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Perhaps no one was more surprised than Faye Garneau at the overwhelming approval last week of the charter amendment to elect Seattle City Council members by district.

She co-chaired a failed effort in 1995, sat out the losing 2003 campaign, and despite largely bankrolling this year’s effort to the tune of about $233,000, wasn’t convinced it would turn out differently.

Contacted at the election-night party she threw for supporters at the 125th Street Grill located along her North Aurora Avenue stomping grounds, the 79-year-old businesswoman and philanthropist said happily: “I’m on my second martini.”

After decades of fighting the city over beautification plans for Aurora, parking restrictions, dedicated bus lanes and big levies for road repairs, (“Isn’t that what our taxes are for?”) the conservative Seattle native said she hoped the city would start paying more attention to its neighborhoods.

“It’s my city,” she said. “I really think it’s important that government work for the people.”

Garneau accumulated her wealth the old-fashioned way, working alongside her husband who opened several body shops in the neighborhood. Over a 53-year marriage, they invested in commercial property and, after his death in 2010, she created a foundation whose assets, as she sells off property, could total $20 million.

She and her husband have donated to their Catholic parish, Christ the King, in Broadview, including $3 million to remodel the church school. The Garneau-Nicon Family Foundation awards grants twice a year for projects that seek to improve individuals and enrich the Puget Sound area in fields as varied as religion, literature, arts, medicine and science.

In addition to providing most of the $263,000 raised for the Seattle Districts Now campaign to pass Charter Amendment 19, Garneau opened the office headquarters of her Aurora Avenue Merchants Association for campaign meetings. She answered phones, ordered yard signs, paid bills and strategized with other campaign volunteers, an eclectic group of activists that cut across political parties and ideologies.

“It was a feisty group, and Faye was one of the feisty ones,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Council and the campaign coordinator.

Garneau does not look like someone who just pulled off what supporters say could be the biggest power shift in Seattle politics in modern times. She’s just under 5 feet tall and slightly bowed by age. She wears sensible shoes and comfortable clothes.

Two desks and file cabinets at the far end of the open office leave several thousand square feet of rose-colored carpeting scattered with small rugs.

“Some people think we have Muslim prayer rugs, but in reality we have dogs and dogs have accidents,” Garneau laughs.

Garneau describes herself as a political independent who doesn’t believe in government giveaways.

She also doesn’t believe in what she calls “the racial stuff.”

For instance, SEIU 775, the health-care-workers union, did not get a sympathetic hearing from her when it objected to the map created to go with the districts’ plan. It divides the city into seven geographic council districts and creates two at-large positions. But only one of the new districts has a majority of minorities. The union said it wouldn’t support the measure unless the group redrew the map to create two or three.

Garneau said her reaction was: “We’re all part of the same race. The human race.”

Humor and generous spirit

Garneau met her beloved husband, Eddie, on a blind date when she was 23. He had a “really sharp Mercury” car, a great sense of humor and a generous spirit. He showed up for their wedding with grease around his fingernails. He’d worked late to help a stranded motorist from Alaska get his car back on the road.

Over the years, Eddie built several repair shops himself with service bays equipped with the latest equipment from around the world. The couple didn’t have children. They lived modestly. Garneau kept track of the money.

“We could afford to keep investing,” she said. A trip to an international automotive-repair conference in London whetted their appetite for travel. They visited Kenya, Siberia, Russia, Tibet and South America, making new friends wherever they went.

They also bought their own airplane, a four-seat Rockwell Air Commander.

Asked if she learned to fly it, Garneau says, “Absolutely. You think I’m going to spend time in the air being afraid? I want to know what’s going on.”

The couple’s niece, Leeanna Shaw, who has taken over many business duties from Garneau since her uncle’s death, said of the couple: “They were matching bookends and everything in between was shared.”

Aurora problems

In 1988, Garneau helped found the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association to fight chronic problems with prostitution and drug deals. A decade later, the business owners fought a city plan to run a median up the middle of the highway, build sidewalks and otherwise beautify a stretch that’s been described as a 5-mile-long strip mall.

Garneau argued that a median with trees and landscaping would make left turns difficult, eliminate parking and hurt the estimated 500 businesses between Green Lake and Shoreline that depend on easy car access and freight deliveries. What’s worse, she said, the estimated $80 million street-improvement project wouldn’t address the frequent flooding in the area.

She skirmished with the city over rush-hour parking restrictions that create a dedicated lane for buses.

In 2011, she worked to defeat a $60 car-tab fee for the same reason she opposed the $365 million Bridging the Gap transportation levy. Maintaining roads is a basic function of government that shouldn’t require additional taxes.

“They get enough tax money as it is. They’re supposed to prioritize,” Garneau said.

Over the years, she said, the message from the city seemed to be that the neighborhood, its small business owners and residents, didn’t matter.

“Anything we said was discarded. It was maddening,” she said.

Garneau hopes the district elections she helped create will change that. The plan approved by voters could completely remake the current City Council, where the average age is 64 and the average length of service is about 10 years. Council members, starting in 2015, will have to run in the district in which they live or seek one of two at-large positions.

Garneau already has heard the cries of alarm from some council members that the city just created a ward system in which every district representative will only be concerned about getting funding for local projects and not worry about the city as a whole.

“That’s insulting,” Garneau said. “There are highly intelligent people in every part of the city.”

She imagines all the council members under the district system sitting around a large table, much like the one in her office where the disparate Seattle Districts Now activists argued strategy.

They may hash out priorities for their own districts, as well as priorities for the whole city. They may completely reorganize, she said, and throw out all the existing committees so they can all serve on each.

If it spurs council members to spend more time in their neighborhoods, and more neighborhood activists to run for office, she said, her financial contribution “is money well spent.”

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes