Here's how it works in Seattle: All nine members of the Seattle City Council are elected at large, and in theory, all nine are supposed to represent you and your neighborhood. But what happens when you call city hall and ask, "Who is my council member?"
"Right now the response is, 'We are all looking out for you,'" shrugged City Council Member Nick Licata, who supports district elections. "But pragmatically, it is difficult to be familiar with the details of every neighborhood in Seattle, so it is easier to pass the buck."
Passing the buck isn't a risky thing for a Seattle city council members to do. One angry voter or one angry neighborhood in a city as large as Seattle doesn't represent much of a threat to an incumbent city council member. Politicians elected by smaller districts, on the other hand, have to pay close attention to their constituents.
One case in point is a tiny piece of public land that sits along the west side of Interstate 5 near Roanoke Street. The Eastlake neighborhood had spent years jumping through hoops to get a fence torn down. Once the Washington State Department of Transportation's chain-link fence and "no trespassing" signs are down, Eastlake residents want to turn the land into a public space. But when transportation bureaucrats starting reneging on the deal, pissed-off neighborhood activists turned to the only people in government who actually represent Eastlake every day--their state legislators.
"We need a strong effort on the part of the city so that some low-level bureaucrats don't thwart this," says Chris Leman, a longtime Eastlake activist. If Eastlake had a city council member, neighborhood activists could have demanded that their council member go to bat with other elected officials and the Department of Transportation. "[But] it was not the city council or the mayor who stepped in to save us," says Leman, "it was our state legislators. [House Speaker] Frank Chopp and [State Representative] Ed Murray met with the secretary of transportation, and told him in no uncertain terms that his department must cooperate with the city. The fact that they did that is a wonderful tribute to the value of districts."
Neighborhood activists had leverage over Chopp and Murray because Eastlake represents a big chunk of their district; Chopp and Murray can't write off Eastlake's voters. If Chopp or Murray weren't responsive, they might face angry, disillusioned voters in the fall--and possibly a challenger.
But city council members? They can ignore Eastlake--or First Hill or Ballard or North Seattle--because the neighborhood only represents a small chunk of the entire city of Seattle.
"Seattle's neighborhoods are larger than most cities in Washington state, so the argument that you can represent them all fairly is difficult to make, to say the least," says Kent Kammerer, co-president of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition. "We are without voices, for all practical purposes."
Many people in Eastlake wouldn't even know who to call on the city council for help. City council members don't represent neighborhoods; they head up committees. A neighborhood group wrestling with issues like open space, police relations, traffic, and sidewalk repair might have to arrange meetings with five or six different city council members to get their issues addressed.
"I often feel like I'm a junior [city] council member because people are always calling or writing about trouble with a traffic circle or problems with the police," says State Representative Murray, who along with Representative Chopp represents an area that runs from Capitol Hill to Fremont. "People just don't know who to turn to [at the city] for help in their neighborhood."
CITY HALL VS. SIDEWALKS
Even neighborhoods that know which city council members to turn to don't necessarily get help. Take Rainier Valley and North Seattle. Those neighborhoods have been battling the city for years to get more than a few scraps from the city budget for curbs and sidewalks. Sidewalks! The same city council that wants residents to ride the bus to work and leave their cars at home can't find the money to build sidewalks in Rainier Valley and North Seattle. The city has found money to build symphony halls, parking garages, and opera houses--and the council recently borrowed $226 million to build itself a new city hall complex. It's hard to imagine a city council member representing a district that includes Rainier Valley signing off on a new city hall complex until his constituents had sidewalks in front of their houses and apartments.
A city council elected by district might have stopped the corporate giveaways that bought us two brand new sports stadiums and one scandalous parking garage giveaway to the Nordstrom family. And if Seattle's elected lawmakers actually had to pay attention to the neighborhoods, it probably wouldn't have taken four elections to drum into their collective head that voters really didn't want the Seattle Commons but really, really do want the monorail.
It's no wonder, then, that momentum is once again building behind the idea of electing Seattle city council members by district. In a city that professes to love all of its neighborhoods equally, a lot of communities feel marginalized by a system that makes it too easy for their needs to be ignored. While opponents fear that district elections could fracture the city into squabbling political fiefdoms, if done right, the system would shift the balance of power at city hall to back the neighborhoods.
After all, that's what everyone wants, right?
In response to a critical mass of angry neighborhood groups, the city council began paying more attention to neighborhood concerns. Now it's become a political cliché for city council members and challengers to dub themselves "the neighborhood candidate," and everyone seems to believe that neighborhood-focused lawmakers create a more responsive city government. Opponents of district elections insist that the neighborhoods aren't being ignored. The city is spending millions of dollars to renovate branch libraries and community centers, defenders of the current system point out. What district election opponents fail to note is that our newly attentive city council was the result of a swing of the political pendulum--and pendulums swing back.
Some neighborhood activists fear that's already happening. While the city has also done a good job of engaging communities in recent years, mostly through creating 38 detailed neighborhood plans, neighborhood activists are nevertheless concerned. "I think we are coming off a period where neighborhoods probably had a better seat at the table than [they've had] historically," says Ref Lindmark, vice president of the Green Lake Community Council. "But the planning process has wound down, and now that the bureaucracy has taken over, [it's] time to revisit district elections."
THE WHOLE CITY
Seattle is one of the few large cities that doesn't have some form of district elections. San Francisco switched to district elections in 2000 and, according to political observers there, the switch has been a success. The district system works fine in places like Tacoma and Bellingham. But the thinking here has always been that Seattle's issues, whether they involve transportation, housing, energy, or parks, can't be solved on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. These issues affect the whole city, so they demand citywide solutions.
Well, sure. But if a council elected by district is incapable of wrestling with big regional issues, how come the same argument doesn't apply to all other levels of government?
"If you look at every other branch of government--the Congress of the United States, the King County Council, the State Legislature, even the school board--they are elected by districts," says Michael Preston, who ran against Council Member Richard Conlin last year and lost.
What pisses off Preston and others about at-large elections is that the current system of electing the council citywide makes it difficult to hold any single member accountable for what happens in a particular neighborhood. Much of that has to do with the nature of citywide campaigns, which all but eliminate the chance to nail down candidates on neighborhood-level problems--or even hold them to the few promises they make to specific neighborhoods. The other has to do with numbers: A group of outraged voters in one neighborhood doesn't amount to much when compared to the entire city.
Here's how district elections would work: The city would be divided into nine roughly equal areas. Each district would hold a primary and a general election to pick their own council member (who, by the way, would have to live in the district he or she represents). There are variations on the idea, mostly along the lines of "mixed council," where two or three of the seats would be elected citywide while the rest are chosen by district.
Whatever the final plan turns out to be, there is a good chance a district election measure will be on the ballot next year. Jay Sauceda, who ran his own doomed city council campaign last year in an effort to drum up support for district elections, has gathered together a group of community activists and politicians who have a good shot at pulling it off.
"We feel it is the right time,'' Sauceda says. "You are seeing cities across the country returning to district elections because [citizens want] a greater voice in their government."
THE REPUBLICAN CONNECTION
Seattle has toyed with the idea of district elections before. In 1995, a small, well-financed group frustrated with city government collected 40,000 signatures to place a measure on the ballot. Unfortunately, an even better financed group of opponents launched a last-minute TV blitz that helped sink the measure 55 to 45 percent. As far as critics are concerned, 1995 should have been the death knell for district elections. Not only did voters reject the plan, but the whole effort was tainted after city election officials discovered that reclusive Republican millionaire Thomas Stewart and a partner illegally pumped $60,000 into the campaign. (Stewart was pissed that the city council wouldn't let him land his helicopter in West Seattle.)
Opponents are quick to trot out the Stewart fiasco as proof that district elections would make the city more prone to corruption, but they've got it backwards. The Stewart fiasco proved that when you're running an expensive, citywide campaign, money is everything. The campaign for district elections in 1995 was corrupted by money for the same reasons every campaign for city council is corrupted by money: running citywide is expensive.
Outside of government employees (who have an obvious interest in local government), the biggest contributors to city council campaigns read like a who's who of lobbyists, lawyers, and developers, including Preston Gates & Ellis, Wright Runstad, and Pine Street Development. If you are running on a renters' rights platform, it's difficult to overcome the deluge of money landlords pour into the effort to keep you out of city hall. Just ask Council Member Judy Nicastro, who beat the odds two years ago. She is all for district elections.
"The chances of a council member taking up issues for the wealthy are much greater than they are for taking up issues for the poor or non-voting areas of the city," she says. "You only have so many hours in the day, so you are going to spend your time on the neighborhoods that vote, and the neighborhoods that vote aren't the poor ones."
Money stacks the deck against neighborhood candidates. Realistically, you need $100,000 to $150,000 to mount a serious citywide campaign in Seattle (Heidi Wills nearly topped $200,000 in her successful race three years ago). This is actually a selling point for those who favor at-large elections, because it insures that only "serious" candidates will get elected--in other words, candidates who have access to big pots of money.
This all but excludes people like Green Lake's Ref Lindmark, who'd make a great candidate in almost any other city. He is smart, committed, well known in his community, and knowledgeable about local issues. He's also not stupid.
"There is no doubt that running citywide, people who run for that position need to commit huge amounts of money and time, and that absolutely deters neighborhood folks from stepping into the fray," Lindmark says.
Candidates running citywide also have to quit their jobs or take a long leave of absence. That's no big deal if your job allows you to swing it--but you can forget about running for city council if you're not wealthy or if you have dependents.
"I chose to live on a credit card for eight months, but I didn't have children to feed," Nicastro says. "Local government shouldn't be that inaccessible."
Big money does more than keep good candidates from running. It also tips the scales of influence toward those who write the big checks. The city recently raised the maximum contribution level to $600 from $400, which has made a disturbing trend in local fundraising even worse--politicians are getting more money from fewer people. For council members who already enjoy the power of incumbency, the high price of campaigns is usually enough to scare away any serious challengers. That's why they rarely lose.
When Michael Preston filed his papers to run, Richard Conlin already had more in his war chest than Preston would be able to raise during the entire campaign. The same was true for challenger Grant Cogswell, who raised $50,000 to incumbent Richard McIver's $118,000, and lost.
"We can say that challengers simply don't have a chance under the current system," says Sauceda, who never made it past the primary. "Grant Cogswell really put up a fight, but the dollars won. Of the last 18 incumbents who sought reelection, only one was defeated."
District elections promise to make campaigns cheaper--a lot cheaper. Not only will that level the playing field between incumbent candidates and challengers, it will change the way those candidates interact with voters.
The way it works these days, a typical campaign spends three-quarters of its cash on direct mail, campaign staffers, and political consultants. Instead of hitting the streets to talk to voters, candidates hit their mailboxes with slick ads that deliver carefully crafted messages.
"Nobody knew who Heidi Wills was, but she had the money and she filled mailboxes," says Roger Pence, a longtime neighborhood activist from Beacon Hill.
Limiting a campaign to just one area of the city will not just make personal voter contact easier to accomplish, it will make it more important in deciding the outcome of a race. Instead of spreading themselves out across the entire city, candidates can focus their resources on mobilizing community support. Local community leaders, neighborhood activists, working people, and small business owners could think about running.
District elections would blow the political cover that a lot of council members have been hiding behind for years. Candidates would have to understand the important issues at a district level, and voters would have an easier time keeping track of the promises the candidates make. "You can flush out these warm fuzzy candidates who are using electionese rather than defending their records and the stupid votes they made," Preston says.
As Sauceda puts it, "All of a sudden, going door-to-door and focusing on grassroots [can make the difference]. Incumbents will be challenged in a meaningful way, and if they aren't serving the district, they will be defeated."
THE SAN FRANCISCO EXAMPLE
That's basically what happened in San Francisco, which switched to district elections in 2000. Incumbents were swept from office as a flood of new blood entered the race--87 candidates in all vied for the 11 district seats. It was a clear indication that district elections had dismantled the hurdles of money and name recognition that had kept many out of the process before.
"[Mayor] Willie Brown's anointed candidates were squashed by a lot of people who were relatively unknown," says Richard DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University who sat on the board that drew up the city's district boundaries. "[The] argument that district elections would weaken the dependence on downtown money and allow more people to run proved true."
When San Francisco approved district elections, voters were basically buying into the notion that neighborhood politicians would do a better job of making government responsive to neighborhood concerns. People were struggling with rising housing costs, gentrification, a growing disparity between rich and poor, and the perception that downtown got the lion's share of attention. Sound familiar?
Because Seattle's council members aren't responsible for any one part of the city, they focus their time mostly on the committees they chair. There are nine committees, each one tackling a huge subject like "housing, human services and community development," or "water and health." Again, navigating this bureaucracy can be daunting, especially if you are unsure which committee handles your particular issue.
"There have always been advocates for neighborhoods on the council," says Eastlake's Chris Leman. "The problem is, they are spread so thin that it is impossible for them to focus on a neighborhood's needs as thoroughly as they could if they were a district representative."
Nicastro says that, because she has to represent the entire city, her office receives 100 to 400 e-mails a day from constituents. That's more than her staff of three can handle.
"You have to pick and choose, because there are only so many hours in a day," she says. "I know I could give 80,000 people a lot better service than I can give 500,000. People call us for nuts-and-bolts stuff, not broad policy changes. And nuts-and-bolts stuff takes time."
It's also hard to focus on areas of the city that you rarely see, which is another way district elections will change the status quo. Traditionally, council members tend to reside in a handful of wealthy neighborhoods. For decades, wide stretches of the city have been left without a council member living on the block. And that doesn't just include poorer areas of the city--it's been decades since a council member lived in Magnolia or Ballard.
"There are neighborhoods in Seattle that will never elect a council member unless we have district elections," says Green Lake's Lindmark.
Why does geographic diversity matter? It is difficult to overstate the benefit of having a representative in city hall who drives the same streets, shops at the same stores, plays in the same park, and pays rent to the same landlord as you do.
"All neighborhoods would gain," says Licata. "There would be a great sensitivity to funding smaller projects rather than bigger projects."
Getting city hall to think in terms of districts would affect more than just the council. You can bet that someone would make sure the people serving on the dozens of boards and commissions also came from every corner of the city. That was the case in San Francisco.
"District elections immediately began to reshape the city's politics," SFSU's DeLeon says.
District elections would go beyond ensuring geographic diversity in representation. To Seattle's credit, the city hasn't had much trouble attracting and electing a pretty diverse group, at least in terms of race, gender, and sexual identity. But recent elections have proven that past performance is no guarantee it will continue. As it stands now, the council has no Asian members, and just one black member, Richard McIver.
"If Grant Cogswell had a little more political horsepower, we would have been back to the lily-white council of the 1940s and '50s," Pence says.
District elections would help stop that sort of backsliding. There would be at least two or three minority seats on the council.
Gains wouldn't only be based on skin color. District elections would also open the door to a bigger mix of political and philosophical viewpoints. It's even conceivable that a Republican could get elected to city council.
"It opens it up to people who have been active in their neighborhoods, who are known by the community councils," Preston says. "It opens it up to... Greens, and it opens it up to progressives."
But all this talk about neighborhoods electing their own representatives to the council feeds one of the biggest fears about district elections--that too much focus on neighborhood issues can be a bad thing. The argument goes something like this: District elections will Balkanize the city by pitting narrow-minded NIMBY politicians against each other in a mad scramble for money to fix potholes. Meanwhile, there won't be anyone on the council with the time or smarts to handle complex subjects like water and transportation.
This perceived retreat from big-picture government is what freaks out columnists at the daily newspapers. But the argument assumes a few things that just aren't true. One, that neighborhood-based politicians will be too stupid to grasp the citywide nature of problems like congestion and housing. Two, that voters will be stupid enough to elect such stupid people. It also ignores the fact that we elect a mayor to focus on the big issues.
"That is a specious argument put out by people who don't want [district elections]," says Tom Ammiano, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And he should know. It is one of the arguments he heard all the time as he led the effort to create San Francisco's district system. In San Francisco, the newly elected board of supervisors respresenting districts grappled with issues ranging from the creation of a public utilities district to limiting the conversion of residential loft spaces into offices.
"The fear was that the board would become much more provincial," says SFSU's DeLeon. "I haven't seen any evidence of that. I would say this board is much more broad-minded, even taking on issues of global concern. This board thinks big."
Board members think big from the perspective of the neighborhoods they represent. And that shift has helped members avoid being overly bogged down in petty politics, Ammiano says.
"If anything, it is a more unified board, because as members, you see the commonality of issues you deal with every day," he says. "You think about the entire city rather than just what's good for downtown, with a little extra thrown in for the neighborhoods."
And that is just the kind of thinking Seattle needs.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
During the last campaign for district elections, the entire city council, the mayor, and the city's downtown business establishment opposed the initiative. This time out, the proposal has some friends in high places--council members Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro, and most importantly, the new mayor.
Greg Nickels has been on both sides of the debate--first as an aide to then-City Council Member Norm Rice, then as King County Council Member for the West Seattle and Vashon Island district.
"Seattle is now large enough and diverse enough that district representation is needed," Nickels says. "There are neighborhoods around Seattle that don't feel included or represented, and that is very much cured by district elections. Vashon Island was less than 10 percent of my district [when I was on the county council], but they knew I was the person to go to. And if I ignored them, I did it at my own peril."
He brushes off critics who say that he's only supporting district elections to knock the troublesome city council down a few pegs. If anything, the mayor argues, the council will become even more independent, because individual members will be able to nurture a much stronger political base at the neighborhood level.
He's right, too. Just look at San Francisco, where district elections finally produced a board of supervisors strong enough to break the mayor. If anything, Nickels is taking a chance that he will end up with council members who don't give a damn if they piss him off.
Nickels wasn't always a fan of the district system. But if he had any lingering doubts, they were wiped away during his campaign. He heard the same complaints about unresponsive government in West Seattle, Ballard, Lake City, and Southeast Seattle.
"When I went around the city during the campaign, there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the current system,'' Nickels says. "There is a lot of grassroots support for change."