to even local elections. This fall's city and county council elections are being decided now, in the summer, even before the final filing deadline for candidates. They're being decided on the basis of who is and isn't choosing to run, and how much money the candidates are raising. By the time more people start paying attention, in the week or so before the September primary, only one or two people will have a serious chance of winning each seat, and the issues they talk about—and whether you hear about them—will be largely a function of how much money is being raised now and from whom.

On all of these levels, Seattle's City Council races are surprisingly lackluster. While much can change before the July 31 filing deadline, the broad outlines of the election are in place, and they're of a year in which not many people are running and the candidates aren't raising very much money.

Two years ago, a similar election with three open seats produced a sea change in how the City Council conducts business with the election of a de facto progressive slate in Licata, Steinbrueck, and (to some extent) Conlin. That slate was made possible with Charlie Chong's last minute plunge into the mayoral race—causing Steinbrueck to drop out of the mayoral race and Licata to switch from a losing battle against Jan Drago. Neither would be on City Council today had Chong not run for mayor.

No such filing-deadline dramatics are likely this year. Can a fourth and even fifth and deciding progressive vote be added to council ranks? Given the head start current candidates have in fund raising, such votes would almost certainly have to come from the ranks of current candidates. And the roster isn't very encouraging.

In cities like San Francisco, a dozen people might contend for an open seat. So far in Seattle, we have two or three per race, and none of them are very exciting.

Retreads, blowhards, and weaklings

First, we have the retreads: folks who are de facto front-runners because of name recognition and as such are most likely to survive the primary.

Charlie Chong is running again, having decided retirement didn't suit him. Chong is a populist and, occasionally, a progressive; he sides with community activists more often than not but has still managed to rub many of them the wrong way. His mayoral campaign was something of a travesty, and once he tallies his core of loyal supporters, he faces the challenge of articulating to the unconvinced masses why he should be returned to council.

A better question is why another retread, Cheryl Chow, should be returned to council. Chow has run for both City Council and mayor on a platform better suited to the school board, but her bigger impact is as a consistent vote for downtown interests. As such, she's gotten a big early fund-raising lead, but she's also had trouble explaining why she shouldn't get a school district job where she could directly help kids instead of a City Council job where they're almost totally irrelevant.

The final front-running retread (as of this writing they're evenly distributed among the three open seats) is Dawn Mason. Mason abandoned her safe House seat for a bitter, and losing, campaign last year for state Senate against incumbent Adam Kline. Mason was a nondescript Seattle liberal in Olympia, but her rationale for running, both against Kline and for City Council, seems to be that she is a black woman. Unfortunately, identity politics has produced a host of supposedly progressive but ultimately pro-business council members in recent years—start with Norm Rice—and Mason must do a much clearer job of laying out her stand on social and economic issues.

Among the new voices, the two most likely progressive votes are at this writing running against each other: Judy Nicastro and Daniel Norton. Nicastro created something of a splash earlier this year as an effective advocate of rent control; Norton has a long history as a progressive activist predating his stint as King County Democratic Party head. They are presently running against Chow, and either would be vastly superior; neither has shown signs of a strong campaign yet, however.

Heidi Wills, like Nicastro, lists her past UW student activism as bona fides; she's also a former aide to Cynthia Sullivan (County Council) and Rom Sims, and she's using those ties effectively so far to raise money and support to run against Chong. Also in that race, and with less of a track record, is Ballard community activist Thomas Whittemore. And, lastly, there's Alec Fisken, running against Mason with mucho downtown development money and a lot of bombast.

That's it. There's still 10 days to file, so if you'd like to be on City Council, there's still plenty of room. All it takes is the willingness to give up your life for a few months, raise $100,000 or more, and repeat meaningless platitudes several hundred times a day. With three open seats up for grabs, there would seem to be plenty of opportunity to shape how Seattle makes its public policy decisions in coming years. Does anyone care?

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