Is Sally Clark Untouchable?

The City Council's shortest-tenured member has drawn no re-election opposition, despite her reputation as "caution on roller skates." Chalk it up to Seattle Nice.

Sally Clark starts most weekdays not at City Hall but on Lake Washington. Hours before she showers, Seattle's newest City Council member puts on sweats and heads to the Mount Baker Boathouse between darkness and dawn—that time of day when you can't tell where the water ends and the slate gray sky begins.

On this particular morning, there's a slight drizzle, though not a breath of wind, and Clark is rowing sweep in a four-person boat. They practice their starts. They perfect their timing. They pay little attention to the dark city skyline looming behind them, or the cars winging around Lake Washington Boulevard.

Clark, who picked up the sport on an intramural team at the University of Washington, has been rowing three days a week with the Conibear Rowing Club's masters women's team for a decade now. She likes the peace and quiet, but she also comes for the challenge. "When it comes together on the water, it's a pretty amazing feeling. It's beautiful," Clark says. "There are days that it doesn't come together at all. That can be mental as much as anything."

Rowing in the morning mist on a serene urban lake is classic Seattle. It's also an apt metaphor for the City Council's modus operandi: doing what it can to guard against all but minor waves, so as not to tip the boat off balance.

The political ethos here is a culture of aspiring to make everyone happy. We don't like conflict; we like consensus. And we don't care how long it takes to reach it. Seattle's City Council members, though elected, pride themselves on not being political. City Council seats, though coveted, are often notcompetitive.

This dynamic is something that locals and politicians alike refer to as "Seattle Nice."

"This isn't Chicago," says council member Richard Conlin, referring to the birthplace of Mayor Greg Nickels. "We're not very good at making deals and making threats."

Conlin calls Seattle politics "orderly." He chalks this up, in part, to the city's Scandinavian heritage. "People don't get emotional about things," he says. "There's a sense that it's a clean government and you shouldn't make waves."

Clark is not only a product of this genteel political culture; she could be the poster child for it. She's known for bringing all sides together and working through the issues, but she has yet to take a calculated risk on anything of substance, to the point where political consultant Blair Butterworth calls Clark "caution on roller skates."

"There's nothing in her background makeup that has a leadership edge to it," he says. "Her style is conciliatory and compromising. That's fine. It's OK to have one or two people on the council who are like that. It isn't her fault, but you can't have more."

Former council member Tina Podlodowski agrees that the current City Council could use a little more "sting." "They're too nice to each other," she says. "They're too nice to the mayor. They're too nice, period."

The 40-year-old Clark, a Portland native, cut her teeth at City Hall as an aide to Podlodowski. After that, she landed a job in the Department of Neighborhoods as a development manager for Southeast Seattle and worked for King County Council member Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle, for a spell before joining the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, where she oversaw advocacy and public policy.

In 2005, when Jim Compton decided to step down from the City Council, Clark, along with more than 100 other hopefuls, threw her hat in for the seat.

After a few rounds of show-us-your-stuff, council members whittled the pool to five contestants, a process Butterworth calls "half beauty pageant, half debutante ball." In the end, Clark beat out five women of color—Stella Chao, Ven Knox, Sharon Maeda, Dolores Sibonga, and Venus Velázquez—and was appointed to the City Council in January 2006.

She had to campaign for the seat again in November 2006, but faced no serious challengers (perennial candidate Stan Lippmann notwithstanding). Clark is up for re-election again this year, and so far no one's decided to take her on—again.

James Bush, a County Council aide and former City Hall scribe at Seattle Weekly, said there's something to the Seattle Nice ethos that may explain the lack of challengers for Clark, or anyone else, this year. (Of the four incumbents up for re-election in 2007, only one faces competition thus far.)

"I think there's an ethic among Seattle voters that once you're elected, your job is like a job," says Bush. "Unless you do something wrong, they're not going to fire you."

In fact, council members almost have to do three things wrong, Bush says, referring to the 2003 election—the last time a handful of incumbents were tossed out. "In that election, it was Strippergate, the electric rates issue, and the general feeling promoted by the daily newspapers that the council was silly and irrelevant," he says. "Putting out an incumbent council member requires running against the council as an institution."

Most observers agree that Clark has done a good job in her chosen role as humble consensus builder. But even her staunchest supporters think it's time for Clark to find her voice on the council—and for her please-everyone honeymoon to come to an end.

Ask around about Clark and the same set of adjectives surface time and again: articulate, funny, smart, thoughtful, and genuine. The King County Council's Ferguson, for one, is a big fan. Before she worked for him, Ferguson and Clark met when he was student body president at UW and she was editor of the student newspaper. He jokes that The Daily never endorsed him, but says he doesn't hold it against Clark.

She's still the same thoughtful and methodical person he knew as a Husky, Ferguson says, adding that Clark has done a good job of being the new kid on the City Council, a role that's not always easy. "For her it might have been particularly challenging because of the way she came on," he says. "Campaigning forces you to drum up support, knock on doors. People get to know you. Considering the challenges, she's done great."

Despite a fondness for his old friend, Ferguson says he would've lost money if he'd placed bets on whether Clark would be challenged in 2006. "Not because of Sally, but because of the fact that she was appointed," he reflects. "Anybody would've expected her to immediately have a challenger. I think she's great, but let's face it: She was brand-new."

There are a lot of theories about why no one ran against Clark in 2006: She had money and the support of the City Council and prominent insiders, and she (and the city) had just been through a long appointment process. But Ferguson doesn't buy any of these supposed reasons, and remains at a loss for a clear explanation.

Velázquez, one of the finalists for Clark's seat, thinks the city's genteel political culture may help explain it. "People thought, 'Give her a shot. Give her a chance,' theorizes Velázquez. "She got a gift; now she's got to prove it."

But not everyone buys the Seattle Nice theory. Darryl Smith, a Rainier Valley Realtor and community activist who also competed for the appointment, says being polite is not why he and the other council hopefuls haven't challenged Clark. "It's not that we wanted to let her see what she can do," he says. "The nomination was, in a sense, a mini-campaign. Maybe people felt like they just ran."

"On the surface, we're very nice here," he adds, noting that he's from New Jersey. "But there's a little rough-and-tumble underneath."

The whole Seattle Nice thing is overrated, agrees political consultant Cathy Allen. "It's not that we're nice; it's that we share most basic values," she says. "We don't fall neatly into the we-they paradigm."

Smith says the bottom line is that Clark is a formidable candidate. "She's doing a good job," he says. "Also, it costs a lot of money. People say, 'How am I going to unseat someone who has the support and the money?'" (At the end of April, Clark had raised more than $100,000 and will likely raise upwards of $300,000 before the ballots are cast.)

Smith thinks more challengers will surface in 2009, when incumbents Jan Drago, Richard McIver, and Nick Licata are all said to be considering retirement. While the possibility of open seats is always enticing, Smith says the question for him this year was one of timing, both for his family and for the coalitions he's incubating.

Butterworth, who has a story for just about everything and a long memory of local political lore, says he's disappointed there aren't more quality candidates in the mix this year. He adds that the city's ethos of niceness is there, but it's not always genuine. "It's more of a civic malaise and a lack of engagement," he says. "People aren't engaging because they don't want to, or they just don't care. We need a new generation of civic leadership."

It appears this is unlikely to materialize this time around, though candidates have until June 8 to sign up for the 2007 contest.

Ferguson likes to tease Clark about never having run a real race. (She acknowledges this as a long-standing joke and a taunt Ferguson is licensed to give, since he had to knock off longtime incumbent Cynthia Sullivan in the primary to win his seat on the County Council.) "I keep telling her, 'Your time will come,'" he says. "Politically, she's leading a charmed life right now, and I think she knows that."

On the first warm day of spring, Clark has opted to venture out of her comfy office for some fresh air and rare April sunshine. She grabs her water bottle and settles within earshot of the waterfall that lines the sprawling staircase outside City Hall. Here, Clark says it wasn't a moment of epiphany that made her decide to vie for the nomination, but rather one of practicality.

"I figured if this was something I'd like to do, it was a good time to do it. It wasn't that I thought, 'This seat shall be mine,'" she says, pumping her fist and lowering her voice to complete the faux-villain persona. "But if I was going to do it, I wasn't going to do it half-assed.

"I figured, I'd do my best and whatever happens, happens," she adds. "I looked at the list and saw that there were plenty of people I'd be proud to have represent me on council. I thought, 'This is not going to be me.'"

And when she got it? Clark breathes: "It was a surprise, privilege, life-changing, scary, exciting, and a great opportunity."

It's only natural that people wanted to see a race that first year after she won the nomination, Clark says, but she admits that surprise wasn't her only reaction when no one signed up. "If I was an outsider, I would've liked to have seen a healthy contest, debate, etc.," she says. "But honestly, I felt relief."

And this year, still no challenger. "I know!" she says, flashing a big smile.

Clark can explain, in layman's terms, just about anything you need to know about the policy questions and issues she's working on. Ask her about the upcoming review of the neighborhood plans, and without a hiccup, she'll give you background, context, details, and next steps. What she's less apt to do is let you know where she stands.

Clark is well aware of her thoughtful nature and "nice" reputation. She says it's even baffled the mayor, who's asked her on occasion how she makes decisions. "I try to take in information, weigh both sides of the issue, but at the same time, I don't want to leave people twisting in the wind," she says. "They call me contemplative, which is code for, 'What are you thinking?'"

There are times to get involved in neighborhood debates, and there are times to keep quiet, Clark reasons. "I believe there's a level of discourse we need to maintain," she says. "It's not just Seattle Nice; it's a way to keep people talking without cussing and screaming at each other."

And Clark is perfectly comfortable with being seen as contemplative. "I don't think that's a bad thing when we have so many complex problems to tackle," she says.

If Sally Clark is Seattle Nice, then Venus Velázquez is a completely different kind of character—and she knows it. Velázquez has an in-your-face persona that has both helped her get things done and made her a lightning rod for critics, particularly those who prefer a more mannerly way of doing business.

"We're not tough politically here," Velázquez says, sitting in her Rainier Valley home a few blocks off Lake Washington. "There is a veneer of niceness that exists in this town. When you push against it, people don't appreciate it. They feel uncomfortable."

Velázquez is the only finalist for the 2006 appointment running for City Council this year, one of four people vying for the open seat currently held by Peter Steinbrueck, who has announced he will not seek re-election in order to assume an activist role in the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate. Sporting a pumpkin orange, long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans at a desk in her living room, Velázquez says she "probably had the most fun but has the most scars" from the appointment contest.

"There were people lobbying against me," she says. "I have done things in this town and have detractors, but detractors come from when you do something, when you get engaged. I'm proud of my work, proud of my style, even if it's not considered by most as Seattle style."

While working to help implement the Growth Management Act in the 1990s as a project manager in the city's neighborhood planning office, Velázquez was in the middle of West Seattle's emotional effort to secede from the city of Seattle. Again at the center of controversy, she was the spokesperson for CASA Latina when the organization tried in 2005 to move from Belltown into the then-vacant Chubby & Tubby building in Rainier Valley, a relocation opposed by Darryl Smith.

Velázquez says her experience vying for the Compton vacancy cemented her desire to be on the council—and taught her volumes about herself. "Sally got a seat. I got a good mirror," she says. "I walked away with things I need to do better."

"I still need to get things done," she adds. "There isn't always going to be a resolution where everybody gets their way. Nobody in this town wants anybody mad at them. The mayor drives hard, but he gets things done. The council is paralyzed by that. I'm not."

Butterworth agrees that the City Council has become increasingly marginalized. He says one barometer of this is the business community's lack of involvement. He says business interests haven't supported council candidates other than the "mandatory salutes" for more than a decade. "[Business leaders] seem to be passive, which means they're unbelievably lazy or they don't feel [the council is] that important," he says. "My guess is that it's the latter of the two. The mayor is clearly the major player." (A dynamic highlighted a few months ago when Nickels gave his state of the city address to the Rotary Club, marking the first time in city history the speech had been delivered outside of City Hall.)

But Butterworth says it's not just the business community that's uninterested in the council. "I'm not quite sure who really thinks the City Council is on the cutting edge of anything. I don't think the neighborhood groups do, either," he says. "Part of the general sense is that Seattle is reasonably directionless right now. There isn't a really strong vision. City Council is supposed to be the policy setters for the city. You wouldn't know it necessarily, but it's a policy-making body."

Velázquez says Clark was the "safest pick" for City Council, but questions whether she was the right choice: "She's really smart [and] she's really nice, but has she created a vision for the city? An idea for where we're going?

"We have five seats up, and three of them have no opponents," adds Velázquez. "Where are they? Where are the 100 who ran for the nomination? It takes time and money, I know. But in this town, it's so much easier to criticize than to create."

For Velázquez, though, the open seat this time around was just too tempting. Plus, she says she's already competed against Clark— and that Clark is a formidable opponent because she's got the local "cabal" of City Hall insiders behind her.

But, Velázquez says, "I wish everyone had an opponent. It would energize the city. It would force newbies like Sally Clark to define their positions."

Despite her lack of competition, Clark's days of keeping a low profile are numbered. Her Economic Development and Neighborhoods Committee has a really hot potato to tackle this spring: the city's nightclub ordinance. Council President Nick Licata gave Clark the mayor's nightlife proposal earlier this year, perhaps as a bit of a nod that it's time for her to leave the nest.

"Her bailiwick wasn't full of heavy stuff," Licata says from his corner City Hall office, between bites of a frosted Top Pot doughnut. "I asked her to take it, and she said, 'Yeah.' I admire that in an election year. It's a tough issue, one that has legitimate arguments on both sides."

The arguments go something like this: Condo owners in neighborhoods like Belltown are sick of the noise and crowds that bars and clubs bring. They want the city to crack down. The mayor wants more tools to shutter problem venues, and is proposing a new license that requires owners to keep noise down and help police the streets. But nightclub owners say this is unnecessary, that the city should enforce the rules that are already on the books. They warn that a new license will have a chilling effect on business and the nightlife community.

Both sides have formed coalitions and are actively lobbying the council. A committee meeting last month saw council chambers nearly full (an unusual sight), with people lining up to speak their minds.

"We can't keep waiting for a perfect solution," said one Pioneer Square resident. "We need people to come to the table. A vibrant nightlife shouldn't be a violent nightlife."

"I'm not a fan of the new legislation. I think it jeopardizes our way of life," countered a bar owner.

Clark, her cheeks their signature rosy pink, sat with her chin in her hands, listening intently and thanking most of the speakers by name. Her committee can either accept or rewrite the mayor's proposal (or both) before sending it to the full council for a vote. Clark will likely unveil her plan in the next couple of weeks. Though not normally a night owl, she's been dogged in her research, venturing out into Pioneer Square, Belltown, and Fremont around closing time on weekends and talking with police, bar owners, and neighbors.

So far, amazingly, she's managed not to anger anyone. "She's done a good job of keeping people calm the table," says council member Conlin.

Asked if she's going to reject the mayor's proposal and craft her own ordinance, Clark is characteristically pensive. "I'm going to take a stand on a package that has a number of elements," she says. "I'm looking at whether the new license is necessary. If I don't go with that, I will have to ensure that I can accommodate the same public-safety goals either by tweaking or adding to the current statute." Clark also plans to consider possible changes to the city's nuisance and noise ordinances.

Though most agree that navigating the nightlife morass would be a test for anyone, many see it as Clark's coming-out party—her opportunity to finally put her stamp on something.

"The nightlife ordinance is her first significant issue," says council member Drago. "She's going to try and find a better solution than what the mayor's proposed. It will be the first issue people identify with her and remember."

Licata says identification is precisely the challenge Clark faces.

"At some point, we all have an image in the community," he says. "Right now, her image is as a good, solid council member, but people want more than that. They want to know, 'What's your passion? What are your interests? What's going to be your legacy?' You can be contemplative to a point, but you can only have so many contemplative council members. We need some who are willing to draw blood."

Like her former boss, Podlodowski, Clark regularly takes her committee meetings to the neighborhoods. Last month, she helmed a Bitter Lake residents' hearing about everything from P-Patches to potholes.

"For those of you who didn't see it, there was a great T-ball practice happening on the way in, some very small people trying to make contact!" Clark says as she waits for folks to get settled. "I'm not even going to mention the ball game and that [the Mariners] were down 6-2 when we got out of the car."

At Bitter Lake's community center, young and old alike nibble on the frosted sugar cookies they grabbed at the door and settle into the rows of folding metal chairs. "Welcome to the neighborhood, Lois. Thanks for coming out," Clark says in response to a gripe about the lack of bus service. "I'm going to do an awful thing: Can I ask you to come up to the mike and introduce yourself for the record?" she asks a woman who shouts a complaint from the audience.

Clark obviously misses the hands-on nature of the neighborhood work she did before joining the City Council. "For me, it's about being out there," she says. "Now, I get to parachute in and enjoy the benefits of other people's work."

Podlodowski feels Clark may well become that "neighborhood voice" on the council, but says she needs to be louder.

"You've got to get out there and show what you've done. She's getting better about that," Podlodowski says, adding that Clark's quick wit often shines behind closed doors. "I've told her she needs to bring this out more. It will help her stand out, but she's also smart enough to know that you can't please everybody."

Jim Diers, Clark's former boss at the Department of Neighborhoods, says he's disappointed she hasn't been a stronger advocate for neighborhoods on the council. He says the neighborhood planning program, neighborhood leadership program, and neighborhood matching fund have all taken huge hits in the budget under the current mayor—and that Clark has done little to try to restore funding. However, Diers says that he's encouraged by Clark's recent efforts to get the city auditor to review the city's progress in implementing neighborhood plans.

Diers says he supported Clark during the nomination process, but that he also supported rivals Chao and Maeda. "I had a question about Sally," he says. "I was a little surprised that she was going on the council. I knew she had a real strong commitment to the community, but I didn't know where she stood on things. When she ran last year, she asked for support. I said I was waiting to see where she stood on the issues."

Diers says Clark has also asked him for his endorsement this year, but he remains noncommittal. "I really like Sally," he says. "She's very smart; I think she's got a lot of integrity. But I've been disappointed she hasn't raised more questions with the executive. She hasn't created a lot of waves, hasn't done anything controversial. One the other hand, she hasn't taken any of her own initiatives, either."

Podlodowski agrees. She says it's time for Clark to emerge as a leader, to help make the council a place where things aren't processed to death, to help ensure its members and their voices are not irrelevant.

And maybe, every once in awhile, be a little less nice.

"It happens in everyone's political career. It's time for her to come out on the issues," says Podlodowski. "I'm a big supporter of Sally Clark. She gets it. My challenge to her is to lead the five. Find five votes and lead them on the tough issues. Get the work done. She can do it."

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