Must Margaret go?

Council challenger Curt Firestone battles to oust a popular incumbent.

Margaret Pageler is the type of politician Seattle voters love to reelect. Intelligent, focused, and able to study complex issues into submission, the two-term incumbent says she's eager to serve as council president and assume a leadership role on the rapidly changing Seattle City Council.

Not if Curt Firestone has anything to say about it. The veteran political organizer helped form the Progressive Coalition to make sure incumbents like Pageler got a solid electoral challenge and ended up taking on the task himself. He portrays Pageler as a career politician who has overstayed her welcome. Voters who have never heard his name come up and pledge their support when they find out who his opponent is, says Firestone. "Margaret's had eight years of creating dissatisfaction."

Of course, when you see a good fight brewing, it's always tempting to get involved. Which might explain the presence of two last-minute candidates in the race: former police sergeant E. Mike Rodosovich and veteran radio/television journalist Lee Carter. The foursome will be trimmed to a pair in the September 14 primary, and the smart money is on a Firestone/Pageler race.

Ironically, one of the key issues that has alienated some voters from Pageler is already settled. Pageler was one of the last Seattle officials to sign on to a no-logging policy in the city-owned Cedar River Watershed. Originally in order to fund needed work in the Watershed, Pageler backed selective logging. She recently joined the unanimous council vote in support of a no-logging policy.

So what's the issue? Firestone says the Cedar River fight shows how Pageler has lost track of Seattle voters and their priorities. Instead of raising utility bills, Pageler wanted to chop trees, he claims.

Pageler responds that fiscal prudence required that logging be considered, but she switched her vote when she became convinced Seattleites would willingly raise their water rates to save the trees. This issue, she says, demonstrates how she listens to the public.

And rate increases are a big deal to Pageler, who has chaired the council's Utilities Committee for the last four years. Supporters portray her as the guard at the gate, protecting the utilities' coffers from funding-hungry bureaucrats. Mayor Paul Schell knows about Margaret the Utilities Watchdog: Pageler's quick opposition derailed Schell's proposal that the city sell part of the Key Tower to Seattle City Light at current high market rates. The city itself had snatched Key Tower up cheap by purchasing the building out of bankruptcy.

Needless to say, issues like complicated Key Tower machinations and utility rates won't get voters on the edge of their seats—which is where Firestone sees his chance. He's mounted a table-pounding lefty populist campaign, griping about taxpayer-funded stadiums and parking garages while practically dragging City Attorney Mark Sidran into the campaign. It's not a bad tactic: Firestone opposes nearly every one of Sidran's "civility" measures (no sitting on downtown streets, banning rule breakers from city parks), while Pageler has voted for most of them. In fact, during her tenure as chair of the Public Safety Committee, she got the whole Sidran campaign off to a rollicking start.

Firestone's critique of Sidran's "civility" campaign stresses that government "needs to provide people with answers, not penalties." Instead of penalizing people for urinating in alleys, the city should provide clean, safe public toilets, he says. Instead of towing away people's cars to get them to pay parking tickets, the city should work on improving bus service and other transportation options that get people out of their cars. If people cannot pay fines, instead of confiscating their cars, perhaps they could work off their debt through community service, he adds.

On the subject of corporate welfare (Firestone's term) or economic development (Pageler's), Pageler defends the Pacific Place garage deal as a necessary public investment to convince major businesses to locate their retail operations in downtown Seattle. She adds that she tried to bring the parking garage deal into the light of day by having it be part of the 1995 vote to reopen Pine Street through Westlake Park. "I didn't even get a second on that motion," she says.

Firestone agrees a healthy downtown is important, but draws the line at subsidies. "We can cooperate and facilitate, but not pour millions into construction," he says.

A rental property owner, Firestone says he'd support rent control, perhaps with rent increases tied to inflation. He also supports inclusionary zoning, where a set percentage of a developer's new housing must be affordable to moderate-income people.

Pageler says she is philosophically in favor of some sort of rent control, but would want the issue carefully studied to head off unintended economic consequences. "Sometimes the cure is worse than the initial problem," she says.

Of their opponents, Carter has been a campaign surprise, throwing proposals on less-discussed issues into the usual scraps over transit, potholes, and Sidran-style civility. He wants the City Council to hold an election to start rewriting the city charter. Carter proposes reversing the current spin toward regional governance with a new, decentralized city government with a council elected by geographic districts, and neighborhood control over administering parks, development, and other basic city functions. "We have to decentralize the authority over land use issues—communities are the ones that will make decisions about housing densities and housing preservation," he says. "I think the people who live around the parks are the greatest protectors of them. They should have the authority." Carter also proposes that the city spend at least $5 million over the next two years to ready citizens, city employees, and public safety workers for a possible earthquake or other natural disaster. He notes that this proposal drew mostly chuckles on the campaign circuit until a 7.8 quake leveled Turkish cities and exposed that country's lack of disaster preparedness. Carter is appearing at campaign forums but hasn't raised any money.

Rodosovich, a retired police sergeant and former city lobbyist, is making his third run for City Council (he ran most recently in 1989). He says the city's police and fire departments have suffered under the leadership of Pageler, the former chair of the council's Public Safety Committee. "I plan to make [the race] interesting for her, because she hasn't done anything in eight years," he says. Rodosovich would like to see the city reestablish the elected offices of city treasurer and comptroller, saying that taxpayer-victimizing scams such as the sports stadiums and the Pacific Place parking garage could have been avoided had these budget watchdogs been at their posts. He also supports a City Council elected by geographic districts.

Firestone admits that he's taken on a tough challenge in Pageler. "I don't disagree that Margaret is a very bright, capable person," he says. "The question is, 'Is she going to take us in the right direction in the future?'" He won't have long to wait for his answer—if Firestone can't get 35 percent of the primary vote, Seattle voters will be saying, "Four more years for Margaret."

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