When Seattle City Council President Jan Drago heard former newspaper columnist and mayoral aide Casey Corr had decided to run against her...

Share story

When Seattle City Council President Jan Drago heard former newspaper columnist and mayoral aide Casey Corr had decided to run against her this year, she unearthed a sordid piece of his past to use against him.

His sin? Corr once wrote something nice about U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. He praised a Republican. Evidence, Drago implied, of secret conservative leanings.

Such is the state of Seattle City Council politics. Officially, nonpartisan. More accurately, monopartisan.

Even 2003’s historic council shakeup, in which three incumbents were ousted, did nothing to broaden the council’s political range — which runs from liberal Democrat to even-more-liberal Democrat. And this fall, as four of nine members face re-election, it is again unlikely to change.

In a city that handed 81 percent of its presidential votes to John Kerry last year, the reigning political orthodoxy is not entirely surprising. Because every council position is elected citywide, rather than by district, successful candidates generally must appeal to the same coalition of Democratic activists, environmentalists, unions and downtown business interests.

“Anything that is not part of that … is out of the mainstream of Seattle politics,” Drago said.

But while the council is representative of Seattle as a whole, some say it does not accurately represent all of the city’s parts.

Come election season, while council candidates scrap over the endorsement of Democratic district groups, they shun the city’s Republican organizations.

“If a councilperson approached us and said they wanted to talk, we would be open,” said Walter Weaver, chairman of the 46th District Republicans of North Seattle. But no one has asked.

Close associations with third parties, such as the Greens, are also off-limits for top council contenders hoping to win the blessing of the city’s ruling party.

There are shades of difference on the council. Some members, such as Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck, form the most liberal wing and often clash with Mayor Greg Nickels. Others, such as Drago and Richard McIver, have a reputation as being more business-friendly.

Seattle’s Democratic majority mirrors the experience of most large cities, which have increasingly become Democratic bastions surrounded by more conservative suburbs and deeply Republican rural areas. Last year, just two Seattle precincts voted for President Bush.

The national trend was confirmed in a study published in 2003 by the National League of Cities, conducted by professor James Svara, head of the political-science department at North Carolina State University.

By 2001, Svara found, 52 percent of city-council members in cities larger than 200,000 identified as Democrats, while just 19 percent were Republicans.

It wasn’t always that way.

A couple of decades ago, Republicans regularly served on Seattle’s council. Some, such as John Miller and Bruce Chapman, were elected as part of a reform movement in the 1970s. But no Republican council member has been elected since 1991, when Paul Kraabel retired after serving four terms.

“When I look back, when there were other Republicans there, it was pretty delightfully nonpartisan,” Kraabel said.

“It’s easier to say, ‘He’s a Republican, vote no’ — then, you don’t have to think. But it doesn’t make for healthy politics.”

Seattle neighborhoods also used to elect Republican state legislators, including Joel Pritchard and Dan Evans — even Slade Gorton, who represented a North Seattle legislative district in the 1960s.

Now the City Council president hurls Gorton’s name like an insult.

Drago assailed Corr’s Gorton-praising column, which came one month before the 2000 election. In it, Corr complimented the senator for his knowledge of technology issues, a supposed strength of his Democratic opponent, Maria Cantwell.

Drago seized on that as evidence of what she dubbed Corr’s “conservative” leanings. Lest anyone fail to get the point, she referred to Corr as “conservative” three times in the first three sentences of a statement e-mailed to reporters.

Ironically, in the limited political spectrum at City Hall, Drago has been regarded as one of the council’s more conservative members.

Still, she is distributing campaign fliers accusing Corr of holding views outside of the acceptable Seattle mainstream.

Not only did Corr once say something nice about a Republican, according to Drago’s flier, he also sinned by criticizing a Seattle property-tax levy. And he likened the campaign against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 to “a cheap horror movie.”

Corr said his role as a columnist was to challenge conventional wisdom. He dismissed the Drago attacks as an attempt “to change the subject from her ineffective leadership” on issues such as the monorail.

Yet he has taken pains to note that he, too, is a Democrat, and said he voted against I-695. In a letter to fellow Democrats, two of his supporters likened Drago’s tactics to those of Bush adviser Karl Rove.

Corr isn’t alone in having his Democratic purity questioned by opponents.

Darlene Madenwald, a Democrat running against Councilman Richard Conlin, has taken heat for endorsing Republican Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, a longtime friend.

“It has been a little frustrating. People seem to think you can only get on the City Council if you are a Democrat, pure and pure,” Madenwald said.

Council candidates also face trouble if they veer to the left of the Democratic Party.

Membership in the Green Party was, for a short time in the 1990s, a trend at City Hall. But since the party backed Ralph Nader in 2000, Greens have been vilified.

Paige Miller, a Port of Seattle commissioner also running against Conlin, wrote a letter to King County Democratic Party officials last month reminding them of Conlin’s past Green Party flirtations. “Either you are a Democrat or you aren’t,” Miller wrote, while outlining her own loyalty to the party.

The tactic didn’t work against Conlin, who renounced the Greens when they backed Nader. He traveled to Ohio to volunteer for John Kerry last fall and swept the recent round of local Democratic Party endorsements.

Conlin said he joined the Greens because he saw them as a way to bump the Democratic Party to the left. “Then when I saw they were beginning to think of themselves as an alternative party I dropped out,” he said.

This year the only candidate of 12 asserting anything but strong Democratic ties is Linda Averill. A socialist running in the Sept. 20 primary for Drago’s seat, Averill received 10 percent of the vote when she ran for the council in 2003.

As long as council members are elected at large, the council’s basic nature is unlikely to change, observers say. Seattle voters have rejected district elections three times, most recently in 2003.

Republicans joined with some liberal activists to endorse the failed districts measure two years ago. They hoped districts would give different sorts of candidates a shot at being elected.

John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and a vocal critic of city aid to billionaire Paul Allen’s development plans around South Lake Union, supported the districts measure. He’s frustrated with a council he sees as dominated by “corporate liberals.”

Fox said he’d welcome even a couple of Republicans on the council.

“In some respects, having a Republican or two might be healthy,” he said. “They might be more critical of this give-away-the-farm attitude.”

Weaver, the Republican district chairman, predicted his party likely will remain an outsider in city politics for the foreseeable future.

“You can’t afford to run citywide unless you’ve got the label that says, ‘Hey, I am a Democrat.’ ” he said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com