Last week, the gossip at city hall was all about who wasn't running: With five council seats up for grabs (and one seat completely open), just four serious contenders—PR consultant Venus Velazquez, attorney Bruce Harrell, ex-cop and former Council Member John Manning, and ex-cop and former city ethics commission head Tim Burgess, had announced they were running. Given that the deadline for filing is just two months away, that didn't leave much time for latecomers to jump in, which is one reason city hall observers were puzzled last week by the lack of interest in this year's races.
But events this week cast the August elections in a different light. Not one but seven new names have surfaced in the last few days, most of them rumored to be seeking the open seat being vacated by Peter Steinbrueck next year. Those currently running or rumored to be running are State Representative Phyllis Kenney, monorail board member and Republicans for Environmental Protection Washington chapter head Jim Nobles, HistoryLink founder and local gadfly Walt Crowley, city staffer and political family member Tim Durkan, radio personality Enrique Cerna, King County epidemiology specialist Carrie Shriver, and private-sector consultant Noel Frame.
Of that group, only Shriver has declared her candidacy, for the open seat being vacated by Peter Steinbrueck and sought by Manning, Harrell, and Velazquez; the rest either say they're considering a run or could not be reached for confirmation. (Crowley, Kenney, and Durkan did not return calls; Nobles did not return an e-mail; and Cerna was out of town.) Frame, a Ballard resident who has worked in Democratic party politics and for Senator Maria Cantwell, says she'll decide by the end of this week whether to run, but adds that "the dynamics of this race [for Steinbrueck's seat] make it very attractive for someone to jump in." Cerna, meanwhile, has been said to have contacted consultant Cathy Allen to talk about a possible race; many people expect Allen to push a prominent media candidate, possibly at the last minute—a strategy that served her well in 2003, when Jean Godden entered the race on filing day. "At this point four years ago, Jean Godden wasn't even on the radar screen," says consultant Michael Grossman, who is working for Harrell and incumbent David Della. "Is there another Jean Godden out there? I don't know."
Why the sudden crop of contenders for positions that, until recently, had barely attracted any notice? One likely reason is that the reaction to Steinbrueck's announcement that he would not seek reelection was delayed as potential candidates waited to see who would jump in. Previously, the conventional wisdom was that many potential candidates were biding their time for two more years, when at least two seats—those held by council veterans Jan Drago and Richard McIver, who are both expected to retire—could open up. "I think most people realize the best prospects are for an open seat... because you don't have to get that many votes to survive the primary," says Council Member Tom Rasmussen, who beat incumbent Margaret Pageler in 2003. (Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that nine-year council veteran Nick Licata may step down too.) But wide-open races raise political hopes, and the rash of contenders may include some who had planned to wait until 2009.
Somewhat surprisingly, the new crowd includes just three candidates—Manning, Velazquez, and Durkan—who were among the 101 people who applied for the seat that opened up when Jim Compton stepped down in 2006. (The council ultimately awarded the seat to Sally Clark.) Some observers believe this is because that crop wasn't that strong to begin with; it included many candidates, such as community activist Sharon Maeda and city neighborhoods department director Stella Chao, who might have been good council members but would be unlikely to prevail in a public vote. Others note that, with money an ever-increasing barrier to candidacy, the only viable option for a little-known candidate is to run for an open seat, and the more candidates there are, the worse any individual's chances to win become.
Money, always a major barrier to entry, has become dramatically more so in recent years, with the cost of a successful council race rising from approximately $100,000 six years ago to as much as $300,000 today. Already, incumbents enjoy a significant fundraising lead: All have more than $60,000, with Rasmussen in the lead at $120,000. "Most of the incumbents have been raising money for the past year," Rasmussen says. Already, he says, he has "a very significant lead, and a person would have to do an awful lot of catching up to equal that."
There are also fewer controversial issues now than in years past. In 2003, three challengers beat back incumbents by capitalizing on the Strippergate scandal and issues like "circus animals" (a bill to ban trained circus animals on the grounds that they are often abused) to paint a picture of the council as frivolous and corrupt. "I don't think the issues are nearly as heated as they were when I ran four years ago," says Rasmussen. Even when fundraising is roughly equal between incumbents and challengers (as it was in 2005), most of the benefits—name recognition, endorsements, the support of interest groups like labor and environmental organizations—are on the side of the incumbent. "All things being equal," says Rasmussen's consultant, Christian Sinderman, "it's difficult to defeat an incumbent council member."
Burgess, the only candidate to challenge an incumbent so far, believes his opponent, David Della, is politically vulnerable. Della defeated incumbent Heidi Wills in 2003 with a campaign that attacked Wills for allowing electric rates to increase at City Light. Once on the council, however, Della turned down leadership of the council's City Light committee. Instead, Della took over the parks committee. Last year, a majority of the city's volunteer parks board resigned when Della pushed for dual council-mayoral oversight of the board. "People have said he rammed [the change in oversight] through in such an abrasive way that he caused these good citizen volunteers to resign," Burgess says.
Burgess (who has raised around $60,000—$40,000 less than Della) also criticizes Della for supporting a new, larger elevated viaduct, and for flip-flopping on the Ballard extension of the Burke-Gilman Trail, which Della initially supported and subsequently opposed. "That's just a failure of leadership," he says. Although some have dismissed Burgess's candidacy as a long shot, Burgess says he's staying in the race for the duration. "I see [Della's tenure] as a failure of leadership," Burgess says. "I'm not interested in leaving this race for the open seat."