That pile of political literature that showed up in your mailbox just before Election Day may have only won about three seconds of your attention, but it cost a fortune. Seattle City Council candidates spend tens of thousands paying consultants to come up with eye-grabbing mailers, the biggest single expense for most campaigns. Jean Godden, a contender for council incumbent Judy Nicastro's seat, has paid consultant Cathy Allen nearly $60,000 for mailings since launching her campaign in August. Council incumbent Margaret Pageler, too, has paid dearly for Allen's services, shelling out $46,000 between August 20 and September 8 alone. We sifted through this year's pile of political recycling to see what worked, what didn't, and how candidates tried to manipulate you and win your vote.

For most of the challengers in this year's city and county council races, the theme of this election was maturity: They have it, the incumbents don't. Nearly every challenger--from youngsters like 36-year-old Kollin Min to Seattle Times grande dame Jean Godden, technically the most mature candidate at 71--hammered away at the maturity theme. Godden's signature mailing, a glossy eight-page bio titled "The Jean Godden Story," claimed the former gossip columnist would "lend some maturity to a council that seems to forget that 60 percent of the voters are over 55." Robert Rosencrantz struck a similar theme in his race against Nicastro, using code words like "mature," "experienced," and "supportive family" to draw a contrast between himself and the young, single incumbent.

Twelve-year incumbent Margaret Pageler also played the maturity card, in a heavy-handed attempt to distinguish herself from the wacky kids who've taken over the council chambers. One mailer, titled "The Voice of Reason on Seattle City Council," said: "The Rock of Gibraltar; the Rock of Wrestling; the Rock of the Seattle City Council: Margaret Pageler."

As campaigns heated up, the "maturity" theme evolved into outright attacks. "Circus animals," a reference to Heidi Wills' attempt to end negligent treatment of circus animals, became campaign shorthand for frivolity and time-wasting on the council. Godden's "No More Foolishness" mailer (produced, like "The Jean Godden Story," by consultant Cathy Allen) was ringed with pictures of hands throwing boomerangs, making shadow puppets, and shooting rubber bands. Each hand had a label: "Strip club contributions," "Sanctions on Burma," "Rick's rezone," and so on. "Circus animal ban" was right up at the top. David Della's circus-animals mailing (which screamed, "Under Heidi Wills, City Light has become a Three Ring Circus," and folded out to reveal a convoluted attack on Wills for her role in Seattle City Light rate increases) was another example of the genre.

The two main targets of all this circus-animal baiting, Nicastro and Wills, responded by going on the defensive--though Nicastro's response was, characteristically, as brash as Wills' was subtle. Wills' treacly mailers, produced by consultant John Wyble, showed the incumbent surrounded by sweet old ladies and children, perfectly coiffed and bathed in a shimmering gauze of sunlight. But their message--"The leadership we need... the values we trust"--was a clear (and, ironically, mature) response to Della's over-the-top attacks.

In contrast, Nicastro's "Judy Nicastro: Right or Wrong?" mailing, designed by consultant Blair Butterworth, seemed weirdly defensive: It acknowledged that the freshman council member "made mistakes," but said she was "taking responsibility" for her missteps. Wyble was among those who thought Nicastro "could have defended herself better," noting that the mailer's headline "suggests she may be wrong."

Della's campaign consultant, Michael Grossman, calls his attack mailers "truthful," but the truth is, Della's mailers are more misleading than accurate. As John Gastil, a professor at the UW's school of communications and a former campaign consultant, notes, "Electricity is such a confusing subject. What could Heidi Wills have done about Enron?" If he really wanted to pin City Light's woes on a current council incumbent, Della should have run against Pageler, whose failure to protect the utility against volatile energy prices was largely responsible for the sizable spike in electricity rates. As for circus animals, the ban, proposed by Wills in response to a public outcry against poor treatment of performing animals in 2000, was, Gastil notes, a "winning issue" with a large, vocal constituency--as were Burma sanctions, public toilets, and the Snake River and anti-Iraq-war resolutions.

Big spenders like Della and Godden take note: Some of this year's most effective mailers were produced on a shoestring by county council candidate Bob Ferguson, at a cost of about 36 cents a pop. Ferguson beat his opponent, 20-year incumbent Cynthia Sullivan, by a one-point margin.

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