SEATTLE INCUMBENTS stank up the ticket, top to bottom, on primary election night. While the ouster of Mayor Paul Schell was widely noted, the general unhappiness with Seattle city government that showed up further down the ticket was mostly ignored. Normally, you would expect City Council incumbents to put up big numbers, 55 to 60 percent, against their overmatched, underfunded opponents. Yet in two Seattle City Council races, incumbents Richard Conlin and Richard McIver failed to draw 50 percent of the vote despite outspending their opponents by huge margins.
Conlin probably has the lowest profile of any council member, mostly due to his self- effacing personality. He is a workhorse who guided the 37 neighborhood plans through the council. These plans, with their emphasis on curb bulbs and community stewardship, would not be headline making even for a more publicity-hungry politician. While Conlin is an upbeat, energetic campaigner, he spouts too much bureaucratese on the trail, which can render his message incomprehensible. He spent around $92,000 and ended up with only 46 percent of the vote.
Second place in the race went to Michael Preston who raised only $3,000, mounted a lackluster campaign, and yet ended up with 23 percent of the vote. Preston clearly benefited from his 20 years of service and five successful citywide campaigns for the Seattle School Board. In addition, Preston is a fine speaker, communicating both his own agenda (video cameras in cop cars, human rights-impact statements for public works), as well as his differences from Conlin (the challenger opposes Sound Transit's light rail, the incumbent supports it).
Even allowing for all this, Ed Zuckerman, a Conlin supporter and muckety-muck at Washington Conservation Voters, was "a little surprised" by Conlin's low totals. "There is clearly some displeasure with the city government," he says. "It has to do with transportation, Mardi Gras, and WTO."But, he adds, "I don't see it as anything overwhelming or anything that says more incumbents are going down."
Preston's campaign has some serious liabilities: He isn't raising enough money to be competitive and his past includes charges of mismanagement at the Central Area Youth Association, as well as criticism for spotty attendance and inaccessibility on the School Board. It seems farfetched that he will be able to upset Conlin, but it certainly makes you wonder what a better-funded, less- encumbered challenger could do.
Which brings us to Grant Cogswell, the monorail maniac. Cogswell, running against the council's transportation czar, McIver, raised $20,000 and came away with 26 percent of the vote. Cogswell combined his short, solid r鳵m頡s an original monorail backer with the energy of a speed fiend and the faith of a zealot to put up solid numbers.
McIver only garnered 48 percent of the vote, despite pulling in $85,000 and doing a nice mail advertising campaign. McIver did a poor job of presenting his own record in public, failing to stress his strong points as a housing expert and an advocate for civil rights. Instead of presenting his accomplishments, he played poor defense, ineptly fending off Cogswell's piercing attacks on his record on monorail and light rail. Political consultant Blair Butterworth notes that McIver has the misfortune to be in charge of the "one area of life, transportation, that people are the crankiest about." Butterworth admired the energy of Cogswell's campaign but thinks McIver isn't in any real danger. A key factor, Butterworth believes, is that McIver is the only person of color on the council, and liberal Seattle is not about to turn him out for a white kid.
But wait!, you say. What about all the thousands of votes that went to other candidates in the McIver-Cogswell matchup? Heath Merriwether, a gay events planner, Stan Lippmann, known for his anti-vaccination views, and Jerome Wilson, an ally of megaphone man Omari Tahir-Garrett, garnered the remaining 17 percent of the vote. People who picked these outsider rebels are surely going to flock to Cogswell's cause!
Yeah, and I'm going to be the chief political columnist for The New York Times any day now. In City Council primaries, there are a lot of voters who don't know any of the candidates. Some people voted for Jerome Wilson because they thought he wrote The Music Man (actually that was Meredith Willson), Stan Lippmann is a familiar name because he has run for office numerous times, and Heath Merriwether is a long and mellifluous moniker. When fringe candidates like these run for City Council, where voter knowledge is often sketchy, they do relatively well, getting thousands of votes. When they run for a higher-profile office like mayor, their totals fall precipitously, down to several hundred votes. In addition, only 27 percent of registered voters turned out for this primary. Thousands of others, mostly middle-aged, liberal Democrats, will be coming to the polls in November. They will be more inclined toward mainstream McIver than edgy Cogswell. Still, the incumbent needs to stay wary because Cogswell shows no sign of quitting.