The biggest loser in the September election was a candidate who went down by fewer than 500 votes: King County Council Chair Cynthia Sullivan. Sullivan had every advantage: campaign cash, name recognition, and endorsements. More important, she had the benefit of incumbency, which amounts to a virtual lifetime appointment on the county council, where five of six incumbents went into this year's primary unopposed.

When Sullivan first ran for office in 1983, she campaigned as a maverick Democrat who promised to shake up the council's developer-friendly status quo by taking out an entrenched incumbent, Republican Scott Blair. Sullivan personally knocked on thousands of doors throughout her district, promising an end to developer giveaways and unencumbered growth in the county's outlying areas. "The old county council got away with things you wouldn't believe," she said.

Twenty years after Sullivan's first bid for office, a fresh-faced Democratic newcomer, Preston Gates & Ellis attorney Bob Ferguson, turned Sullivan's own campaign tactics against the council's longest-serving incumbent, calling for new leadership on a body he said was "in danger of becoming irrelevant." And although Sullivan and her campaign staff now claim the council chair was a victim of citywide "anti-incumbent sentiment," the truth is that Sullivan lost because she became what she once reviled: an entrenched, out-of-touch incumbent who refused to acknowledge the need for changes in the way the county does business. Moreover, she lost because she had an opponent who wanted the job more than she did--and did the legwork to win it.

Voters took out their frustration with Sound Transit and the county's shrinking budget for basic services on Sullivan, who became a symbol of business as usual at the county. Sullivan, a Sound Transit board member and thick-and-thin light rail backer, drastically underestimated the unpopularity of the light rail agency, which lost a major battle last week when the state supreme court upheld Initiative 776--a Tim Eyman-backed measure that could remove a major funding source for Sound Transit's light rail, a motor vehicle excise tax. (The long-term implications of I-776 will likely be determined by a lower court; for now, Sound Transit is continuing to collect the tax.) "[Sound Transit is] not delivering what the voters asked for," Ferguson said before the election. By digging in her heels and refusing to acknowledge Sound Transit's vulnerability, Sullivan may have sealed her fate.

More obscure but no less contentious was Sullivan's outspoken opposition to a proposal that would shrink the county council from 13 members to nine, a proposal Ferguson supported. (Council Democrats opposed the proposal because it could lead to a Republican majority on the council.) The measure, which Ferguson turned into a major campaign issue, would save the cash-strapped county as much as $4 million annually. Symbolically, the measure (which will go on the 2004 ballot) is a slap to a council many see as profligate and unaccountable.

Ferguson deserves as much of the credit for his win as Sullivan deserves blame for her defeat. Ferguson, a youthful 38-year-old attorney whose floppy hair and geeky wire-frame glasses make him look more like a software engineer than a hotshot Democratic Party player, ran with a tenacity that even his opponent's campaign consultant, Christian Sinderman, calls "extraordinary."

"You have to give the guy a lot of credit for how hard he worked," Sinderman says. Early in the campaign, Ferguson vowed to knock on the door of every primary voter in his Northeast Seattle district, and he did--more than 20,000 doors in all. (Loser Sullivan, in contrast, had volunteers do much of her block-walking for her.) Running in a district helped; had Ferguson been running for a citywide position, he would have had to pound on about 75,000 doors. "My money goes so much further in a district," he said. (Ferguson, like many of his future colleagues on the county council, supports district elections in Seattle.)

Perhaps even more crucial to Ferguson's success was his ability to doorbell virtually around the clock; unlike Sullivan, Ferguson was able to take a year off to campaign full-time. "Cynthia's disadvantage was that she had a day job," Sinderman says. Ferguson and his army of volunteers trooped out dutifully for nearly a year, planting the challenger's blue-and-white signs throughout Northeast Seattle, visiting many homes more than once. Ferguson, unlike Sullivan, was a natural campaigner: Where Sullivan was scripted and somewhat awkward in her approach, Ferguson was straightforward, affable, and quick on his feet.

Ultimately, as Sinderman notes, Sullivan's defeat was less a wholehearted rejection than it was a combination of voter frustration and a badly outmatched campaign. But the lessons for incumbents go beyond a single botched reelection bid: Listen to your constituency; don't get cocky; and don't assume incumbency means an automatic lifetime appointment--even if that's usually the case around here.