On a recent lazy afternoon, I'm sitting with Falkenbury on the second-story outdoor patio at the Red Door in Fremont. We're across the street from the ramshackle trailer that serves as Falkenbury's headquarters, and I've more or less accepted by this point that all my carefully planned questions are no match for Falkenbury's supercharged pinball machine of a brain. Falkenbury doesn't just dominate the conversation--he throttles it. No sooner have I asked a question about traffic congestion than the conversation careens helplessly from fireboats to the history of printing presses to just how far a person can drive on a blown-out tire before permanently damaging the wheel. All the while, Falkenbury--a giant, long-torsoed galoot of a man with scraggly hair and an unkempt, almost haphazard appearance--is a frenzy of motion: throwing ice cubes, diving under the table as a plane passes overhead, and stuffing French fries in his mouth like quarters into a Vegas slot machine.
"We don't have the money for the big [transportation] megaprojects," Falkenbury declaims. "I can't think of any I would do. Thirteen billion dollars"--the high-end estimate for replacing and burying the Alaskan Way Viaduct--is "everything we've got. That's schools, cops--it's everything. That's insane to talk about that as if it's a good alternative. There's no one mile of traffic that's so crucial that we'll fix everything if we fix that."
Falkenbury's mania for ideas--so unlike his two front-running opponents, who seem to be campaigning on the premise that the council needs consensus, not vision--is one reason so many people, from City Attorney Tom Carr to Seattle City Council member Nick Licata (neither of whom has endorsed anyone in Pageler's race), believe he would be a good addition to the Seattle City Council. Recalling the years they worked together on the monorail board, Carr says Falkenbury was often plotting world domination when others were focused on the weeds in the back yard. "He was always ten steps ahead of you," Carr says. "We'd be trying to figure out how we could get through next week, and he'd be talking about how we should sell advertising on the trains." While many on the council spend their time complaining that Mayor Greg Nickels unfairly dominates the council's agenda (rather than doing anything about it), Falkenbury cuts through the bullshit and comes up with not only criticisms, but alternatives. "Dick has an incredibly creative mind," says Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) board chairman Tom Weeks, who worked with Falkenbury for two years on the board of SMP's precursor, the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC). Whatever you think of Falkenbury's ill-conceived, sometimes half-baked notions, his occasional bursts of brilliance are what separate this candidate from most members of the current do-nothing city council, which seems incapable of presenting a compelling, competitive vision.
You want ideas? Falkenbury has hundreds. As a city council member, he'd start by doing the simple stuff--synchronizing traffic lights, putting the ship canal drawbridges on a schedule, passing out smoke detectors to every house in the city, and towing people's cars if they break down too frequently--rather than wasting millions widening Mercer Street and building a Paul Allen-backed streetcar line from downtown to South Lake Union. If some of his proposals sound a little draconian, Falkenbury says the end result is worth the short-term pain. "I can tell you, you'll be glad to drive on my roads because you won't be stuck on 520 while some jerkoff has run out of gas for the third time," he says. "We need to manage traffic, instead of letting traffic manage us."
Falkenbury, who's running as an anti-Sound Transit, Charlie Chong-style pro-neighborhood candidate, ought to be running at the head of the pack. But oddly, his top two opponents--incumbent Pageler, who in her 12 years in office has morphed from a neighborhood candidate to the head of the council's pro-business bloc and was head cheerleader for Sidran's civility laws along the way, and longtime city employee Tom Rasmussen, most recently the head of the mayor's office for senior citizens--are splitting up the big endorsements and donations, with $100,000 and $91,000, respectively. Falkenbury, in contrast, has pulled in just $5,800. "I still don't think people are taking him seriously, and I don't know that he's got time to make himself credible before the primary," says longtime friend and local political consultant Cathy Allen. "He's hardly raising any money."
That's too bad, because it's clear that Falkenbury's pitch is striking a chord. At several recent Democratic campaign forums, Rasmussen and Pageler have traded in sound bites, with Pageler (who tried to leave the council for a job at the chamber of commerce in early 2002) repeating how "delighted" she is to be running and Rasmussen vowing blandly to be a council member "who listens and can work with" others. Meanwhile, Falkenbury--speaking without the benefit of a microphone or a script--has quietly dominated campaign events, winning sincere applause and even, at a forum held by Northwest Seattle Democrats in Ballard two weeks ago, one amen.
One week after the Ballard forum, I'm standing in the basement of Dick Falkenbury's childhood home in Wedgwood, the bucolic northeast Seattle neighborhood where Falkenbury, 50, still lives. The walls are covered in faded fake-wood paneling, and the '60s-era linoleum in Falkenbury's modest kitchen would benefit from a couple gallons of Clorox. Cans of ravioli and chicken noodle soup line the exposed plastic shelves, and the dim outdoor light is augmented by a pair of bare compact-fluorescent bulbs that hang from the low ceiling like afterthoughts. Falkenbury's furniture--a homemade bed and wardrobe, a few forlorn-looking wooden shelves--is arranged haphazardly, and the books that are scattered everywhere--weighty tomes on Custer, Napoleon, and James Madison--are the only personal touches in a bedroom that looks like an archaeological discovery from 1972, the year Falkenbury graduated from Roosevelt High School in northeast Seattle. You almost expect to see a poster of Alice Cooper on the closet door.
For a guy who lives with his mother (and brings her to every campaign forum), Falkenbury is surprisingly rebellious. Except for a stint as a restaurant worker in Yellowstone National Park the summer after he graduated from high school, Falkenbury has never held a regular job; he tried his hand at being a landlord and at selling baked potatoes from a cart on the Ave before settling into a long-term gig as a cab driver and occasional tour guide. The baked-potato cart flopped, and he had to sell the rental house when a tenant failed to pay rent for eight months, costing Falkenbury $8,000. "The only way I finally got her out was I actually loaded up my truck three times and carried her stuff over to her new place," he says.
But it was Falkenbury's long-term gig driving a cab that sealed his now-iconic reputation as "the cab driver half of the monorail campaign," as the New York Times called him in a front-page story in 1997. Frustrated by Seattle's traffic, Falkenbury came up with the idea for an elevated extension of the one-mile downtown-to-Seattle Center monorail, which he promoted and got on the ballot, with virtually no financial support, in 1997. Almost single-handedly, former ETC board member Carr recalls, Falkenbury "went out and won the election" at a time when "everybody was sort of joking about it," as if the monorail were about as real a transportation solution as personal jetpack helicopters.
"I thought it was a bit of a fantasy," says council member Nick Licata, who won his first term on the council on the same ticket as the original monorail initiative in 1997. "I would have given him zero chance on the monorail." Over time, however, Licata came to respect Falkenbury both as a visionary and a pragmatist. "The thing that I liked most about Dick was his ability... to articulate his dream in a forceful but also rational way," Licata says. "He wasn't just a loony. He had his facts together. It gave him a tremendous amount of credence, even though he was, as they say, just a taxi driver."
Clearly, the monorail wasn't just a fluke dreamed up by an intellectually diffuse visionary. On the contrary, Falkenbury is an idea machine--and of every 10 notions that spill from his mouth, at least one shines with forehead-slapping clarity. A brief conversation with Falkenbury reveals the range of his ideas. For example, Falkenbury wants to shoot perpendicular bridges off the sides of 520, allowing people to drive their broken-down vehicles out of traffic--which sounds, frankly, nuts. On the other hand, he also proposes replacing meter readers' three-wheeled golf carts and Toyota SUVs, which cost "a fortune" to insure, with a fleet of Segways, which studies show are not only cheaper but double workers' productivity--not a bad idea. And he'd like the city to monitor traffic conditions by computer, so that people driving on the freeway can see how conditions are five miles down the road and adjust their trips accordingly--which is, when you think about it, kind of brilliant.
Falkenbury's solutions can sound simplistic, but the bedrock message--don't waste money fixing problems when you can prevent them--applies equally to every city boondoggle, from the planned expansion of Mercer Street to the South Lake Union streetcar to the $166 million downtown library. "In this new fiscal reality, we shouldn't build anything we can't afford to operate... When there are neighborhoods that don't have adequate sidewalks, why are we going to spend $40 million on a streetcar that's actually going to make the [traffic] situation worse?"
Peter Sherwin, author of the second monorail initiative, I-53, seems like a natural supporter for Falkenbury's quixotic campaign. After all, he backed Cogswell, donating $600 to Cogswell's campaign. But despite the two men's ideological affinity, Sherwin hasn't contributed a single dime to Falkenbury's campaign, and odds are, he never will. "I haven't given him a penny," Sherwin says.
There's a reason some people are reluctant to open their wallets. Falkenbury isn't just opinionated--he's exasperating. He'll bludgeon you with an idea until you concede the point, or he'll spend three hours trying. That tendency to say what he thinks, without the kind of social niceties with which most people leaven their conversations, is both Falkenbury's downfall and, paradoxically, his most disarming quality.
Carr, who counts himself among those who find Falkenbury's honesty charming, not overbearing, remembers that the first time he met Falkenbury, the cab driver came up to the future monorail board member and told him, "'We don't need any goddamn lawyers on this [board].' I was a little taken aback," Carr chuckles. "He's about the most honest guy you would ever want to meet. He really did believe we didn't need any goddamn lawyers on this thing."
Indeed, that very candidness could explain why so many of the motions Falkenbury made during his six years on the monorail board died for lack of a second, and why he (unlike Cogswell) can't raise enough money to buy decent yard signs, let alone pay a consultant or send out campaign flyers. (Just the other day, Falkenbury was standing in his front yard, spray-painting his name on eight-foot pieces of plywood he rescued from a salvage heap; his "yard signs," 4-by-24-inch vertical strips that cost 10 cents apiece, are attached to filthy stakes Falkenbury dug out of a Dumpster.) Seattle Monorail Project board member Cindi Laws, another outspoken monorail acolyte, says Falkenbury's style "doesn't mix well in Seattle's overly polite society." And Nick Licata, a former insurance agent whose buttoned-down appearance belies his lefty-radical politics, says the unfortunate truth in Seattle is that "people discount what's there if they don't like the packaging."
Sherwin believes Falkenbury's recalcitrance is deeper seated. He says that when he tried to convince Falkenbury to help him get the monorail passed a second time in 2000, Falkenbury not only refused to help, he launched his own competing campaign--a tactic he repeated in 2002, when the monorail car tax passed by a reed-thin 877-vote margin. "I've never really worked with him," Sherwin says. "Dick works alone."
"There are a number of rules of politics Dick doesn't play by," SMP board chair Weeks says. "He doesn't do all that polite Seattle process stuff." Laws, who worked with Falkenbury on the ETC board, agrees. "Dick doesn't like to compromise," she says. "That's why he frequently was on the losing side of votes, often by a substantial margin." Indeed, there were some people on the board, Laws recalls, who "would oppose anything Dick would say; it didn't matter what it was." Falkenbury remembers, with evident bitterness, a motion he made that would have tied Monorail Project staff bonuses to job performance, which failed to get a second from other members of the board. "You'd think that, just out of courtesy, someone would say, 'Look, I want to have further discussion of this,'" Falkenbury says. "That hurt." Falkenbury resigned from the board in February, citing frustration with the board's consensus politics.
In a just universe, guys like Dick Falkenbury would have schools and libraries named in their honor. At the very least, they wouldn't be living in their mothers' basements while guys like Joel Horn, the schmoozy director of the Seattle Monorail Project, make $172,000 a year. After all, Falkenbury not only came up with the monorail idea, he was right about one of the biggest issues in Seattle's transportation history: light rail, which he predicted in 1996 to King County Council member Larry Phillips would never be built on time. "So far, I'm more right than he is," Falkenbury laughs.
Instead of being lauded for his vision, Falkenbury has been dismissed, in the press and by his political opponents, as "just a cab driver." Never mind that he has a college degree (from Fairhaven College, the hippie division of Western Washington University) and can hold his own on every topic from Bob Dylan to the bubonic plague. "Here's a guy who was pushing something that was opposed by the so-called best and brightest of our society," says Laws. "They said, 'He's just a taxi driver. What does a taxi driver know about transportation?'" The irony is that unlike focus-group consultants in their hermetic rooms, Falkenbury went out night after night and talked to Seattle's citizens about what they wanted their city to be. "Agencies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to collect data on what citizens feel and believe and want," Laws says. "I don't understand why, if a consultant collects that information, it's respected, and if a taxi driver does, it's scorned."
Falkenbury himself has spent plenty of time mulling over that very conundrum. "I don't have money. I don't have a prestigious job. I don't have an organization behind me," Falkenbury says. "What I have is that all this time, I've been right on what really works and what doesn't. And for one thing, I should get some respect for that by now. I've been more right than they've been by a long shot, and somebody ought to stand up and say, 'Why can't we listen to this guy a little bit?'"
Despite the odds against him, nearly everyone contacted for this story believed, against all conventional wisdom, that Falkenbury has a shot--albeit a long one--against Pageler, a 12-year incumbent who many perceive as washed up and uninterested in her current job. Only Cathy Allen seems to consider Falkenbury an automatic also-ran. And she's working for Margaret Pageler.
The question is, can Falkenbury get his name in voters' heads without the $40,000 he would need, at a minimum, to run a conventional campaign? Even Falkenbury--who has vowed not to run a negative campaign--has his doubts. "This is a really grueling thing on your psyche, especially if you're doing it wrong like I am," he says. "Money raising is not going well. So I'm going to have to be small and lean." That means no fancy campaign flyers, no paid consultants, and no phone bank; Falkenbury makes all his calls, in fact, from a single phone line inside the $280-a-month trailer. But as Carr, who says he "wouldn't be surprised" if Falkenbury pulled it off, notes, "Nobody will work harder than Dick Falkenbury."
And Cindi Laws, perhaps the truest believer among Falkenbury's many fans, points out that as long as Falkenbury has been involved in Seattle politics, people have been downplaying his political acumen. "People have underestimated Dick Falkenbury for a long time. The one thing I tell people is, 'You should never underestimate Dick Falkenbury.'"