Are Tuesday's Issues More Important Than Your Obama Vote?

A year after Seattleites danced for their "Change" candidate, a Republican may take over the county, the state could vote anti-gay, and local governments could go broke.

Was it only one year ago that liberal Seattleites were holding each other, dancing in the streets, and sobbing as Barack Obama was voted into office? What a difference a year makes. With the recession relentlessly dragging down wallets and the motto "Change" still echoing in the air, a backlash appears to be in full swing already. A Republican might take over the county, barely-treading-water local governments might drown, and voters may undo a significant piece of civil-rights legislation. With so much on the line, this election will likely have a far bigger impact on the lives of individual Seattleites than last year's ground-breaker. And some of the polling indicates we might be taking a hard swing to the right. Here's what's at stake:Referendum 71Washington has taken a careful and slow route toward making sure all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are treated equally under the law. In May, Governor Christine Gregoire signed the third in a series of bills that elevated the status of gay and lesbian couples who register as domestic partners to that of marriage. They are still denied the "M" word, but if a firefighter dies in the line of duty or a teacher is disabled, their partner is entitled to the state benefits afforded married couples. They also have access to state protections like a prohibition against being fired for taking time off to care for a loved one.The first two laws, one creating domestic partnerships and another giving couples rights in hospitals, among other things, were controversial in Olympia. But once they passed, the voting public accepted them. Not so with the final step; this time, social conservatives armed themselves with a video proclaiming that God ordained marriage for men and women, and started to collect signatures to put the new law on the ballot. They managed to just squeak past the number of signatures required, and Referendum 71, an up-or-down vote on the legislation passed in Olympia, was born.The other two laws will still stand, but that's not enough, says Anne Levinson, one of the owners of the Seattle Storm and chair of Washington Families Standing Together, the campaign committee fighting to keep the law on the books. Levinson says that if Referendum 71 is rejected, it will be a huge step backward for registered domestic partners. "If any one of those three laws is rolled back, domestic partners lose a significant number of legal protections," Levinson says. "No one would say to married couples, if you take away a third of the rights, 'Well, you're still married, right?'"A poll on R-71 by SurveyUSA/KING 5 released Oct. 6 showed 45 percent of voters in favor, 42 percent opposed, and the rest undecided. Throw in some people's lingering squeamishness about gay and lesbian relationships, confusion over whether or not to oppose R-71 thanks to the campaign to keep it from getting on the ballot in the first place, and the tendency of voters to hit "no" on ballot items they don't fully understand, and Levinson has a fight on her hands.She got some good news this week with the release of statewide numbers from the University of Washington's political science department. Their poll showed R-71 with a more comfortable 56 percent approval rate. (Both surveys did a poor job of predicting the results of the mayoral primary.)I-1033Tim Eyman's latest reads like a reasonable idea: It will limit government growth to inflation and population. It's not saying government can't get bigger at all; growth just has to happen more slowly, and any tax money collected above the prescribed level will go toward lowering property taxes. Everyone wins, right? Wrong. The worse things get, the more government we need. With people still out of work, state unemployment benefits and Medicaid are more important than ever. And boom years are when governments do things like build roads and buy buses so we can survive the recessions.The Seattle Times tends to opine in favor of smaller government and tighter controls on taxing and spending, and even their editorial board called the measure a mistake. The Times points to a similar law passed in Colorado in 1992 that ended up crippling school budgets and leaving more low-income kids uninsured over time. That state finally lifted the cap four years ago.While no state Republican organizations have signed on as endorsers of the opposition campaign, even traditional fiscal conservatives are coming out against 1033. Washington Realtors tries to keep property taxes as low as possible, says President Greg Wright. "But at the end of the day, the product that we sell are the communities that we live in," he says, explaining his group's opposition to 1033. He adds that it doesn't matter how low the taxes are if the schools are suffering and roads aren't maintained. "No one's going to want to live in those communities, so it's going to be tough times for realtors."Here, too, recent polling numbers disagree. A SurveyUSA/KING 5 poll found that 45 percent of respondents were a certain "yes." If that's true, a large majority of the 22 percent who are still undecided will have to break against the initiative for it to fail. The UW poll, on the other hand, has the measure failing, with 46 percent voting no and only 41 percent voting yes.King County ExecutiveMost of us aren't going to get a stimulus check. And since every version of a health-care plan mired in Congress right now allows you to keep your employee health insurance, everyone getting it through work will continue to do so. In other words, while voting for Obama felt great, his next few years in office aren't likely to have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of most of us. But the next few years in King County likely will. If you live outside a city, you depend on Sheriff's deputies to respond to emergencies. If you ride the bus, that's also governed by the county. If you've called animal control to get rats out of your garage, a county employee responded. If you took your kid to a nearby clinic for a free immunization, chances are the county paid for it.The county government is massive—$4.8 billion. But it's also been running recurring multimillion-dollar deficits, thanks to the one-two punch of a previous Eyman initiative that capped property taxes and the recession's bite out of the county's sales-tax revenue.Early in this year's election cycle, thanks to the top-two primary, it looked as if voters would be choosing between two Democrats. But then Susan Hutchison, a former news anchor who has donated thousands to Republican candidates, came in with backing from small-government advocates like Bellevue real-estate mogul Kemper Freeman. She led the pack in the primary, and now faces longtime state and county government official Dow Constantine, who rose to the top of the Democratic candidates, in the general.The two couldn't be more different—Hutchison has no experience in government, but she knows she wants it to be smaller. (A favorite slogan of hers on the trail has been "the county needs to be on a meatloaf, not a steak, diet.") Constantine, on the other hand, has been active in local politics since college and was first elected to the state legislature in 1996. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who built his environmentalist cred fighting a gravel-mining operation on Maury Island. He's also, unfortunately, been on the watch as the county has earned a painful reputation for waste and mismanagement.Polling suggests a much closer race than 1033, with Hutchison up by about five percentage points in an Oct. 13 SurveyUSA/KING 5 poll—despite the fact that Obama took 71 percent of King County votes. It's possible our liberal neck of the woods will swing to the other end of the political spectrum and elect a Republican County Executive for the first time in 20 years.MayorIf Greg Nickels had made it through the primary, this race too would see an inexperienced candidate attacking an incumbent for government failures. But voters were already so convinced of Nickels' failures that he didn't make it. So for two months we've watched two men, neither of whom has served in government, fight over the deep-bore tunnel. But then Mike McGinn backed off, and neither he nor Joe Mallahan has really been able to solidify their message since. So it's a bit harder to see this particular choice as a critical crossroads for the city, despite what partisans on both sides want us to think.McGinn is more familiar with local government, having worked on last year's parks levy and light-rail expansion. So non-tunnel-related issues so far have pretty much followed the same story line: McGinn floats an idea, like having City Hall run the schools. Then Mallahan—along with other practical minded-people—attacks him for it. Then McGinn softens his position to something along the lines of studying options. In other words, both are often vague on what exactly they will do for the city once elected.By backing off on the tunnel, McGinn at least ensures that Seattle won't go to immediate war with Olympia. But don't expect his tunnel-bashing to be quickly forgotten during next year's legislative session. It he wins, it will be an uphill battle to get any state spending for the Emerald City. But do expect him to bring his green priorities with him. Mallahan has a lot of the city's power structure behind him, but a lot of neighborhood activists too. Buzz has former City Councilmember Tina Podlodowski as the one most likely to become Mallahan's Tim Ceis, Nickels' influential (and heavy-handed) Deputy Mayor, should he win. If you remember her one City Council term in the late '90s and thought she did a great job, Mallahan's your guy.Turnout in off-year elections is notoriously low. This isn't a moment of national transformation and the results won't be written up in history books. But this election could well matter more for you than last year's. Go back through your junk-mail pile, find the ballot, and vote by

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