Maverick Democrats

Candidates smartly embrace issue-driven populism.

PUGET SOUND IS such a Democratic stronghold that it might not seem like news that Democrats are getting elected: Dog Bites Man! California elects creepy actor! But there is a trend that suggests that maverick Democratshard-to-pigeonhole populistsare making inroads.

Notable is the upset victory of Bob Ferguson over Cynthia Sullivan in the Democratic primary for the northeast Seattle King County Council seat. A shoe-leather candidate knocked out a 20-year mainstream incumbent on the strength of two main issues: skepticism about Sound Transit and a desire to downsize the County Council. Both issues are more typically pushed by GOP electeds, like the Eastside council members, Rob McKenna and David W. Irons Jr., or troublemakers like initiative-obsessed Tim Eyman.

There are stirrings in other areas, too. Former County Council member Maggi Fimia, hardly a toe-the-line Democrat (she fought frequently with her fellow D's), seems to be making a political comeback in a race for the Shoreline City Council, leading an interesting coalition of greens and small-business owners. Add to this bubbling populist pot former County Council member Brian Derdowski. Once a maverick Eastside Republican, Derdowski was defeated by Irons in the GOP primary in 1999. He's now in a November rematch with Irons, but this time Derdowski's a Democrat.

THE CONSUMMATE grassroots candidate, Derdowski has long been a master of suburban coffee-klatch politics. Never really welcome in the GOP, he was an outcast from the beginning, because he beat the party's chosen one in the Republican primary his first time out, not unlike Ferguson. Such cheekiness is an unforgivable faux pas in a party that values loyalty above all else. Worse was Derdowski's uncompromising guerrilla resistance to reshaping King County to please developers like Weyerhaeuser and the odious former Seahawks owner, Ken Behring.

While the Derd was hardly an ideologically pure Republican, it's unlikely that he will prove to be a politically correct Democrat, either. Though he says he's more comfortable in his new party, Derdowski remains a dedicated populist coalition builder. A hallmark of his time on the County Council was a political base composed of environmentalists and conservative property-rights advocatesquite a feat in the polarized Cedar County secession days of the 1990s.

Derdowski is for the little guy, a promoter of small ball in politics. He'll take friends and allies wherever he can find them, issue by issue. It's the strength of his political style. It should be noted that the County Council Democrat whom Derdowski most loathed was the just-defeated Sullivan, who, among other negatives, was too developer-friendly for the Derd's tastes. But Derdowski also rubs some people the wrong way, especially mainstream, establishment types. He received an "unqualified" rating from the Municipal League (they didn't return my call asking for an explanation). The ridiculousness of the rating is a discredit to the league. How can he be unqualified for an office he previously held? But the rating is indicative of Derdowski's permanent outsider status, regardless of party.

BRIAN DERDOWSKI WOULD argue that he didn't leave the GOP. The party left him. The former Nixon supporter is unhappy that Republicans are so totally aligned with corporate Americathe big guys. This runs counter to his grain. He was one of a few local elected officials who hit the streets during WTO. Unlike then-fellow-Republican Dave Reichert, the county sheriff, Derdowski wasn't swinging a nightstick. He was marching with the protesters.

His commitment to the grassroots is unshakable. He's opposed to cutting down the size of the County Council because it means districts will be bigger, and fewer elected representatives means government will be further removed from the people, he says. On the other hand, he's in favor of Seattle switching to district elections, like the county, because it will make it easier for grassroots candidates to occasionally beat big-money interests. Ferguson probably couldn't have defeated Sullivan if they'd been running a countywide race; districts keep shoe leather in the equation.

Derdowski sees his current effort to unseat Irons as a mirror of national politics. He's taken to calling Irons "Junior" or "Dubya," trying to tap local resentment toward Bush and galvanize suburban Democrats (yes, they exist). The race will likely be decided, though, on local issues like transportation and growth. Nevertheless, there are some parallels: Irons is a mediocrity funded by fat cats. Unlike Bush, however, Irons doesn't have the support of his father, who has again endorsed Derdowski.

THESE MAVERICK DEMS are worth paying attention to. The local GOP has made a mistake in not taking suburban greens seriously; urban Democrats would be similarly foolish not to take populist restlessness seriously. Eyman tapped into anger people felt over the cost of their car tabs; already, there is vocal unhappiness with the unfairness of how the monorail tax is assessed on cars registered in Seattle, leading to tax evasion and grumbling. As Gov. Gary Locke and Gov. Gray Davis both discovered, woe unto those who get between people and their cars, even in a good cause. Ferguson might also be a bellwether on how many people feel about a bloated County Council that is presiding over a shrinking county. Lingering anger over Sound Transit and the stadium projects is out there; so is frustration over Seattle's schools, the Seattle City Council, and Seattle City Light.

Getting government under control isn't just a Republican issue, and a few Democrats have figured that out. The rest ought to be listening.

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