Last Wednesday, after two years of increasing disengagement from the day-to-day business of the city in the wake of 2003's Strippergate campaign-contribution scandal, Seattle City Council Member Jim Compton made his de facto absence from the council official by resigning, effective January 6. (He plans to teach and write in Cairo and Romania.)
Compton's resignation ignited an instant frenzy of speculation about his successor, with dozens of names under consideration by early this week. The council has until January 26 to appoint a replacement. Council members could make their decision behind the scenes, choosing a successor by consensus; or they could throw the process open to all contenders, as they did in 1996, when 103 candidates applied to fill the seat vacated by John Manning. (A candidate who wasn't among the early frontrunners, Richard McIver, won after weeks of process, including what Council President Jan Drago remembers as a six-to-eight-hour public meeting.)
Under city law, if Compton's successor wants to stay on the council, he or she will have to run for the seat in 2006 (the next regularly scheduled general election) and again in 2007, when Compton's seat would have been up for grabs. That means running for office twice in just two years—a daunting prospect in an era when council candidates must spend at least $150,000 to be viable.
Compton's resignation creates an opportunity for the council's four-member bloc of erstwhile progressives—Richard Conlin, Peter Steinbrueck, Nick Licata, and Tom Rasmussen—to expand to a five-member majority, if the council chooses a liberal like Port Commissioner Alec Fisken or state Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos. (Fisken, who may be handicapped by the fact that he works for the mayor, has expressed an interest in the position.) According to Drago, however, the council is more likely to appoint someone relatively uncontroversial who will maintain or increase the council's diversity, as it did when it chose McIver; that points to someone like Darryl Smith, the African-American president of the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce who ran against Judy Nicastro in 2003.
Another possibility is that the council will appoint a "caretaker"—a placeholder who has no intention of running again. Choosing a caretaker is, according to one theory, more democratic than choosing a candidate who wants to run again, because it would allow voters to pick Compton's successor without giving one candidate the advantage of incumbency. Of course, nothing in the law would prohibit a caretaker from changing her mind and running anyway. Possible candidates for a caretaker position include former Council Members Tina Podlodowski (who showed up at City Hall Wednesday to express her interest in the job), Heidi Wills, and Sue Donaldson. However, Christian Sinderman, a consultant who worked on three 2005 council campaigns, including Drago's, predicts the council will decide against appointing a caretaker, because "having a lame duck [council member] just seems like too much of a distraction." A caretaker would be difficult to hold accountable, because he or she wouldn't be around long enough to make deals and get up to speed on complicated issues such as land use, which will occupy the council for the early part of 2006.
Besides Smith and Fisken, other potential candidates include Department of Neighborhoods Director Yvonne Sanchez (liability: She works for the mayor); mayoral staffer Tim Durkan (ditto); former 43rd District Democratic Party Chair Javier Valdez (liability: He's a former council staffer, and the council already has one of those); former city council candidate (and ex-port commissioner) Paige Miller (liability: She just lost an election to sitting Council Member Conlin); and ousted Seattle Monorail Project board member Cleve Stockmeyer (whose political track record isn't exactly stellar). One rumored early contender who isn't running is 2005 council candidate Dwight Pelz, who is in the running to replace Paul Berendt as state Democratic Party chair. Various interest groups, including labor, environmentalists, and human-services groups, will weigh in before the council makes its decision, although no organized coalition has formed around any particular candidate.
Compton's resignation comes at a particularly inopportune time for presumptive council president Richard Conlin, who had counted on Compton's support against his opponent for the presidency, Jean Godden. Now the council's remaining eight members are split right down the middle, meaning Compton's successor will cast the deciding vote. (And Conlin supporter Tom Rasmussen will be out of town the week the vote is scheduled, which means Drago will almost certainly remain council president at least until Rasmussen returns.) Depending on how important the council presidency turns out to be, the job could play a role in who gets picked to fill Compton's position. Or Compton could decide to stay on a little longer, keeping the council's current 5-4 pro-Conlin split intact until all nine members of the current council are able to vote. It's also possible that the council will choose a third "consensus" candidate to fill the role —someone like popular council veteran Nick Licata, who won reelection with more than 80 percent of the vote in November.
Complicating matters further, Conlin chose last week to go on vacation in Mexico, leaving his colleagues to debate his fate without him. At least twice before, prospective council presidents have left town assuming they had a lock on the job and returned to find someone else occupying the seat. In 1996, Jane Noland left the country and returned to find her colleagues had chosen Jan Drago. And in 1998, the same thing happened to Martha Choe, who was defeated by Sue Donaldson. The moral of the story, according to one source on the second floor? "If you want to be president, you need to stick around town in December."firstname.lastname@example.org