THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, they've finally come right out and said what you suspected they've thought all along: Buying things you don't need really is your patriotic duty, whether or not they were made in the U.S.A. By this reckoning, capitalism isn't just our economic system; it's replaced democracy as our political system.
Given this year's additional layer of patriotic gift wrap, heaped onto our usual seasonal onslaught of shut-up-and-buy-it programming, an astonishing thing happened at last Wednesday's meeting of Seattle's School Board. After five years of insistent pressure from the Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools (CCCS), the board finally adopted a policy on corporate advertising in Seattle's schools. Five years ago, under John Stanford, the district actively encouraged such advertising, hoping to cash in on its captive audience (a.k.a. "the kids") for ad dollars. Now, instead, it has voted to "significantly restrict" ads in schools.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the original proposal board committee members brought before the full board last week was to prohibit these ads. There's a helluva difference between "prohibit" and "significantly restrict," especially since nobody has yet defined either "significantly" or "restrict." (Coca-Cola's lawyers are hard at work on the task as you read this.) The poison amendment, offered by Barbara Peterson (up for re-election in 2003), passed 4-3; it's unclear what changes to existing policy will result. (A lengthy debate ensued over the blaring fronts of Coke machines; the entire board seemed to want to tone them down, but they couldn't imagine any kind of language that would mandate it.)
Due to the five-year campaign by parents, teachers, students, and community activists, the district has shifted remarkably on this issue. But with the laudable exceptions of Nancy Waldman and especially the departing Michael Preston, that shift happened in spite of, not due to, its leadership. (After Peterson's eviscerating amendment passed, Preston bitterly noted of the five-year process that "I really think that we've sort of wasted our time.") Afterwards, as is board members' smarmy, dishonest custom, they lavished praise on each other for the process, and on Brita Butler-Wall, CCCS's wonderful and eloquent co-founder. (One envisions a Shakespearean parody, where as the blood gushes out of the chest wound and the protagonist twists the knife in deeper, he offers glowing, flowery praise to his victim. Ugh.) The bottom line: Seattle's kids are not for sale, at least not significantly so, but CCCS and its allies still have lots of work to do.
BUYING PUBLIC OFFICE
Speaking of inappropriate selling, the closeness of this year's mayoral race in Seattle obscured a couple of distressing precedents for future citywide races.
First, there's Greg Nickels' winning formula: run for 18 months without ever really saying very much about who you are, what you've done, or what you would do if elected. Next time, you can be sure that any future candidates will take notice, and anyone not running hard and vague by the previous Christmas will be out of luck. There'd be lots more interest—and a better variety of candidates could run—if we kept the July 31 filing deadline but specified that people couldn't officially start running until, say, July 24. That wouldn't end the early birding, but it might ensure that by the time most people start paying attention (about Labor Day), the race wouldn't already be whittled down to two or three unpalatable choices.
The bigger problem, though, is money. Somehow, few people noticed the 2001 mayoral race's stupifying expense. Happily, money can't buy everything—the man with the biggest war chest, Mark Sidran, lost after all—but without a big bundle, you cannot run and win citywide in Seattle any longer. By the time it's all tallied up, Nickels will have spent over a half-million dollars—and Sidran will have outspent him by a lot. (At least we're not New York City, whose new mayor spent $60 million, largely of his own money, to get the job.)
The prospect of running for Seattle City Council is also essentially unaffordable—a major reason why a lackluster incumbent like Richard McIver, with a $100,000 fundraising advantage, survived a strong challenge from an unmonied Grant Cogswell. The monetary advantage for incumbents wouldn't disappear with a mix of neighborhood districts and citywide at-large seats for City Council, but it would allow less flush challengers to be able to make up more of the difference with volunteers, doorbelling, and a strong connection to a local neighborhood. At present, real campaign finance reform isn't, unfortunately, on the horizon in Seattle. But district elections are. It's time.