Campaign Surprise

At a recent city council candidate forum, incumbent Heidi Wills introduced herself as "the progressive candidate in the race." It was a curious moment. It's not that Wills isn't a progressive, or at least a strong environmentalist. But why so defensive? Could Wills be worried about kooky Naderite Christal Wood? Not likely. Wills, by simply printing her resume, could quickly knock off Wood (who has raised $0). Still, Wills' claim seemed panicky and tactical. I didn't get it.

Then the other candidate in Wills' contest, former Norm Rice aide and United Way staffer David Della--who'd been underwhelming until now--spoke. Suddenly it was obvious. Wills was worried about Della, who's improved dramatically in recent weeks and raised over $60,000. Word has it that Wills intends to go negative. Her strategy: painting Della as a downtown conservative while promoting herself as a tree-hugging progressive. This race just got interesting.

Conventional wisdom heading into this year's city council elections had it that loudmouthed incumbent Judy Nicastro was the vulnerable one while tippy-toeing, richie-rich incumbent Wills ($162,000 raised, so far) was a shoo-in. But as the election season unfolds, the handicapping has changed. The Nicastro-naysayers had forgotten that Judy is a badass campaigner who can channel Huey Long on the stump. Meanwhile, Wills' challenger Della, who flubbed a few early outings with vague tripe about "vision" and "bringing people together," is stronger than expected. More than a few people have noticed that Della's been stealing the show lately. There's even talk that the 46th District Democrats were so impressed with Della's recent performance in Northgate that they may endorse him. (This would be news. Wills, a former Democratic Party precinct committee officer, is supposed to have immovable Democratic support.)

Della's resurgence is largely based on his critique of Wills' absentee stewardship over Seattle City Light (a $1.7 billion debt, a 60 percent rate hike spread over four increases), which he follows with a voter-friendly "five-point plan" to fix the utility.

While it's certainly true that Wills is a serious environmentalist and a progressive--albeit a sometimes unreliable one--Della is hardly a Bushie. He was a union organizer for Cannery Workers Local #37 in Seattle in the early '80s, he chaired Seattle's Human Rights Commission in the mid-'80s, and he's been endorsed by local lefty Dems like Larry Gossett, Velma Veloria, and Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney.

As for Wills' environmental record, Della, the son of Filipino immigrants, claims to have a record of his own. In a pointed barb, Della says his environmentalism isn't the lily-white variety--it's about challenging environmental racism. He points to his work supporting the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, fighting a planned Beacon Hill

medical waste incinerator. Wills, for her part, still hypes the UW recycling program she started as a student, the green wind-power contract she lined up for Seattle City Light, and her Toyota Prius.

It looks like Wills has a real fight on her hands.

josh@thestranger.com

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