THE CITIZENS OF the city of Seattle and its civic elite have a fundamental ideological disconnect, and this gap has showed up painfully in this year's mayoral contest.
Excluding Charlie Chong—whose inexplicable, sad appearance on this year's ballot can't be considered a serious campaign—the three leading candidates for Seattle's most powerful job are each uniquely awful. Two of them are certain to advance to November. One will lead the city for the next four years.
Without spending too much time bemoaning their obvious awfulness, here's the breakdown: Paul Schell is dangerously, menacingly incompetent in a crisis. Mark Sidran has built a career by appealing to bigotry and intolerance. Greg Nickels is a liberal in all the bad senses of the word, presiding over what may become the worst taxpayer money sinkhole—light rail—in our region's history. (In one way, Sidran is preferable—at least his worst tendencies can be opposed more easily than fiscal mismanagement or poor judgment.) They all, of course, have other major faults. Schell and Sidran are horrible managers; the least unpalatable, Nickels, has never taken a risk or championed anything in his life. This is leadership?
The dailies are erroneously painting the three as ideologically similar in order to make Sidran seem reasonable. The reference, in the Times' Sept. 2 Sidran endorsement, to the Seattle City Council as "Berkeley on the Sound" (the last three council presidents have been Margaret Pageler, Sue Donaldson, and Jan Drago—Bolshies, all of them!) tells you all you need to know about the distant end of the political spectrum from which Times publisher Frank Blethen views the race. Blethen and Sidran certainly have similar social views: They both despise unions, and if Sidran had a noisy dog next door, he'd probably shoot it, too. (Unless it was a black dog. Then it'd be impounded.)
The Times' task at hand was to minimize Sidran's unique claim on social conservatism, but the three are similar in that they're all closely tied to the city's corporate elite. More than in any other election in memory, a huge swath of Seattle's electorate hates each of the multiple leading candidates for an important office. (Hence, the robust poll numbers for Chong, based solely on memories of past elections.)
Labor, neighborhood activists, nonwhites, progressives, and urban greens each cannot elect a mayor by themselves; but together they certainly could, and they are all essentially unrepresented in this race. Nobody emerged this year to claim that vote. There are other candidates on the ballot, many of whom have platform elements appealing to Seattle's soon-to-be-disenfranchised. But every candidate has flaws—ranging from being unknown, inexperienced, and disorganized (Scott Kennedy, Caleb Schaber) to exhibiting signs of stark, raving lunacy (Richard Lee, Max Englerius, Omari Tahir-Garrett).
THE BAD OLD DAYS
The result is reminiscent of the pre-Chong Bad Old Days, when corporate players routinely had their Bottomless Cookie Jar schemes rubber-stamped by the mayor after 9-0 City Council votes. Challenges to downtown's stranglehold on our city's government have cyclically arisen, but the addition of Judy Nicastro, Peter Steinbrueck, and especially Nick Licata to the City Council was supposed to lead to a more permanent, more equitable balance among the various interests that make up our city.
It won't happen until we develop more folks capable of running for, and winning, the mayor's office. Chong lost in 1997 because he ran a staggeringly incompetent campaign, but also because too many people simply couldn't imagine him as mayor. This year, the idea that a Kennedy or Schaber could competently manage 11,000 municipal employees is simply inconceivable.
There weren't that many slots available for serious challengers this year anyway. But from the community activist side, the possibilities were pretty thin. Licata, Steinbrueck, and Nicastro are at present the only three who could mount a mayoral campaign without starting essentially from scratch in terms of name recognition and broad support. Nicastro was the only one who even publicly considered it, but she waited too long—and she would probably have been too young and inexperienced to win this year anyway. (Among the dozen names on the ballot, there's not one woman.)
In four years, however, a lot can be done. Activists and politicos who want to get serious about creating a city that is not only once again livable, but welcoming to all, have to get serious about training, supporting, and putting before the public viable candidates for the city's top job—and then uniting behind them early enough and with enough money so that they can't be dismissed. Whether Seattle's mayor for the next four years is Schell, Nickels, or Sidran, Seattle will undoubtedly be desperate for a change in 2005. Let's start preparing now.