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Who's Afraid of City Council Member Sally Clark? Everybody.

Alice Wheeler

City Council Member Sally Clark, appointed to fill Position 9 on the city council after her scandal-plagued predecessor, Jim Compton, resigned in late 2005, appears poised to run unopposed for reelection. So far, not even perennial also-ran Stan Lippman, who ran against Clark in 2006, has stepped up to challenge the rookie council member.

Why is no one running against Clark? With fewer than two years on the council, Clark is the council's least experienced member. Logic would seem to dictate that that makes her the most vulnerable. However, with time running out to jump into the race (the filing deadline is just over a month away), it's starting to look like Clark could get a free ride to reelection.

One reason for Clark's apparently easy road to reelection is her reputation as an easygoing, affable, humble presence on the council. "I think people from all different sorts of backgrounds fundamentally like her," political strategist Jason Bennett, who is not working on Clark's campaign, says. At a recent immigrant-naturalization ceremony, Bennett says, Clark had to "literally be dragged up" onto the stage, a pattern familiar to those who have watched her at public events. (She did the same thing at a party celebrating the gay-rights bill last year.) "You can tell it's not comfortable for her," Bennett says.

Clark, for her part, considers herself more quiet and "contemplative" than some of her more bomb-throwing colleagues. "[P]eter [Steinbrueck] is very much a user of the microphone and he does a great job," Clark says. "But I'm much less loud and colorful than somebody like Peter."

Politically, too, Clark has earned a reputation as a moderate who doesn't rock the boat. In the past, she has won the support of labor, environmentalists, neighborhood groups, and developers—a cross-section of the city's power brokers that makes her as formidable as a full-fledged incumbent. "She's a woman, she's gay, she's liberal, and she has an enormous amount of corporate and even neighborhood support," says Seattle Displacement Coalition leader John Fox, who is part of a group seeking to field progressive candidates in this year's elections. "That's a pretty difficult combination to take on."

"Typically, what happens when we see [challengers] running is they're backed by some particular group that's rallying to unseat somebody or put somebody forward," Bennett says. "You don't see that with Sally because she hasn't done anything to poke anybody in the eye. She hasn't taken any strong, controversial stands."

Critics, colleagues and political observers outside City Hall say the former Lifelong AIDS Alliance community resources director has a skill at working with bickering camps to reach compromise solutions. "She's tried to take a middle ground on issues that are important to the neighborhoods," says Seattle Community Council Federation president Jeannie Hale. As the city's liaison to Southeast Seattle, Clark helped broker the contentious debate over light rail in the Rainier Valley; as a city council member, she has trodden a fine line between various interest groups on a number of controversial issues, including neighborhood planning, sprinklers in nightclubs, and the viaduct. When the council was considering new rules that would loosen ethics standards for the city's volunteer boards and commission, Clark took a cautious approach, supporting a decreased fine for conflicts of interest on boards and commissions but also backing a smaller fine for the "appearance" of conflicts, an amendment proposed by public-accountability advocate (and council president) Nick Licata.

Clark's middle-of-the-road politics have both pleased and annoyed those on the fringes of Seattle politics. Low-income activist Fox, for example, says that Clark has "been terrible" on Seattle Housing Authority issues, supporting an SHA board candidate, Sybil Bailey, who activists thought was unqualified. However, "On condo conversions, she did more than the average council member," signing a letter from the Displacement Coalition supporting legislation that would allow Seattle to put a cap on condo conversions.

Money, an increasing hurdle for challengers in all city elections, may be keeping potential opponents out of Clark's race, just as it has discouraged contenders from jumping into the other three seats that are on the ballot this year. "It's extremely expensive to run for office," Clark acknowledges. "It's not something that people can do on a dare anymore. You have to think about the impact on your family and your own personal finances." Clark, who had raised around $78,000 at the end of March, says her goal is $250,000—particularly if she gets a challenger.

Finally, Clark's incumbency has almost certainly helped her avert potential challenges. This year's campaign is Clark's third, if you count her run for the open seat in early 2006, and she's gotten adept at campaigning. Unless someone steps up with a strong record in local politics, money, name recognition, and powerful friends, Clark may have the council's safest seat.

So far, Clark has declined to take a position on one particularly contentious issue that has raised concerns for business owners and neighborhood residents—nightlife. Last year, when Council President Licata dropped Mayor Greg Nickels's proposal to regulate and license clubs and bars into her committee, Clark initiated a long series of public meetings (still ongoing), and has so far avoided coming down in favor of either scrapping the proposal or keeping it intact, although she appears to be leaning toward preserving the nightclub license but reducing the number of new regulations in the ordinance. "The number of operating standards that are in [the legislation] now seem like a bit much," Clark says. However, she adds, "I'm having a tough time figuring out how to [implement new regulations] without a license, something clubs oppose. Tim Hatley, a lobbyist for the nightlife industry, says Clark is "obviously taking a very deliberative approach. It's hard to read how she's going to play her cards." recommended

barnett@thestranger.com

 

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