Throwing the Bums Out

Seattle's recent elections have brought change but not progress.

Another local election season is upon us. With the filing deadline still a month away, all of the four Seattle City Council members running for re-election already face challengers, and more candidates are likely.

Two years ago, Seattle voters erupted in one of our periodic fits of throwing the bums out. Three incumbent City Council members—Judy Nicastro, Margaret Pageler, and Heidi Wills—lost their re-election bids. A fourth, Jim Compton, hung on only because his general election opponent was the execrable John Manning. The Seattle School Board saw even more sweeping change, with three incumbents ousted and a four-person reform slate sweeping to victory as a new board majority.

Today, as voters begin to wonder about the new crop of campaigns, it's worth looking at what was accomplished by 2003's fit of voter pique. The answer seems to be: not much.

In the case of the School Board, voters were clearly punishing board members for a series of poor judgments that had left the district in a huge financial mess in addition to all the other chronic problems that beset large urban school districts. The new batch of board members has been, on balance, more responsive to the public, but it has struggled with the same problems. If the charge of the new board was to make the problems go away, no matter how unrealistic that expectation was, the board has been a failure in many voters' eyes. This year, with two open positions, there may well be a voter backlash against 2003's reform slate simply because it hasn't proved to be a panacea.

The City Council is a more complex situation. No single ideological thread linked Nicastro, Pageler, and Wills, and no common issues swept their challengers to victory. The most commonly cited factors were a perceived "frivolousness" at City Council—a coded attack word used primarily by Nicastro's enemies, with a sideswipe at Heidi Wills' fondness for circus animals—and the overblown "Strippergate" fiasco that ensnared Nicastro, Wills, and Compton in a bit of low-rent, cash-and-carry politics.

But judging the City Council over the past two years—and particularly the performance of the newcomers who beat Nicastro, Pageler, and Wills (Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen, and David Della, respectively)—it's hard to argue that Seattle voters have come out ahead with their clean sweep. For the past two years, Mayor Greg Nickels and his machine have steamrollered the City Council; with the exception of the redoubtable Nick Licata, council President Jan Drago, and, on a good day, Peter Steinbrueck, it's hard to identify any members of the City Council that stand for anything other than themselves. That's particularly true of the newcomers, who have not distinguished themselves in their first two years.

As poorly considered as it sometimes was, Judy Nicastro's ability to be contrarian and to ask hard questions is something the current City Council misses badly. So, too, in its own way, is the steady wonkishness Pageler brought to the table. In getting rid of the status quo, what we got in return was considerably less. Only Della, replacing Wills, can be called a possible upgrade, and that's only because Wills didn't stand for much beyond her own fund-raising prowess.

In the end, what this all adds up to is a lesson in the hazards of having a civic political landscape where only business-friendly liberal Democrats can get elected. In Seattle, elections hinge on personality, money, and swing issues—as in, this year, the Seattle Monorail Project's future—but not on any fundamental ideological or stylistic differences among candidates.

The lesson of the voter revolt of 2003 seems to be that we can throw the bums out all we want, but what we risk getting is simply more of the same with new faces—or worse. Looking over the biggest names among the City Council challengers so far this year—Dwight Pelz, Casey Corr, Paige Miller, and Robert Rosencrantz—none seems to stand apart from the ideological mold that already shapes the council.

We need a City Council that can exercise oversight, one that can stand as a counterweight to Nickels' forceful approach to city politics. So far in 2005, we don't have that, and the temptation is to throw them all out and start over. But before we do, let's remember what happened the last time we tried it. The faces changed, but the problems only got worse.

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