A midst all the media obsession and (not unrelated) TV ads of this mercifully concluded election season, a couple of recent items that will impact future local elections haven’t gotten much attention — yet. But both could change for the better how, in years to come, we elect Seattle City Council members.
Last month, the council voted 7-2 to approve new campaign-finance rules that bar incumbents from transferring money raised in a previous election to their next election cycle, and barred council members from fund-raising until Jan. 1 of the year before their seat’s next election.
(It’s worth noting that the two “no” votes for this measure, Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark, were top fund-raisers in the 2011 election but coasted to victory without needing to spend anywhere near all of the money they raised.) Naturally, council members baked in an exception for themselves: Current incumbents were given 30 days after the signing of the legislation to transfer their existing campaign stockpile to their next election effort.
Nonetheless, this should help, at least somewhat, to make council races more competitive.
Currently, running for an at-large seat in Seattle is an expensive proposition: Incumbents typically raise anywhere from $200,000 to more than $300,000 in their election efforts — much of it from donors (both corporate and individual) hoping to curry favor with the city whether the incumbent faces a serious challenge or not, and much of it raised in previous cycles or earlier in a four-year term, when that favor still needs currying. That gives incumbents a huge head-start in fund-raising and frequently scares off challengers.
With 600,000 residents (more than in a congressional district), at-large seats are too populous for a challenger to doorbell-and-lawn-sign her or his way to victory. So, as in both 2011 and 2009, incumbents running for reelection usually don’t face well-funded challengers. Jean Godden was the sole exception in 2011, and even she raised more than double the money of her opponent.
The measure will make it at least marginally easier for challengers to surmount the enormous money advantage now enjoyed by incumbents. There may also be an advantage in favor-curriers not being able to utilize our thinly veiled system of legalized bribery for half of a member’s term.
District council seats
The other development would shake things up far more and for the same reasons. A coalition of small business owners, neighborhood activists, progressives, conservatives and immigrants — all constituencies now shut out of Seattle’s ideologically homogenous, downtown- and big-business-friendly council — has launched an initiative effort for 2013 that would change the city’s charter to create a mixed City Council, with seven members elected by district and two by the city at-large.
Seattle Districts Now includes the initial boundaries for districts (to be modified with each U.S. Census) in its initiative language: roughly, North Seattle (Ballard/Fremont/Wallingford and the University District/Ravenna/Laurelhurst, with I-5 as the dividing line), downtown/Queen Anne/Magnolia, Capitol Hill/Montlake/Central Area, Southeast Seattle and West Seattle.
Two previous efforts to change the City Council to a district-based system, in 1996 and 2002, failed narrowly. This one, at least potentially, looks well-funded and well-organized by comparison, and, unlike 2002, still allows for two at-large seats.
There are several obvious advantages. Districts would allow underfunded candidates to more easily make up the difference by having a good base in one part of the city where they have a base, making a volunteer-heavy campaign more competitive and more able to doorbell and saturate one-seventh of the territory a campaign must cover now. That, in turn, might make for a less-homogenous council.
It also allows people to work with a council member who specifically represents them, as opposed to the current system, in which council members are theoretically responsible for all problems related to whichever committee they chair. Those chair positions rotate every two years, making continuity more difficult and giving an advantage to lobbyists who have the time to court all of the council. In practice, if you aren’t downtown or in South Lake Union, you often get ignored.
And, the measure increases accountability — both to specific constituents during a member’s term, and to a challenger with a better shot when their term is up.
The initiative campaign won’t hit full stride until early 2013, but it was interesting to note that, unlike the two previous efforts, many of the usual establishment suspects didn’t rush to condemn the idea as soon as it was introduced.
Perhaps they’re keeping their powder dry for 2013. Or maybe, just maybe, even some of them are recognizing that a mostly white, business-oriented, homogenous council that cuts many of its deals behind closed doors before the inevitable 8-1 or 9-0 votes isn’t the best way to run a city.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.