Despite the grand political theater of Monday’s inauguration at Seattle City Hall, you can make a case that the biggest Seattle political story of the year was mostly ignored by the media, including me.
“This is the biggest shake-up in decades, in my lifetime,” said former Seattle City Council member and mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck.
“The individuals and personalities come and go. This is structural change, institutional change.”
He’s talking about Charter Amendment 19, the successful measure on November’s ballot that shifted Seattle from citywide elections to district elections for City Council.
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The city’s political incumbents and their advisers are also talking about it, and not in friendly terms. Since Charter Amendment 19 passed by a 2-to-1 margin, I’ve heard it described as corrosive, an inducement for petty provincialism and a wiping clean of civility and city history. Chicago’s history of corrupt ward politics gets invoked.
Political consultant Monisha Harrell was only half joking when she suggested we’re in for “ ‘Hunger Games’ on the City Council.”
There’s a reason for the angst. Seattle, whether it knows it or not, just shook out the political rug, and that’s usually not good for the status quo. If a socialist on the City Council makes the establishment nervous, try two. District elections throw open the door of City Hall for longshot candidates.
Since district elections were mostly glanced over before the election, a quick refresher: Beginning in 2015, seven of nine City Council seats will be up for election by district; two will remain citywide at-large positions. The district boundaries were drawn by Richard Morrill, a respected demographer who has no dog in the fight.
District elections have been kicked around for years, but were rejected in 1975, 1995 and 2003. Most other big cities already have district representation.
Why this year?
Because Seattle has hit the refresh button on activism while the City Council has been its most stable in a generation. Newly-elected socialist Kshama Sawant’s eight other council members have won a combined 22 elections; six members remain from the class of 2008. Before Sawant’s election, the average age of the nine council members was 61.3. The median age in Seattle is 36. That gap, and the palpable vigor of a new progressive movement, made the issue ripe.
The energy is seen on the Facebook pages for each of the seven new districts (Google “Seattle District 1,” “Seattle District 2,” etc.), alive with comment and dissent, filtered through a hyperlocal lens.
“What I think is interesting is that people are already talking about 2015,” said Bill Bradburd, chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition.
With districts comprising about 88,000 people, a candidate can credibly chart a path to victory with doorbelling, and not just with the six-figure fundraising that has become routine in the current system. Bradburd proudly notes that City Council members, who were derided as out-of-touch by district-election proponents, are already discussing opening district offices.
It will be fascinating to watch this unfold. What are the issues of, say, District 6 (Ballard, Green Lake, Blue Ridge) — a light rail extension? Maritime protection? Bar hours? Homeless services?
Finding cross-district commonality, I suspect, will lead to coalitions, and not just to a “Hunger Games” style of me-first protectionism. Seattle, with a few notable exceptions, historically likes its politics nice and collegial.
Call it an experiment. We seem to be leaning toward controlled upheaval of the norm, such as with marijuana legalization. Political assumptions aren’t cast in amber.
If this experiment proves a disaster, we can always throw the bums — and the new electoral system they rode in on — out.
Jonathan Martin’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org