Sea Change in Seattle

A clean sweep for School Board challengers and a shake-up at City Hall.

SEATTLE VOTERS took a page out of the California playbook Tuesday, Nov. 4, and held an impromptu recall election of their own. All three incumbents on the Seattle School Board went down to defeat, and three of five City Council members trailed at the end of the nights vote counting. Only in the contentious race to change from a City Council elected at large to a body representing geographic districts did the rebel numbers look grim, and even that race showed so much volatility as ballots were counted that it was too close to call. Many who have watched Seattle politics for decades said they had not seen turnover like this since the so-called CHECC (Choose An Effective City Council) rebellion of the early 1970s.

On the Seattle City Council, the electoral and political fallout were more muddled than the clear mandate voters gave the School Board. After the first night of vote counting, there was only one racethat between council energy chair Heidi Wills and United Way executive David Dellain which the incumbent conceded and the challenger declared victory. In other races, it appeared challenger Jean Godden might beat incumbent Judy Nicastro, and Tom Rasmussen would unseat Margaret Pageler. But those contests were awfully close, with a lot of absentee ballots yet to be counted, and two other incumbents, Jim Compton and Peter Steinbrueck, were clearly winners of another term. The jumble of narrow ideological differences between the leading challengers and trailing incumbents led Don Hopps, program director of the Institute for Washingtons Future, to ask: Does all the sound and fury really signify anything? There isnt any direction to this change. It is going to be interesting as the dust settles to see where the direction is going to come from.

OF COURSE, when the dust settles, if Godden and Rasmussen have won and the proposal to carve the city into City Council districts somehow comes from behind to prevail, the muddle would be more like a mandate. Hopps and others noted that the district-election charter amendment, if approved, would radically remake the political landscape in Seattle. In early returns, the charter amendment was ahead, but it trailed by fewer than 2,500 votes by the end of the evening. The dramatic swings made the outcome impossible to predict. If the districts proposal prevails, all nine council seats will up for grabs in 2005, and incumbents who want to remain in office would have to find a neighborhood ward to representand beat back any challengers. With a great many absentee ballots uncounted, however, that was a big if.

The anti-incumbent message rang loudest in the School Board race, after almost a year of bad news about the Seattle Public Schools. There was a $34 million hole in the budget, Superintendent Joseph Olchefske resigned, and a search for his replacement was so poorly handled that finalists withdrew. Just weeks before the election, the board appointed then-Chief Operating Officer Raj Manhas to be superintendent for at least a year. Meanwhile, the electorate was fuming, and a pack of well-organized grassroots reformers waited in the wings.

Actually, fuming is putting it politely. Reform-minded challengers expelled three incumbents. Sally Soriano defeated Barbara Peterson by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin; Darlene Flynn trounced incumbent Steve Brown, 62 percent to 38 percent; and Brita Butler-Wall outpolled School Board President Nancy Waldman, 56 percent to 44 percent. In the lone race without an incumbent, reform candidate Irene Stewart beat Betty Hoagland, 70 percent to 30 percent. Those four and gadfly board member Mary Bass, who was not up for re-election, comprise a five-vote block on the seven-member board which could radically change the direction of the school district. Says Flynn: We all hoped, but I dont think any of us dared [assume], this could happen.

If there was a source of voter discontent, it was a lack of accountability by the board, which preferred duck-and-cover to facing tough issues head-on. Accountability has been a major theme for all our campaigns, and so has open communications, says Stewart. We have a complex organization and tough issues to deal with. We want more people who are going to go in to ask the tough questions. The reformers promise a board that is far more engaged with the public. Theyll likely have plenty of input on everything from the disastrous state of school funding to the status of Manhas.

Former board member Don Nielsen credits the reformers with running a good campaign. In the understatement of the election, he adds: There was so much bad news over the last six months, it would be hard for any incumbent to create excitement about their leadership. He has doubts, though, about what the electoral coup means for the schools. I have concerns about where we go from here, Nielsen says. I dont know what this new boards agenda is going to be-well wait and see.

Incumbents were not in a talking mood election night. Calls to Waldman and Peterson were not returned.

CITY COUNCIL INCUMBENTS were talking. I am grateful to the people of Seattle for the opportunity to have served, Wills said Tuesday. This election was a sea change. It was a hard time to be an incumbent on the ballot. Progressive environmentalist Wills, who is in her first term, ran smack into the energy crisis and presided over Seattle City Light while both rates and the utilitys debt increased dramatically. She also got tangled up in the Strippergate scandal involving questionable campaign donations and illegal meetings with lobbyists over a rezone at Ricks strip club in Lake City. The soft-spoken Della seemed overwhelmed by his victory. He promised to be a change agent, but he was as vague about what kind of agenda he would bring to the council as he was throughout the campaign. As a candidate, he sounded many business-friendly notes, but his roots in gritty union organizing and social services make it hard to pigeonhole him.

While seniors advocate Rasmussen led 12-year council veteran and utility czar Pageler all night, neither side would declare victory or defeat. Barring a remarkable change with late absentee ballots, however, Rasmussen will win. Pageler was among the most conservative membersboth on pocketbook and social issueson a very liberal council. In recent years, she was criticized for being inaccessible by special interests such as environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and advocates for the homeless. Rasmussen promised to have a more open door than Pageler, but like Della he never defined himself other than to promise to pay better attention to constituent service than the incumbent. On election night, even after Mayor Greg Nickels called to congratulate Rasmussen on his victory, the cautious challenger refused to call the race in his favor. He said that even if three of the five incumbents lost, that was not a big mandate for change. Its almost like fifty-fifty, he said.

THE RACE BETWEEN incumbent renters rights advocate Nicastro and former Seattle Times columnist Godden was the closest of the City Council contests. Godden led all night on the strength of her showing among the so-called early absenteesthe oldest, most conservative segment of Seattles electorate. Nicastros totals improved as votes cast by younger people who actually go to the polls were counted. But it will be difficult for Nicastro to pull ahead when the final absentees are added to the tally. While Godden mostly relied on name recognition and her reputation for entertaining writing, she did run slightly to the right of Nicastro, siding with landlords and the business community against the incumbent.P>

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