Island Seattle

The city elects moderates and backs civility while in the state, a tax rebellion burns.

"WE HAVE FOUND a new way to do business in Olympia," intoned state Republican Party chair Dale Foreman. "No taxation without representation."

Fortunately the Initiative 695 campaign party was being held in downtown Bellevue, or else the crowd might have stormed out of the Hyatt Hotel and tossed crates of tea into Meydenbauer Bay. Having slashed the cost of car tabs to $30 and forced a public vote on any tax or fee increase, the crowd was ecstatic, yet still so angry, they were damn near vibrating. Foreman taunted the enemies vanquished by I-695's 60 percent statewide draw: Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business, and Big Media. Tim Eyman, the founding father of this latest tax revolt heaped special scorn on Governor Gary Locke and King County Executive Ron Sims for what he considers their campaign blunders. "We could never have won without our opponents," crowed the clean-cut Mukilteo watch salesman. "You can never underestimate the sheer stupidity of government."

As the fires of the tax revolt burned, across the lake in Seattle, the blaze could be taken as simply the lights of the Bellevue skyline. Big-city voters proved as mild as state voters were wild, backing moderate City Council candidates, opposing I-695, and approving the Seattle Center/community centers property tax levy by a comfortable, if not spectacular, margin.

But political reality is coming quickly to Island Seattle. Celebrating with newly-elected City Council candidate Jim Compton, Mayor Paul Schell said the city has already prepared its post I-695 budget (minus approximately $20 million in now-missing state revenues) for an immediate debut. And, having gained election on a moderate platform stressing new investment in transportation and neighborhood amenities, new council member Compton will find the cupboard relatively bare. "It really undermines the things we were hoping to do," says Compton, who notched a 55 percent to 45 percent win over former state legislator Dawn Mason.

Longtime television commentator Compton should have a soulmate in Heidi Wills, a young Ron Sims aide who brushed off venerable former council member Charlie Chong by a similar margin. While Chong had promised to bring his confrontational neighborhoods-first spirit back to City Hall to fight for "the little guy," Seattle residents preferred the well-funded, relentlessly positive Wills, who boasted the support of Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business, and Big Media.

Obviously the villains taking a beating in the rest of the state are getting a free pass within Seattle city limits. Compton says his campaign was careful not to get drawn into stressing divisions between downtown and neighborhoods. "I think it's a bunch of constructive new people coming on to council," he says. "They see the glass as half-full."

Brian Livingston, director of the Civic Foundation, a neighborhood watchdog group which supported Chong and Mason through an independent expenditure campaign, says his side just plain got outspent. With bigger campaign war chests, the backing of the two daily newspapers, and a pair of last-minute business-funded independent expenditure campaigns, it's no wonder Chong and Mason couldn't keep up, he says. Livingston is especially annoyed with Safe Streets and Parks for All, an independent expenditure campaign funded largely through a $25,000 donation from Microsoft millionaire turned anti-homeless crusader Dick Brass. While Chong and Mason had criticized laws aimed at the homeless, including the parks exclusion ordinance and a ban on sitting on downtown sidewalks, the group implied that the candidates opposed all of the so-called "street civility" laws. Important issues went undiscussed, he says, while candidates were forced to waste time explaining that they didn't support legalizing public urination.

THE THIRD OPEN seat council race, pitting newcomer Judy Nicastro and former Council member Cheryl Chow was too close to call, with Nicastro nursing a narrow one-point lead with more than half the city's absentee ballots waiting to be counted. Incumbents Margaret Pageler and Peter Steinbrueck easily won re-election.

And, candidate-wise, the future looks especially bleak for Seattle's glass-half-empty crowd. Both Chong and Mason have now lost consecutive elections, generally a sure sign of impending candidate retirement. Pageler's challenger, Curt Firestone, ran a respectable campaign, but failed to disprove the adage that challenging a Seattle council incumbent is political suicide. Schell speculates that the newcomers' success is a message from voters that "it's time for the next generation."

Or maybe Seattle voters have bought into the constantly repeated refrain that the state is experiencing peak economic times. We've read about it, reply the non-urban masses, but we haven't seen it. Ed Owens, who chaired the campaign against Initiative 696 (which would have banned most commercial fishing in Washington waters) says I-695 passed while I-696 failed because of one major factor: "personal greed." Campaign research on the no-net fishing initiative found that voters liked the concept of saving salmon (the claimed purpose of the proposed net ban), but simply weren't willing to pay much to accomplish it. The only economic boom some have seen is a boom in property taxes. Although Seattle voters may not be feeling overtaxed, this optimism doesn't extend far beyond city limits.

The split between the state's largest city and the outlands is nothing new. Seattle has elected only Democratic legislators for the past decade, yet both houses of the legislature have fallen into Republican hands. In recent years, state voters have also limited state spending (Initiative 601), attempted to block rising property taxes (Referendum 47), and dumped affirmative action programs (Initiative 200), generally over the objections of the Seattle electorate.

But net ban opponents credit the crushing defeat of I-696 to another piece of information: voters suspected the initiative was misleading. Right you are, responded the "no" campaign. It drove home this point through television advertising urging voters to take a closer look at the initiative and a public education campaign featuring environmentalists and fishermen closing ranks in opposition to the measure.

At least the initiative train shows signs of slowing. King County voters defeated a charter amendment that would have allowed the County Council to send issues directly to the voters. This is also the second painful whipping absorbed by groups who want to ban commercial fishing and the anti-taxers show signs of shifting their concentration to the next round of state races. A major dose of painful cuts in government services may yet cool the ardor of the public for government-bashing initiatives. Tax-cutter Foreman has designs on the governor's office. And Eyman, who also was one of the creators of anti-affirmative action Initiative 200, now says he wants to take a break from the citizen democracy business.

Seattle officials might want to get that last promise in writing.

Reporting assistance by Knute Berger.

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