The Seattle City Council is screwed. And it screwed itself. The council's moderate/conservatish majority gained collective security over the last four years by circling their wagons. Consensus was their religion, and by sticking together, they made themselves immune to most criticism and challenges. Together they detested the mayor, shoved through expensive freeway projects, and deferred urgent transit planning. As the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission reported in 2012, these incumbent politicians also amassed so much money from the same small circle of lobbyists that they intimidated challengers from even running against them.
But in two years, most of those council members will be pitted against each other, flushed from office, or pushed into early retirement.
Voters went nuclear on them, passing a district-elections system last month that changed all the rules, drawing pairs of current council members into the same districts and requiring all of them to run for reelection in 2015. Many of them will be forced to face each other or fight for just two at-large positions.
Of the city's 952 voting precincts, a whopping 946 voted for this new districting system. Overall, voters approved it by a 32-point gulf—a vote that can only be read as a referendum on city hall. "Clearly, there is frustration out there about the council," says John Wyble, a consultant for Winpower Strategies, who points out the council's unpopular numbers. According to a SurveyUSA poll in October, only 28 percent of voters approved of the council's job performance, which was eight points lower than the mayor who was just defeated.
Wyble describes the council's at-large system as "a dinosaur" that was "designed to keep people in power by controlling the money in a citywide election." He adds, "Those days are over."
Council President Sally Clark exemplifies the council's mess. Along with former council ringleader Richard Conlin, who got chased out by a long-shot socialist in the same election, Clark was responsible for the divisive, obstructionist tactics that wound up turning off voters. Clark was unfailingly reactive to Mayor Mike McGinn, picking the opposite side from the mayor on virtually every major issue. If McGinn liked something, Clark and most of the council worked to stop it, regardless of whether McGinn had a bad idea (to be fair, he had some awful ideas) or a great idea (to be fair, he had many of those, too). McGinn wanted a resolution against Russia's antigay violence in a direct response to an inquiry from the Russian consul. But in a transparent political move, Clark blocked a resolution in order to refuse McGinn a victory. After she endorsed McGinn's opponent this year, Clark stoked preelection fears of a downtown crime wave that was exaggerated beyond reality and pinned the problem on the mayor. The list goes on: The council stymied homeless shelters, homeless encampments, and transit projects in predictable counterbalance to whatever the mayor supported. They backed a replacement 520 bridge and a deep-bore tunnel that the mayor opposed.
This had short-term benefits: As the council pounced to marginalize the mayor (or give the mayor enough rope to marginalize himself), council members became more relevant to lobbyists and political players. This meant that the types enthralled with insider politics were enthralled with them. Flush donors flocked to their campaigns. The council's comfort came from the chestnut that they were the "adults in the room" and from their own closed ranks, placing a higher priority on their unity than passing useful policies.
But regular voters?
"They don't feel heard, and they are right," says Toby Thaler, a leader of the districts campaign. "Every day, people experience these frustrations and see the council as insular; they never see the council members."
Not surprisingly, Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant who ran communications for Ed Murray's soft-focus mayoral campaign, has a slightly different take. He believes voters rejected all the acrimony at city hall, tossing out the mayor and council alike. "Like it or not, Seattle is a city that still genuinely values a consensual, communitarian approach to politics and governance," Kaushik says. "The voters didn't think they were getting that kind of responsive, no-drama government over the last few years, and it fueled their discontent."
That may be partly true. But I'd contend that voters will tolerate political spats in exchange for measurable accomplishments. And the council strategy of obstructing the mayor and conforming to the agenda of their top donors didn't rack up big accomplishments.
When they weren't being knee-jerks, the council generally performed housekeeping tasks that amounted to doodling in the margins of the city budget, making perfunctory zoning adjustments, and keeping civilian commissions stocked with appointments. As for the big freeway projects, they were state projects, meaning someone put that work on the plate for them.
What about the municipal milestones from recent years? The SPD has a reform plan, but it lacks fingerprints from the council (three of them walked out on talks with the mayor). The deep-bore tunnel is being dug right now, but the council never made a plan for the roughly 60,000 vehicles a day that won't use it. The 520 bridge construction has begun, but there's still no $2 billion to fund Seattle's side of the project. Meanwhile, the council has no concrete plan to accelerate construction of light rail faster than the lethargic regional timeline, which could take a century.
The next big issue is raising the minimum wage. The council got that one backward: Conlin opposed it and lost his reelection to an outsider socialist, Kshama Sawant, who made it the centerpiece of her campaign. That's the sort of controversial issue most of the council had been fleeing.
There are some hot-button exceptions, places the council has made its mark, policy-wise: paid sick leave, a plastic bag ban, rental inspections, and election-finance reform (that now prevents council members from stockpiling war chests to chase off challengers). But those bills actually came from the two most progressive members of the council, Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien, who weren't part of the moderate/conservative cabal. They were the liberals who'd been typically shut out of council priorities. And if you want proof that voters will swallow controversy in exchange for an accomplishment: Licata and O'Brien were just reelected by overwhelming margins.
Back to Council President Clark's predicament. She and Council Member Bruce Harrell live in the newly drawn District 2, where Clark would almost undoubtedly lose to Harrell, a mixed-race man who says he intends to run in the city's most diverse district. That would require Clark to run citywide or retire. Known for equivocating rather than having a point of view, Clark's chances of winning citywide seem unlikely if she's facing a decisive conservative like Tim Burgess or a renowned progressive like Licata. So Clark is probably out (or Burgess is out if he chooses to retire). In her 80s, Jean Godden is expected to retire, too, leaving an opening in District 4. And District 5 is entirely unrepresented now, so that will be at least one new face on the council.
Long story short: Their reign is over.
Of the six members in the council's moderate/conservative majority, only three members (Sally Bagshaw, Tom Rasmussen, and Burgess) seem likely to hang on after 2015. That means Sawant, O'Brien, Licata, and Harrell will have a four-person progressive bloc that needs only one more vote for a majority. With two seats up in the air, hell, the liberals could win a majority on the council.
So for all the cleverness of the conservatish bloc, they could soon have little power. Worse, they'll have no real legacy. Most of what they'll leave behind will be unfinished business: incomplete highway projects, unresolved questions about homeless encampments, and the problems of rising rents and stagnant transit that they shirked.
Ironically, their very tactics—obstructing the mayor, being obsessed with unity rather than taking risks to do anything great for Seattle—may be what undid them. Voters had no reason to love them. The council never really had a vision. If they were truly the adults in the room, they would have hashed out an agenda with the mayor and done something memorable.
In the end, they helped beat McGinn, but they beat themselves, too. It was a Pyrrhic victory.
So was it worth it, Seattle City Council?