Farewell, Seattle City Hall. I've been covering you for The Stranger for more than a year now, and I've learned many things in your elevators and hallways. But a new job at a non-profit is calling, so goodbye Sally Clark jokes, goodbye Stranger office weed table, goodbye walking half an hour to committee meetings in the rain. And hello to a life in which I seem to have come into possession of something arcane and unexpected: a little bit of wisdom about the inner-workings on our city government, a useful thing to have at a time when every last elected on the second floor of City Hall—that's right, the entire Seattle City Council—is about to have to stand for election next year because of our voter-approved move to district elections.
So gather around, lucky people who walk through life blissfully ignorant of Sally Clark's wit. (And "wit.") I used to be one of you. Now that I'm not, here's what I know.
When someone wants to run for office, one of the first questions they run into is whether they can raise enough money to win a campaign. Which means that most politicians, even our small-scale local ones, are people who have access to rich people—either they're rich or they have rich friends. If you, like I, can't imagine opening your phone right now, calling someone in your contacts list, and asking them to write you a $700 check right this second so you can go be important somewhere, then you (and I) are not politicians. Sure, it's Seattle, so they still dress poorly and ride bikes, but they're different from you and I in that one very important way: $$$$$$$$$. (Yeah, every once in a while, a hardworking activist gets in there, but that's the exception, not the rule.)
Here's another quick lesson about city hall: Sometimes you think "Gee, my [office/workplace] sure is like a stupid high school sometimes," right? But hoo-boy, y'all have nothing on City Hall! Imagine if instead of just the couple difficult people you work with, basically everyone in your building thought they were Really Incredibly Important and/or all the work they were doing was Really Incredibly Important, plus a lot of what you worked on was covered in the newspaper. Now multiply normal high-school drama by, I dunno, 1,000,000? Taa-daa! You have city hall.
Lastly: There are nine city council members, one mayor, and sometimes a city attorney or police chief who get a lot of attention. Then there are around 10,000 other city employees. Guess whose job is doing all the work, and guess whose job is talking about all the work? Yeah.
THE CITY COUNCIL
Part of my job was going to the second floor of City Hall, signing in, and then wandering around the city council offices harassing people. Freedom of the press!
If you'd like to do that, I think you have to make an appointment. If you somehow end up back there, and you want to get some good dirt, here's something that never works: Asking people, "Hey, you got any good stories?" Don't even try it. No one ever says anything worth hearing in response. Some ideas I've heard after asking that: (1) A suggestion that I write a rundown of the city council's footwear. (2) Some story based on a "document" that's so big it needs more than one binder to contain all the pages. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
So maybe you're thinking: I'll just meet the council members in person. That'll be interesting. OKAY! But, um, guess who's doing all the work? Their staffers—the people who are actually reading all those goddamn giant binders.
Still, there are a few things you should know about the people who boss around the people who actually read the giant binders.
TIM BURGESS: Tim Burgess is the current city council president. He can be a mastermind of the backroom deal and creative parliamentary maneuver. He's also the kind of guy who people grudgingly respect for his ability to get shit done even if they hate everything he stands for. Dude is INTENSE. But when he fucks up, he fucks up big—his race for mayor fizzled spectacularly last year, and the thing he hopes will be his legacy, namely universal preschool in Seattle, got tied up in a total disaster of a progressive-versus-progressive ballot fight that he and his city hall cronies should have found a way to avoid. (We don't know as of press time whether it passed.) Burgess fucking hates swear words, and most of his staff dress like Republicans and look like startled deer if you try to talk to them—and one of 'em is obviously gonna run for office sometime soon. Heads up.
SALLY BAGSHAW: One of Sally Bagshaw's main jobs is to be nice and friendly. To everyone. Which is a pleasant thing—and she really is nice—but it also means that even if she seems to support your project/legislation/idea, you'll have no idea if she actually does. This drives people crazy. Also: Bagshaw, like Tom Rasmussen, loves to pull a last-minute sneak attack on legislation she doesn't like. It's a well-worn, patent-pending attack in which she tries to amend said legislation with one little word or phrase—but a word or phrase that will completely destroy the bill's purpose with laser-like precision. The coup de grâce: Bagshaw always acts like it's no big deal at all. Also also: Her office used to have the best candy bowl in the building, but those days have passed. :(
SALLY CLARK: Oh, poor Sally "On the One Hand..." Clark. For her tendency to argue both sides of an issue, we have given her pretty much endless shit for the last few years. But hey, nerds: If you want to have an hour-long conversation about the minutiae of some city policy? Call her. It's not like she's a blowhard who hasn't done her work; she just can't land anywhere on any issue. Also, no one has mastered banter from the dais like Clark. Just saying, she deserves props for jokes. (My favorite was when she affected a goofy voice to mock some reporting she thought was unfounded and based on overblown rumors—that was my reporting, ma'am. Sorry 'bout that.)
JEAN GODDEN: Look, I have a soft spot for Godden; I just do. I don't care that she has at times appeared to be taking a li'l nap, seconded a motion she didn't mean to second, or asked where South Lake Union is. I don't have time for old-people jokes. But I can't figure out if she's ever going to get anything done on her big issue, gender pay equity, or if she's gonna let the mayor talk about it to death. Everyone: Please keep checking. No points for effort; I wanna see some real shit.
BRUCE HARRELL: Bruce Harrell cracks me up. He gets really riled up when he thinks people are being stupid, and that can include anyone from perpetually annoying public commenters to socialists to the police union. He's the council's man in charge of the police, and the fact that his office is jointly obsessed with social justice and technology is a perfect fit. Also, his staff is not terrified of reporters, which is always refreshing.
NICK LICATA: Honestly, even though Nick Licata is a hardworking progressive legislator who has authored some of the best bills we've seen, I JUST WANNA TALK ABOUT HIS SUMMER OUTFIT. That tan suit, the ice-cream-colored shirt, that straw hat—I have never seen anyone look so relaxed. Which, actually, is perfect, because I've never seen a council member be so relaxed all the time, either. I dunno if he's always popping a Valium or if he's just the most comfortable politician in the world, but dude is permanently chilled out to the max. (And yet, when it comes to great staff getting shit done, I think his office could basically be considered a fourth branch of government.)
MIKE O'BRIEN: When regular people ask me which council member they should talk to about an issue, I often end up telling them to call Mike O'Brien's office for a simple reason: He's basically the only normal human on the floor. His office is the only one I can guarantee will definitely answer your call or e-mail and will talk to you like a normal person and won't have some Machiavellian political agenda waiting for your issue to fall into. O'Brien doesn't use his big, windowed back office, he just sits out front with his staff, like a normal non-asshole who doesn't think they're the most important person in the room. He's basically the perfect person to helm the land-use committee right now, because his values line up exactly with where Seattle should be heading over the next few years. But a bunch of insane old white homeowners—the kind of people who compare minor low-rise zoning changes to rape at public hearings, I KID YOU NOT—are practically the only people who pay attention to that shit. You guys: Save him. Pay attention to land-use and zoning shit even though it sounds boring. You have to, or Seattle's gonna turn into a rich-kid carnival like San Francisco.
TOM RASMUSSEN: Y'know, I think I might disagree with Tom Rasmussen more than anyone. I'm genuinely unsure if he's capable of empathy. But damn if he's not always totally accessible and readily available for lengthy, honest policy chats. Like I said above, he loves to sneak-attack legislation and undermine it at the last minute (he especially likes to do that when he didn't pay attention to it until the last minute and so missed his many very legitimate opportunities to affect it while it was actually being written). He doesn't care about facts during this part of the process. It's fascinating.
KSHAMA SAWANT: Kshama Sawant is now a big ol' international famous person in left-wing circles, and she probably hasn't gotten an actual night's sleep since she was elected. She won and she's successful because she's ridiculously, mind-blowingly smart and fearless. Her ability to magnetically draw the conversation leftward and to call her colleagues on their bullshit in public is great. But all that said: Her staff is probably the least diverse on the floor, and the last time I tried to talk to her, they told me there was a two-week wait time. That's insane, y'all. Get your act together, people are noticing, and your reputation is to be accessible to The People.
Mayor Ed Murray thinks he's the president. That's the easiest way to explain him. And he's probably felt that way since he was a small child. It's not too crazy a thing, either, right? Like, if he had the grace and charm of Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope, he would just move through life thinking he's slightly more important than he is, and people would notice, but it would not be distracting, and it might even be funny/lovable.
However, this mayor seems to have trouble modulating his emotions, and thus can end up acting really wacked-out when his self-image comes into conflict with what the outside world is saying. Hence his multi-decade reputation for screaming at people, which really, really cuts the charm factor.
But here's the important thing: His values are actually in the right place. Sure, he really loves power, so he only acts completely in accordance with his values like 50 to 75 percent of the time. But he cares so much about your approval—that's you, voters—that you can pretty much shame him into doing the right thing by simply pointing it out loudly when he does the wrong thing. So it doesn't really matter when he gets it wrong, as long as y'all hold his feet to the fire until he turns around. Just a tip!