Four in, two out

Seattle City Council's hottest race.

This city council race is a peerless stylistic stew. If that weren't enough, there's no incumbent and no clear favorite among the four candidates.

Former state legislator Dawn Mason is a classic hardcore campaigner, bubbling with energy and enthusiasm and always thinking message, message, message. In an interview, an innocent question about what she considers the major issues brought a ten-minute-plus soliloquy on bus lanes, housing density, and noise pollution in the city. "I've knocked on 2,000 doors, I've shaken 30,000 hands, and worn out two pairs of shoes," announces Mason, the only candidate who is on the streets doorbelling.

If Mason is the race's "hot" candidate, ex-KING TV icon Jim Compton comes off so cool as to seem somewhat chilly. The distinguished newsman and last-minute candidate bristles a bit at the intimation that his campaign so far seems insubstantial. But there's no questioning the substance of the man himself. One of the brightest journalistic stars during KING's news glory days, Compton's weekly public affairs show, The Compton Report, ran for more than a decade and his documentaries on such topics dear to the hearts of Northwesterners as Puget Sound water quality, salmon, and health care were consistent award-winners. "My public values are very clear," says Compton. He argues that the council needs people "that know how to ask the hard questions."

If campaigning was a homework assignment, well-prepared Alec Fisken would be an A student. A former financial advisor to the city of Seattle, he also brings diverse private sector experience, having served as publisher of both the scrappy 1970s alternative weekly Seattle Sun and the trade publication Marine Digest and Transportation News. Although roundly criticized as charisma-deficient, Fisken is charming in a low-key way and has shown a self-deprecating sense of humor on the campaign trail. "I've put to sleep whole groups of audience throughout the city," Fisken jokes, referring to his articulate discourses on municipal debt and transportation policy.

The biggest challenge Andrew Scully's campaign has faced is getting people to remember that he's in the race at all. Unlike the well-financed Fisken or the name identification-blessed Compton, his bid to become the council's latest citizen-legislator has been an uphill battle. He jokes that his biggest media coup was being described as "dark horse candidate" in a recent daily newspaper article. "From Nowhere Man to dark horse is a huge jump," he says. But Scully has put together a small-but-eager campaign organization that has seen him included in several Democratic party multiple endorsements (the ever-inclusive King County Democrats endorsed all four candidates) and earned him the sole endorsement of the King County Young Democrats.

The conventional wisdom is that Compton's years on the tube will push him through the primary. One political observer noted that the veteran newsman has always been a respected figure and that KING's broadcast news heyday is fondly remembered among the older Seattle voters who most commonly turn out for primary elections. Mason will bring big numbers from her home district (southeast Seattle's 37th Legislative) and could benefit from her eclectic set of endorsements (from the lefty Green Party to the neighborhoody Civic Foundation). Fisken has strong downtown support and a sophisticated campaign. Scully's only hope is if Compton and Fisken split the middle-aged white guy vote and scores of X-Files fans think his first name is "Agent."

Let's talk issues: Mason argues that Seattle needs to take quick, decisive action to address the city's traffic problems. "We're in a state of emergency in terms of our traffic," she says. Her solution? Tell King County's Metro Transit "if you give us the buses, we'll give you the streets." She proposes that Seattle create bus-only lanes on arterials, persuade Metro to increase bus frequency on major routes, and make the bus the fastest way to get through town at peak hours. Seattle also needs to improve lighting around bus stops, create better bicycle facilities, and up traffic enforcement to protect pedestrians in crosswalks.

Throughout the campaign season, the scandals inside the Seattle Police Department have brought proposals for an independent civilian review board of complaints against officers. Mason supports greater citizen oversight of the SPD, but stresses that she wants a solution that will work. "I've not made it a campaign issue because I think it deserves a thorough analysis," she says, noting that the city needs to find examples of outside police review that have proven successful in other cities.

Compton says he will bring "fresh eyes" and well-established values to controversial council decisions. "What I see is a legislative body that is sometimes bogged down in process," he comments. "I think you need someone to say the public deserves decisions and not more studies." He expressed support for civilian review in police misconduct cases and concern over city policies, such as the city's Parks Exclusion Law, that unfairly target the homeless. Compton wants to send Sound Transit back the drawing board, noting that a light rail solution that stops short of the King/Snohomish County line is unacceptable. The monorail could be a key part of in-city transportation, he says, pledging not to allow it to " die an unnecessary political death."

Fisken notes that the current council's plans for a fancy new $224 million city hall and justice center will exhaust most of the available non-voter approved debt, so he wants the city's next ballot measure to be devoted entirely to neighborhood amenities. The city has to explore ways of closing the $60 million gap in needed parks maintenance and the chronically underfunded street repair budget, Fisken continues. If proposals such as a local-option gas tax and a metropolitan parks district can provide immediate funding, "Let's do it," he says.

Since Sound Transit's $1.8 billion light rail project has provoked such dire criticism in every community it touches—the UW worries about rail's impact on its physics lab and a very vocal group in the Rainier Valley wants a tunnel, not at-grade rail—Fisken wants the transit agency to re-study its route options. He recognizes any further delay may endanger federal funding of the project, but comments, "Spending $2 billion when you think you're making a mistake is a worse risk than the loss of federal funds."

Scully wants to see local governments target tax incentives not just to low-income housing but also to homes designed for families. He backs the formation of a city program to aid police officers and firefighters in buying homes within city limits. His most innovative proposal is a call to create an Office of Legal Ombudsman to aid citizens who are challenging things like public/private partnerships. "When the city is partnered up with Nordstrom, there's an inherent conflict of interest," he says. "You go in as a citizen to these high-priced lawyer and lobbyist meetings and there's a huge intimidation factor."

Whether issues or personality carry the day in September's primary, the four-way vote split among the candidates probably means no clear favorite will emerge—so position 9 is poised to be November's hottest final election race.

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