Richard Conlin was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1997 as the sort of environmentalist who might inspire you to bury your car. He was a Green Party member, and he cofounded a wholesome group called Sustainable Seattle. Early on, Conlin was instrumental in furthering progressive social causes (opposing laws against underage dance events and putting posters on utility poles). But over the arc of his 16-year term, Conlin's base became the wealthy figures that lobby city hall, and Conlin himself became among the council's most bullish advocates to build more freeways, scuttle transit spending, and impose laws that penalize the poor.
Because I am shamelessly fair, we'll start with Conlin's recent progressive accomplishments. Six years ago, he passed a bill that legalized pygmy goats in the city—a victory for locavores who own enough property for a novelty backyard goat farm. More importantly, this year Conlin opposed a knee-jerk moratorium to freeze micro-apartment construction, and he banned low-density strip malls in dense neighborhoods. And he also, uh, sponsored a campaign to "make Seattle happy," which involved a meeting at City Hall festooned with sticky notes listing things that made people happy ("Crab Pot," "Starbucks," "Fuzzy Feelings").
Fuzzy feelings aside, the rest of Conlin's record crushes those gestures.
Take his relationship with the right of citizens to run a petition of grievances—a basic tenet of democracy. Conlin used city resources in 2011 to sue citizens who had gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot regarding the controversial deep-bore tunnel. A judge found Conlin had no authority to sue the citizens, and the city later found Conlin "went too far" when he used the city's website to advocate against that referendum. While Conlin was campaigning to build that $4.2 billion freeway project, which included no transit funding, he thwarted citywide transit planning. And when he was the city council president, he twice voted to freeze money for the Transit Master Plan, and funding for the Bicycle Master Plan also dried up, receiving just one quarter of the money the plan required.
On human rights issues, Conlin has been miserable. In 2010, he voted to create an additional fine for aggressive panhandlers, which the city's Human Rights Commission unanimously opposed as violating the city's human rights standards. The city already had a criminal law against aggressive begging. Still, Conlin fought for the bill, which was the top priority of the Downtown Seattle Association (a business lobby whose members donate heavily to Conlin's campaigns).
Conlin also opposed a homeless shelter at the Sunny Jim peanut butter factory site, voted to oppose regulations that would make homeless encampments safer, and was the only council member to vote against a paid sick leave bill.
In short, Conlin has some good marks on his record, but after 16 years, his agenda largely reflects the city's wealthiest interests.
Consider Conlin's top donors this year, who have each given the maximum $700 allowed by law. They include Richard and Elizabeth Hedreen, who own the luxury-hotel-building Hedreen Company (their hotels are members of the Seattle Hotel Association, which is interested in banning people sleeping on public property and restricting low-income housing downtown), Roger Nyhus (a consultant who is promoting coal shipments out of Washington State), Burlington Northern Santa Fe (the railroad company that would carry those coal shipments), Comcast, CleanScapes, CenturyLink PAC, the Mariners, Parsons Brinckerhoff (which had a contract to help design the tunnel that Conlin backed), and scads of developers and real-estate giants (including Matt Griffin, Clise Properties, Unico Properties, and Seneca Group). Then there is the archconservative Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which has used its newspaper to joke about shooting members of the Urban League (an African American advocacy group).
Again, all those people and groups maxed out their donations to Conlin.
Even Conlin's progressive support is suspect.
Consider the Sierra Club. Its executive board voted over e-mail to endorse Conlin in July, and that internal conversation was leaked to The Stranger by an anonymous source. Sierra Club Cascade Chapter chair Dan Schwartz wrote that when it comes to Conlin, "We can't count on him to necessarily take hard votes or hard stances for the sake of the environment. He's a careerist more than anything, which is quite different than being an environmental champion. His tunnel advocacy was the most glaring example of this." Another member, Drew Paxton, chimed in to vote for Conlin like this: "Yes (begrudgingly)."
Asked why the environmental group endorsed a candidate who caves on important environmental votes, Schwartz said the group's policy is to endorse incumbents with "good environmental records." When I pointed out that by Schwartz's own admission, Conlin doesn't have a good environmental record, Schwartz didn't answer.
But I'll suggest an answer: Conlin can make things easy for those who help him get reelected. After 16 years, his reelection seems so inevitable that he typically scares off good challengers. Not this year. This year, Kshama Sawant is giving Conlin a run for his money. And while she may not have coal money, police money, and freeway money behind her—or the endorsement of a wishy-washy environmental group—she does have a shot at beating Conlin. And in this city, that's progress.