While Joni Balter and the Seattle Times editorial page seem particularly nervous about a pending ballot initiative to elect the Seattle City Council by districts--check out the December 30 Times editorial and Balter's December 12 piece--it seems that the Times is overreacting a bit. Fans of the district initiative, it turns out, are nervous themselves. The campaign has gotten off to a disappointing start. (By the way, it's certainly not surprising that the status quo Times is wary of an idea that would shift power from the insiders and consultants who help keep chamber-of-commerce-approved candidates in office to a system that would put power back in the neighborhoods by electing council members from individual districts--you know, the radical way the state legislature, King County Council, and U.S. Congress elect their members.)

One panicked supporter, who works at the city, but didn't want to be named, fretted: "Rumor around here is that the campaign is broke, in chaos, and that only a couple thousand signatures have been gathered. Further, rumor is that the only way it will make the ballot is if it hires paid signature gatherers, as they don't have a grassroots campaign. Is it really that bad?"

Well, yes and no.

After a lackluster kickoff event last summer that was mainly attended by such past and present council hopefuls as Curt Firestone, Dawn Mason, Peter Sherwin, and Grant Cogswell, the campaign has been all but invisible. With a quarter of the bankroll coming from just one contributor ($10,000 of the $40,000 is from a local law firm, Talmadge & Stockmeyer PLLC), and with only 5,000 signatures on hand (they need to gather about 34,000 signatures to assure they get the required 26,000), Seattle Districts Now had to hire a new signature-drive coordinator late last year. They also brought on a new fundraiser--Liz Anderson, who was a deputy treasurer for Mark Sidran's mayoral bid.

Campaign co-chair Jeanne Legault acknowledges that the campaign has been "lying low for a while," but says the fundraising efforts, PR plans, and signature-gathering drive should begin to pick up in February after the campaign's op-eds run in the Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

She also trots out an impressive list of endorsements, including a slew of Seattle legislators such as King County Council Members Dow Constantine and Dwight Pelz, Washington State Senators Adam Kline, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Erik Poulsen, and Margarita Prentice, Washington State Reps Ed Murray, Helen Sommers, Sharon Tomiko Santos, and Mary Lou Dickerson, and Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata.

However, one still has to wonder what the campaigners have been doing all this time. The list of endorsers doesn't include any organizations (and the official list I saw didn't include high-profile names like Mayor Nickels or Judy Nicastro--two districting advocates). "Judy says she still hasn't made up her mind about our initiative yet," Legault says sourly. Meanwhile, the signature-gathering is paltry. (Legault says the campaign may consider using paid signature gatherers closer to the deadline, which is this summer.)

With a popular grassroots campaign like the monorail just clawing its way past entrenched establishment disapproval to net barely over 50 percent of the vote last fall, the tepid district campaign needs to get its act together.