Later this afternoon, just before the deadline, I will not file to run against four-term incumbent Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin. And believe it or not, it was a very difficult decision that I've been struggling with for weeks.
After nine years of covering Washington state and local politics I've come to the conclusion that Seattle can no longer wait on Olympia to address our problems. Our state's inability to fix its longterm structural revenue deficit dictates a gradual but relentless reduction in the services and infrastructure investments the state can provide. Whatever the result at the polls, unless and until the state finds a way to grow revenue somewhat commensurate with the economy, we will inevitably get the Republican agenda by default. And unable to maintain the transportation, education, and other amenities sufficient to preserve Washington's economic competitiveness, our economy will ultimately sputter and stagnate.
Washington is a state teetering on the edge of decline.
Meanwhile, the "fuck Seattle" attitude that permeates much of the rest of the state, combined with Republicans' knee-jerk opposition to taxes of all kinds for any reason under any circumstances, assures that Olympia cannot be counted on even to grant us the authority to tax ourselves to meet our own needs.
But there is hope. Seattle is a compassionate city, a progressive city, a smart city. But above all, Seattle is an affluent city. And while the revenue options at our disposal may not be the ones we'd prefer, we are wealthy enough to use the options we have to invest in the human and physical infrastructure we need to assure economic growth and prosperity now and in the future. That is, assuming we have political leaders with the vision to embrace a newly self-sufficient Seattle, and the communications skills to sell that vision to voters.
Which we don't.
That is why (besides all the usual narcissistic bullshit that is inherent in politics) I seriously considered challenging Conlin: Because Seattle needs and deserves more than the caretaker council that Conlin has come to epitomize. We need to invest in our children, in our transit, in our roads, and sidewalks, and bikeways now, while we can still afford to, before our economy is dragged down by the rest of the state. If we act proactively while we still have an economy capable of sustaining such investments, we can sustain Seattle's competitiveness, and perhaps even drag the rest of the state kicking and screaming with us.
For example: Seattle desperately needs to invest in the one education reform that everybody agrees works: High quality universal preschool for all three- and four-year-olds.
Despite their stated intentions, lawmakers will never implement universal preschool at the state level because Olympia will never be able to bring itself to raise the tax revenue necessary to pay for it. But we can do it ourselves here in Seattle for approximately $50 to $80 million a year, a bargain considering the extraordinary results and savings it returns. Nothing would do more to close the achievement gap than high quality universal preschool. And had I run for the council, I would have promised to shepherd a Universal Preschool Levy onto the ballot by 2015.
That is the type of proactive investment that Seattle needs its council to champion—on schools, on housing, on transit, and on any number of issues. But time is running out. Boeing is dismantling its presence in our region piece by piece in its inexorable march toward assembling a non-union workforce. The University of Washington—an institution that should serve as a local incubator of technological and economic innovation—is in the process of being defunded by a state that has abandoned its commitment to maintaining an affordable, first rate, public university system. Meanwhile, Seattle is largely pinning its crucial South Lake Union redevelopment plans on the prospects of a single tenant—Amazon—a retailer with tiny margins in a cyclical market. Should Amazon ever hit upon hard times the resulting glut of vacant office space would depress new construction throughout the city, and with it city coffers.
The question is not whether Seattle can afford to invest in things like universal preschool, light rail expansion, and dedicated bikeways. The question is: Can we afford not to make these investments before the window of opportunity closes?
Personally, I've got nothing against Conlin. But over his 16 years on the council he has never displayed the kind of vision that our city needs to take control of its own future, nor frankly, the leadership skills sufficient to justify rewarding him with a fifth four-year term. And that is why I considered challenging Conlin, however quixotic that challenge might have been.
Over the past few days I lined up a consultant and secured almost $8,000 in pledges so that I'd at least have the money to get a campaign up and running out of the gate. I talked with Seattle Ethics & Elections to clear the legality of a working political journalist running a political campaign. And I sought out advice from the local political minds I trust the most. Most urged me to run, though most were bluntly honest that I didn't stand a very good chance. Not no chance—about ten percent seemed to be the consensus. And that was good enough for me.
But while I wasn't afraid of losing, I was afraid of not giving my supporters and contributors their money's worth. A real citywide campaign costs real money—at least $100,000 if not twice that—and raising real money requires several hours a day of call time. I could have run the kind of no-cost campaign where you just show up at forums and endorsement interviews, and make your case. But no matter how serious my message that still would have made my candidacy a joke. And as much as I enjoy a good joke, I didn't want to be one.
Had this been a publicly financed election I would have filed today and run to win. But given the competing demands of fundraising and my already demanding full-time job, I realized that I could not run a serious campaign. And I was unwilling to take money from contributors without giving them a serious campaign in return. While my bosses at The Stranger were fully supportive of my plans to run, we never discussed the prospect of taking a leave of absence, because quite frankly, I couldn't afford to take one. Like many other would be candidates, I was simply too poor to take the plunge.
It's disappointing, because apart from the dreaded call time I think I really would have enjoyed the campaign. And scoff all you want, I honestly believe that I would have made an excellent council member. But it's not like I don't already have a significant platform from which to advocate for a proactively progressive agenda. So for now I'll just have to settle for the privilege of covering the campaign on behalf of Seattle's only newspaper.