What happens when the self-proclaimed business candidate doesn't get the nod of the city's biggest business organization? Ask Tim Burgess. He's spent the past few months pitching himself as a friend to Seattle's business community, and one of a precious few Seattle City Council hopefuls who actually have experience running a business.
Neck and neck with incumbent David Della in the fund-raising game—as of the end of May, Burgess had raised more than $113,000, with more than $72,000 in the bank, while Della had raised almost $141,000, with more than $84,000 cash on hand—Burgess exuded confidence at the Alki Foundation's annual candidate breakfast forum. He introduced himself as the one who's going to replace "this gentleman," with a dramatic gesture toward Della, and led off his first answer with, "When I'm elected and take office in January...." (The Alki Foundation is the political arm of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.)
Board members smiled and nodded; there appeared to be a mutual courtship in the works. After all, Burgess wants the surface-transit option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, while Della is for rebuilding the outdated structure, a major no-no for most downtown business types. And Burgess is an entrepreneur, co-founding the Domain Group (now Merkle/Domain), a direct-marketing agency that raises money for nonprofit organizations. He also counts REI vice president and general council Catherine Walker, Seattle Sonics executive and Washington State Convention Center board member Terry McLaughlin, Argosy Cruises partner Mary Blackman, and the heads of real-estate shops like the Blume Co. and Wright Runstad among his well-heeled list of donors.
Burgess says he was hopeful he had the foundation's endorsement in the bag. But earlier this month, the Alki Foundation startled many political observers by recommending Della. The announcement didn't just surprise Burgess; it sent shock waves through the business community, resulting in a flood of stunned e-mails in the inboxes of foundation members. Burgess says he got his share of frantic phone calls, too, "and the chamber told me their phones were ringing off the hook," he says.
"I telephoned some of the board members to follow up after the interview," says Burgess. "I clearly would've loved their support."
This is the first time the foundation has endorsed Della. The foundation passed on both him and incumbent Heidi Wills when Della first ran in 2003. The Alki vote is shrouded in secrecy, but some familiar with the discussions say the Della vs. Burgess debate wasn't even contentious—that the decision to back Della was unanimous.
"Della is a proven entity," says Alki Foundation Executive Director Kelly Ogilvie, adding that Della has a record of supporting business by pushing things like the maritime jobs study and voting against items like the $25-per-employee "head tax" and commercial parking tax as part of the council-backed "Bridging the Gap" funding plan to pay for transportation projects.
For his part, Della says he worked hard for the Alki nod and was mindful of their support when casting votes like the one against the head tax. "In order to have a strong economy, you have to have strong businesses," he says.
Despite Bestowing his foundation's recommendation elsewhere, Ogilvie characterizes support for Burgess in the business community as "strong." "There are lots of advocates for Burgess and lots for Della," he says. "There was division in the business community over whom to support."
Some members of the Alki committee that conducted candidate interviews say Burgess' vocal involvement in the ongoing fight to keep a QFC from displacing Upper Queen Anne's Metropolitan Market didn't help his cause. (Burgess, a co-founder of Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth, made the neighborhood's case against the grocery store's plan in a meeting before the Seattle Chamber in the spring of 2006.)
Though she says this wasn't her primary beef with Burgess, Fremont landowner and Alki board member Suzie Burke says the QFC fight was clearly an issue for others on the committee. Burke, who was in the room last year when Burgess made his presentation, says some of the committee members felt that "he was confrontational; that as a City Council person, he'd have to be above that."
Burke says her concern is that Burgess had an opinion about land use when it came to the grocery store's plans for his neighborhood, but demurred when asked about issues of land use as part of the Alki Foundation's interview process. "He's a good business guy himself, but he didn't seem to touch on issues like land use and transportation, other than just the very surface level of it," she says.
Burgess, who says he'd been told the QFC fight didn't play well with the Chamber of Commerce, sees it another way: "While I certainly understand business, I wasn't about to give up my neighborhood activism."
Burke, who's donated to Della's campaign, says the bottom line is that the incumbent interviewed "wonderfully well."
"Probably some of the downtown bunch disagrees with him on some things, but everyone at the table was impressed with [Della's] openness," she says.
The other thing that worked against Burgess was his lack of support in minority and ethnic communities, says George Griffin, an Alki board member and CEO of the public affairs firm G3 & Associates. "That was an issue I had from the beginning," says Griffin. "I met with Tim Burgess a number of times. This city may not be as diverse as many with the amount of people of color, but there's a need in my view for a well-rounded candidate, one that can connect with these communities. My hope is that he hears that and does a better job connecting with businesses of color."
Burgess says his involvement with minority communities goes back to the days when he was a police officer in Seattle's East Precinct. Though he says it's a "legitimate observation" that he doesn't have as much support in minority communities as Della has, Burgess says, "I'm proud of the support I do have, and I acknowledge it's an area I've been working on."
Of course, there's also the question of how much clout the Alki Foundation recommendations actually have at the ballot box. The group has been making picks for seven years with limited success in choosing winners. For example, its picks for nomination to the vacant council seat in 2005—Robert Rosencrantz, Joann Francis, Darryl Smith, and Ross Baker—didn't include any of the six finalists. However, the foundation's recommendations, because they're some of the first to come out, can set the stage upon which battle lines are drawn.
Rosencrantz, who also ran for Richard McIver's seat in 2005, says the business community often agrees broadly on the issues, "but on the specifics, often their interests are disparate."
Plus, Rosencrantz says, no single endorsement makes or breaks a campaign. "Voters are clearly looking for candidates who have a broad spectrum of support," he says.
Political consultant and Alki board member Cathy Allen agrees, adding that there are at least 10 different interest groups—environmental groups, women's groups, and ethnic organizations, to name a few—in Seattle that poll better than business.
"In this town, particularly in a time of economic prosperity," Allen says, "business is not the group that gets you more votes, though it might get you more dollars."