Election 2009: Winners and Losers
Who Won Big, Who Lost Huge, Who Was Behind Them, and What It Means
There was a time, not very long ago, when the race for King County executive was officially a partisan race. Then, somewhere in a secret bunker at Republican headquarters, a lightbulb went off above a conservative strategist's dim head.
The strategist thought: Wait a minute! Maybe we can trick liberal King County voters into giving us this seat if we change it into a nonpartisan position! We'll run a shiny-faced "nonpartisan" who won't take off her moderate mask until she's firmly ensconced in the heart of lefty lulu-land, after which she'll dismantle the welfare state and pave the forests.
And so a ballot measure to make King County executive a nonpartisan position was introduced in 2008 and—all according to plan—passed by unsuspecting voters. Then came Susan Hutchison, lousy with name recognition because of her years as a TV-news anchor, able to recite whatever soothing talking point was fed into her ear, and quietly conservative as fuck.
She led in the polls for much of the campaign until—showing some basic good sense (and perhaps some strategic genius as well)— the campaign of Dow Constantine decided to make it a partisan race. Never mind what the voters said last year. This race, the Constantine campaign said, was about Republican values versus Democratic values. They outed Hutchison for her right-wing stances and made sure everyone knew Constantine didate. And guess what? Overwhelmingly Democratic King County decided it wanted a Democrat in the exec's seat.
The lesson: Partisan politics works, Democrats. Use it or lose your jobs.
Go to the website of Seattle's Mercury Group, and you'll find very little except an address and phone number. The firm is quiet about itself, and its successes, but this year the outcomes of two local races spoke volumes about Mercury's skill at making winners out of relative unknowns.
Who was mayor-elect Mike McGinn before his friend at Mercury, Bill Broadhead, put the organization behind him? Just a local rabble-rouser with a good heart and little name recognition.
More to the point: Who the hell was Mike O'Brien before Mercury got him on the city council? We're still not sure.
What Mercury has done in this election is discover a winning formula for managing a campaign without it appearing that the campaign is being managed at all. If someone was writing generic advertising copy for this service—which Mercury would never do—that ad copy would say: This amazing product allows both the fiery populist insurgent and the local grassroots organizer to maintain an authentic aura while at the same time running a highly competent, ruthlessly strategic race!
Come on. Did you really think McGinn put as little thought into his political moves as he does into his rumpled clothing? For every unscripted moment, there was someone—or, really, a whole team of people—behind the curtain, making sure the moment (a) read as unscripted, (b) went according to script, and (c) worked toward the only goal that counted: getting McGinn the most votes.
The Gays and Humanity in General
Putting the rights of a minority group up for a popular vote is generally agreed to be a bad—if not outright cruel—idea. Would a majority of white Americans have voted in the 1950s to give black Americans equal rights? Would a majority of Americans, at this very moment, vote to treat homosexual Americans as full citizens under the law?
No and no, goes the conventional wisdom. But this year, in Washington State, something remarkable happened. The domestic-partnership rights of this state's gay and lesbian citizens were expanded—first by the state legislature, which is how it's supposed to happen (representative democracy cooling the harmful passions of the masses), and then a second time, by a popular vote (which is not at all how it's supposed to happen).
Bigoted opponents of gay equality had hoped that by gathering enough signatures to send the legislature's expansion of domestic-partnership rights to the general public for an up-or-down vote, they could take advantage of what everyone, themselves included, quietly thinks of as a fundamental political truth: The general public is a bunch of Neanderthals—prejudiced, easily manipulated, pseudoreligious rubes.
As it turned out, they're not. At least not in this state. According to gay-rights organizers who track such things, this may actually be the first time a state's voters—as opposed to a state's legislators—have ever voted to expand domestic-partnership rights.
In mid-October, when it looked like Dow Constantine might lose the race for King County executive, there were a lot of whispers going around town about one of his political consultants, Sandeep Kaushik—specifically, the problem Kaushik had with the growing number of losses he was racking up.
Hired away from The Stranger in 2005 to flack for then–county executive Ron Sims, Kaushik turned the experience into a career as a Jim Beam–swilling campaign spokesman and crafty, jugular-hungry campaign aide. He had success with a number of ballot-measure fights (including beating back the estate-tax repeal effort in 2006, torpedoing the viaduct rebuild in 2007, and passing the Sound Transit 2 plan in 2008), but he didn't do so well with getting real-life politicians into office.
After helping Sims sail to a third term in 2005, Kaushik went on to become a central part of three high-profile losses: Bill Sherman's unsuccessful run for King County prosecutor in 2007, Darcy Burner's failed second run for Congress in 2008, and Greg Nickels's embarrassing bid for a third term as mayor this year.
Add in a loss for Constantine, and it might have been time for Kaushik to retire. But nothing erases doubts like a big win, and Constantine's trouncing of the frighteningly telegenic Susan Hutchison was as big as they come—a nearly 20-point blowout that assures Kaushik will be pouring spin into the brains of reporters and quietly undermining political opponents (all while ordering another round) for some time to come.
Nobody bawled into their pillow on election night like City Attorney Tom Carr, an eight-year incumbent with the backing of labor unions and city hall, who was trounced by a 26-point margin. "I'm stunned. I thought this would be a tight race," said challenger Pete Holmes after seeing the first batch of results.
Carr chalked up his drubbing to an "anti-incumbent year." But that makes less than zero sense, considering Richard Conlin won a fourth term on the city council with over 77 percent support and Nick Licata coasted easily to a third term.
Voters were sick, specifically, of Carr's bullshit: cracking down on popular clubs, ignoring a voter-approved measure to stop prosecuting marijuana-possession cases, subpoenaing reporters to name confidential sources, and pushing cases for years after the city should have dropped them.
In voting for Holmes, Seattle instituted a new directive for the city attorney, who acts as the city's primary lawyer and prosecutes misdemeanors in the municipal court. Holmes vowed on the campaign trail to represent the wishes of the people. He'll stop all pot-possession prosecution and prize the music scene, he says, and coax the city officials to drop lawsuits when the city is wrong. Basically, Carr's worst nightmare. The poor guy.
Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce
Most of Seattle's power brokers—including labor unions, veteran politicos, and big-business interests—lined up behind Joe Mallahan's campaign for mayor. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's former chair Tayloe Washburn actually joined Mallahan's advisory team and donated generously to the campaign. But Mike McGinn won anyway. He won without them.
More than just a victory for McGinn's grassroots campaign, fueled by volunteers and boundless youthful energy, his victory is also the story of the city's moneyed interests losing big. People and institutions that have long leveraged influence over the mayor's office, city hall, and elections—well, it turned out they just didn't matter as much as everyone thought.
The Religious Right
Thanks to Christian extremists running Referendum 71, an attempt to repeal the state domestic-partnership expansion law for same-sex and senior couples, the gay-marriage movement is stronger—particularly in suburban and rural Washington—than it's ever been. Meanwhile, the religious right's movement, which lied by claiming the law would teach gay relationships in schools and destroy marriages, is crumbling. Campaign head Larry Stickney has been exposed as a hypocrite—a man who loves marriage so much he got married three times. Campaign spokesman Gary Randall goes back to Oregon defeated, exposed as a tax-evading, carpetbagging liar.
Randall's onetime pal Joe Fuiten, a leader of the Christian right in Washington, had condemned the measure early in the campaign, and afterward condemned Randall and Stickney for pushing a losing strategy. Ah, the movement-fracturing stench of failure.
Less than a month before the election, polling showed Tim Eyman's latest initiative poised to pass by a wide margin. People liked the idea of limiting government spending. But organized labor, recognizing this as Eyman's latest ploy to gut funding for schools and health care while lining his own pockets, threw over $1.5 million in last-minute contributions to the opposition campaign. Initiative 1033 lost by a damning 14-point margin (a 26-point swing from a month before). Eyman may be back at the ballot next year, but organized labor—god bless their unionized hearts—has shown it's willing to throw down the gauntlet in Washington to beat back Eyman's next bad idea. In time, we hope, Eyman's sugar daddy, Michael Dunmire, will stop bankrolling these losing boondoggles and Eyman, confirmed loser that he is, will leave this state forever.
The Police and Firefighters' Unions
Let's be clear about something. There are the upstanding men and women who serve and protect. And then there are the divisive, right-wing unions that represent Seattle's police and firefighters. These unions—respectively the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) and the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, Local 27—pulled out all the stops for their candidates this year. SPOG representatives supporting City Attorney Tom Carr vigorously tried to smear Pete Holmes, saying that he had a "hidden agenda" when he was on the police-oversight board. Meanwhile, fire-union president Kenny Stuart led the Working for Seattle PAC but got fined $5,000 by the city's ethics commission for failing to report over $100,000 in contributions that went to support Mallahan ($60,000 came from the firefighters' union). And for all their dirty campaigning, Mallahan lost. The unions also threw their weight (and money) behind unsuccessful city council candidate Jessie Israel, a law-and-order type who proposed a heavy-handed response to panhandling. Both unions backed Robert Rosencrantz's third bid for city council—but he lost, too, to Mike O'Brien. If anything, the support of these unions is officially a curse.