How involved in the traditional trappings of democracy do you have to be to seek the city’s top political job? Because in the race for Seattle mayor, one rising candidate has voted only about a quarter of the time.
Recently some of the lesser-known candidates for mayor have been objecting, with cause, that I haven’t highlighted their campaigns for our city’s top office.
A libertarian candidate, Casey Carlisle, has been arguing I should cover him because he’s unique — he’s the only one of 10 candidates pledging not to raise taxes.
“When you choose to ignore me and the other five candidates that you think don’t exist, you choose to deceive the public,” Carlisle wrote in an email.
Most vocal on this point has been Peoples Party candidate Nikkita Oliver.
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“My viability as a candidate, my experience, the energy + breadth of my base and our equity-led platform is being denied & defiantly ignored,” she wrote after I didn’t mention her campaign in a column.
Oliver is right about the energy. At the first mayoral debate on Thursday, she had by far the most amped up crowd. As Crosscut summed up: “If energy equals votes, Nikkita Oliver will be the next Seattle mayor.”
Anyone who can summon people and passion to dreary church meeting rooms deserves to be taken seriously in politics, so Oliver is correct about that.
But here’s why I remain skeptical of these candidacies. It goes to core beliefs about how politics, especially local politics, works.
Carlisle, when I asked him to identify endorsers or supporters to show he was a force in the community, couldn’t. He’s got ideas, but ideas with few people behind them doesn’t cut it.
By contrast, Oliver, an attorney and community organizer, clearly has people. She’s fired up the left and has been endorsed by a community heavyweight, King County Councilmember Larry Gossett.
But for someone campaigning on a platform that government doesn’t listen to the people, she hasn’t shown up much when the voice of the people literally counts — on Election Day.
In backgrounding the candidates, one thing we do is check their voting records. Oliver’s is spotty at best, especially for someone seeking high office.
Since 2008, when she first registered to vote here, she has voted in seven of 24 elections, according to King County elections records. Most notably, she skipped all the primary and general elections for the office she’s now seeking — including the most recent one, in 2013, when Mayor Ed Murray was elected.
Education funding for youth is key in her candidacy, but she hasn’t voted in any Seattle school-levy elections, including the one last year. She also has been a leader in the protest against a new juvenile-justice center, or youth jail. We voted on that project in 2010 and again in 2012, when it passed. Oliver didn’t vote either time.
Oliver said in a statement that her voting record is due to barriers to voting that affect people of color and the cash-poor. She said high rents forced her to move on average once per year, and sometimes more, making it hard for her to get mail-in ballots.
“I am a reflection of the underrepresented, vulnerable and marginalized communities who are often disenfranchised from voting by institutional and systemic barriers,” she wrote. “Additionally, the communities from which I come do not vote regularly because ‘downtown’ does not now and has not ever effectively reflected us or our interests.”
She said I was casting about to discredit her candidacy.
“This sort of degrading character assassination routinely happens to people of color, LGBTQI folx, and womxn, such as myself, as a means of keeping us out of the process,” she wrote.
Part of what political journalists do is cast about for things to discredit candidacies — though we like to think of it as vetting backgrounds and records. Nobody can say we haven’t been doing that with the other candidates, especially the incumbent.
The other top-tier candidates are consistent voters. Former Mayor Mike McGinn voted in 22 of the past 24 elections, urbanist Cary Moon in 20 of 24. (I did not include some elections in this tally, such as presidential primaries, which are so fluky in this state.) Murray is a perfect voter dating back to 2008: 24 of 24. He voted in even the most boring off-year elections, such as on the funding of a county public-safety radio network.
This is the point: Lots of crucial government work is boring. It involves steadily showing up for years, wallowing in excruciating minutiae (President Trump is discovering this as we speak).
It was clear from the debate that Oliver has a more protest-focused approach in mind. As she put it: “Every great change that has occurred in this city in the past eight years has been because those communities have risen up and used their voice to ask for that change: shut down chambers, or gone to people’s houses and into their offices, until we got the change that we most needed.”
Protest definitely can move the needle. But it doesn’t fill potholes. I’m with Obama: Don’t boo, vote. Or maybe: Boo, and then vote. In fact, Seattle is getting great changes like a citywide preschool program, light rail and eventually a highway-free waterfront, all through old-fashioned political grunt work and the ballot box.
We need fresh voices in politics. So maybe these candidates should run for City Council instead.
Because if you haven’t been regularly involved (Carlisle), or didn’t participate much in the bedrock democratic process of voting (Oliver), what then is the claim to the top political job, managing a city of 700,000 people?