Splitting up Seattle

Perhaps some strange, unexplainable phenomenon occurred during the winter solstice, turning Seattle into a parallel universe in which everything is backwards.

How else can you explain Seattle Times editorial page editor Mindy Cameron's sudden interest in, and enthusiasm for, the concept of electing Seattle City Council members by geographic district? The district elections concept has generally been associated with empowering neighborhoods and de-emphasizing downtown spending, neither of which has been on Ms. Cameron's to-do list. Just five years ago, the Times edit page joined a host of powerful politicos and business types in successfully opposing a city district elections initiative.

But much has changed since 1995, including seven of the city's nine council members. And Cameron clearly doesn't care much for the new kids. Which helps explain why she's misplaced her past ardor for the council's current at-large, by-position election system.

Simply put, the current Seattle system is designed to keep incumbents in office. With candidates running citywide, the contender with the best combination of money and name recognition wins the race—incumbents traditionally do well in both these departments.

But even with Cameron enthralled at the prospect of throwing some rascals out, she should do a little more homework before bringing the Times wrecking ball down on City Hall.

For starters, it's very hard to predict which incumbents will thrive under a district system and which will wilt. The focus of Cameron's ire is a council that generally votes her way, but by narrow margins (5-4 or 6-3). A switch to districts could actually end up costing her allies their thin council majority. It could also benefit her rivals: The populist bent of Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro, the only two incumbents not endorsed by the Times in their last run for office, makes them well-suited for district races. (Nicastro, a renter elected on a renters' rights platform, is uniquely able to shift her place of residence once the district lines are drawn, while carrying her issues with her.)

In 1995, the loose consortium of neighborhood activists and small business owners pushing the initiative had two clear objectives. First, they hated all nine incumbents. Second, that year's officeholders included a clot of council members living in the same general neighborhood. Therefore, a switch to district elections was bound to hurt somebody, and it didn't matter who.

Cameron, on the other hand, is battling a council with a far wider geographic distribution.

The most significant change brought about by establishing district elections is that it changes, often dramatically, the profile of an "electable" candidate. Districts reward office seekers who have lived in the same area for many years, been active in neighborhood affairs, and have gained recognition as community leaders.

State legislators, who are elected by district, haven't traditionally fared well in Seattle City Council elections. Their problem is that they poll well among their own constituents but can't keep up in other parts of the city. A switch to district elections would make them automatic contenders.

District campaigns could help de-emphasize the role of campaign money. Most campaigns now use direct mail pieces sent to targeted precincts and voters; a candidate for a district seat could doorbell the entire district.

Debates for district seats would be more substantial. Imagine a neighborhood election forum that consisted of two or three candidates for a single council seat discussing issues for two hours. Currently, a typical Seattle election forum features a dozen or so candidates, each getting the floor for maybe 10 minutes, including the time it takes to field questions from the audience.

Districts would divide the council's constituent work into more manageable portions, lead to more equitable division of city budget resources among neighborhoods, and enhance the value and prestige of leadership positions in neighborhood residential and business groups (as possible stepping stones to office).

There are a few disadvantages. Council members would be more parochial in their voting; favor trading would become standard operating procedure; and pity the district resident who's on the outs with his or her elected representative. At least dissidents now have the opportunity to have nine doors slammed in their face rather than just one.

Also, given this state's lax independent expenditure campaign laws, special interest groups could get more bang for their buck. The $9,947 that landlords spent in hopes of defeating Judy Nicastro in 1999 could have a far greater effect in the limited confines of a council district.

Worst of all, a district system could decrease the power of the two daily newspaper editorial pages in anointing new officeholders. Would the Times really endorse a switch to districts?

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