Ken Wilson is an engineer, so what gets him truly revved up is … a little different.
He didn’t seem all that excited the other day, for instance, that he had just burst out of total political obscurity in an 11-candidate field to win a coveted spot in the general election for Seattle City Council.
Nor did he seem all that fazed that he, a newbie who had been polling at just 1%, had somehow had a “massive and remarkable late surge,” as the Northwest Progressive Institute called it, to nab second place and the right to take on heavyweight incumbent Teresa Mosqueda in November.
No, what really jazzed the bridge structural engineer was that he had produced optimum results for the expenditure.
“I could bend your ear all day about cost-efficiency,” Wilson, 51, enthused in what he said was his very first interview with the media (that’s right — one of the four citywide finalists for Seattle City Council was selected by voters despite never being contacted by the press).
Ken Wilson? Never heard of him. But his stamp is all over the city and region’s infrastructure, mostly in its bridges. The firm he owns, Integrity Structural Engineering, is working on that swooping pedestrian bridge across I-5 at Northgate (which he says was “a million miles over budget” until his firm got involved), and the pedestrian-bike bridge connecting Microsoft’s campus to the light-rail station on the Eastside.
“I got into this race because of the city’s gross mismanagement of the West Seattle Bridge,” he says. “There’s no reason that bridge shouldn’t be open to cars right now, one lane in each direction. They’ve cut off an entire part of the city needlessly.”
Wilson, of Wallingford, had only seven donors to his campaign, who gave a grand sum of $131. He pitched in $2,994, to cover the $1,296 candidacy filing fee and some signs and stakes. That was it for his war chest.
But as of Friday’s ballot count, Wilson had received 26,616 votes in the Position 8 council race — more than 7,000 ahead of the third-place finisher, Kate Martin. This means the cost-efficiency of his campaign comes out to about 9 cents per vote.
Final tallies aren’t in yet, and final spending figures won’t be reported until next month. But as of Friday’s totals, the campaigns for other citywide candidates were reporting spending-to-vote ratios 10 to 100 times Wilson’s.
In the mayor’s race, Bruce Harrell had spent about $7 to win each vote — $11.40 if you include the $265,000 business-backed independent expenditure on his behalf. City Council President M. Lorena González’s campaign is nearly $8 per vote, nearly $16 if you count the $443,000 labor union independent ad campaign for her.
Colleen Echohawk’s consultant-heavy campaign spent more than $28 per vote. The Washington Observer, a money-in-politics website run by former Associated Press reporter Paul Queary, noted that mayoral also-ran Andrew Grant Houston somehow got fewer votes than he had donors. As of Friday, Houston had received just 4,535 votes citywide, but had spent more than $355,000 from 5,527 donors — adding up to more than $75 spent per vote.
Most of that came from the taxpayers, through the democracy voucher program.
“That campaign didn’t seem to spend much money actually trying to get Houston elected,” Queary says (meaning: it didn’t buy much advertising). “It was more like a boiler room for harvesting democracy vouchers. Most of the money went to pay a consultant to collect the vouchers, and then to pay a big staff.”
The four finalists for City Council were, compared to that, frugal. In the Position 9 race, Nikkita Oliver’s campaign spent about $2 per vote and Sara Nelson more than $3. In Position 8, Mosqueda, who is getting the most votes of anyone in the city by far, spent $1.32 winning each. Wilson, again, clocked in at just 9 cents per vote.
How did an unknown engineer with such a bland name get more than 25,000 votes citywide? That’s more than Echohawk or Houston or former state legislator Jessyn Farrell got in their race (though of course the mayor’s race featured a much stronger field).
“It was per plan,” Wilson said, going all engineery on me. “We shouldn’t have to spend $200,000 of taxpayer money to get a message out.”
First, he went to every community meeting that would have him. Second, he made a series of dorky, unpolished videos, in which he would lead a tour of the infrastructure of Ballard, or stand under the West Seattle Bridge with engineering sketches to highlight the problems there.
“I want to talk to you about post-tensioning,” he says in one (never heard that in a campaign pitch before).
His top issues are dry as a Seattle pothole in July: mismanagement; fixing Seattle’s infrastructure (plus opening the West Seattle Bridge immediately); building housing for the homeless faster; preserving the city’s tree canopy.
“I’m not ideological,” he told me. “I’m just here to fix things. My explanation for my campaign taking off a little bit is that the house is on fire, and you can’t be the incumbent saying, ‘Yes, the house may be on fire, but let’s keep doing what we’re doing.’ ”
Could this work? Obviously the local political power structure doesn’t think so, as nobody’s even called Wilson up since the election on Tuesday.
“It sure looks like Wilson was able to somehow break through and connect with voters,” the Northwest Progressive Institute summed up. “That suggests voters found his voter’s pamphlet statement compelling.”
You can’t win in Seattle politics by being boring and competent — can you? It’s a sign of the political times, though, that this is what now stands out in the crowd.
Correction: This article was changed to correct the spelling of Paul Queary’s last name.