Seattle took an odd route to adopting City Council districts, but the change is going to be good for us in the long run. The big vote in favor of districts is part of our maturing as a diverse urban place.
Voters weren’t running away from something bad, but toward having a more connected relationship to our representatives on the council. Both forms of election, at large and by district, come with potential opportunities and potholes, but there are good reasons why districting becomes more common as municipalities get larger.
How do you experience the city? For most of us, our Seattle is where we live and where we work. There are other places where we spend a lot of time and more we rarely visit. We get to know only a few places intimately, but most of us still care about the whole city.
Council members aren’t so different; they may spend more time running from spot to spot, but how much time does that leave for developing deep knowledge of the neighborhoods they visit or the people they meet?
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In my neighborhood, I sometimes run into City Councilmember Sally Clark at the store, or Councilmember Bruce Harrell walking along Lake Washington, because they both live in the area. But I don’t see other members of the council except at community events. I don’t think that is going to change, but the process of getting elected will. Politicians are going to spend a lot more time face to face, getting to know voters in one district.
Ron Sims is well known for meeting, greeting and even hugging anyone within his reach, so he came to mind when I thought about what district politics would look like. He was elected by district as a Metropolitan King County Council member and later worked with district-elected councils when he was King County executive.
Sims praised the current City Council but said there is something different about knocking on doors where you live. “People love having you at their door,” he said. Voters take the opportunity to tell you what’s on their minds, and those conversations follow a candidate. “They knew me. I went to the store, and they talked to me. You knew you were going to be on the spot,” he said. It also made him and other council members understand that their colleagues were in the same position, so that they worked harder to find common ground.
He said that in a citywide election, candidates tend to court the same sources of campaign money, especially since candidates in Seattle are all some variety of liberal. That won’t change entirely, but candidates will also have to depend on donors at neighborhood businesses and churches. He said candidates don’t sell their souls, but they do listen to the people writing the checks.
Over time, Sims said, the district system will create a council that better reflects the diversity and complexity of Seattle.
He recalled a mention in The Seattle Times that the makeup of the current council doesn’t match the makeup of the city. A chart that ran with one story about the charter amendment showed the council is “older, whiter and more affluent than the city as a whole,” and while women are a majority in the city, they are a minority on the council.
Sims said Seattle needs representatives who wonder why the city lost diversity in the last census. “Somehow we missed something that made Seattle not necessarily a place where middle-class people of color could live,” he said.
And while Seattle may be liberal, he said that may mean something different in different parts of the city. The city isn’t homogeneous, he said. If you’re out in the district, people will let you know what their specific concerns are.
They are dominant voices in their neighborhoods, which might suggest a potential danger of the district system — that one or two voices might control a district.
Sims, speaking about other cities, said that can happen when there are lots of small districts, but Seattle will have seven districts, each large and diverse enough in the interests they contain. (Briefly in the early 1900s the city elected council members from 18 districts.) We’ll also still have two council members elected at large.
The new system won’t be perfect. I suspect it will be a little messier than what we have now, but that’s democracy.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org