All the Whos in Whoville ask, who's next at City Hall?
Seattle Times Editorial Page editor
A December poll of Seattle voters brings no tidings of good cheer for Seattle Mayor Paul Schell this holiday season.
As he approaches the last year of his first term, and a decision about whether to run for re-election, the message from voters as recorded in the recent Elway poll is clear. They prefer someone else.
The city is in prosperous times and voters have said yes to new money for libraries, major upgrades at Seattle Center and parks, community centers and other projects for neighborhoods across the city. Yet they seem to be saying no to the mayor.
In the poll conducted Dec. 4-6, voters were asked, "as things stand today, would you be more likely to vote for Paul Schell? Or someone else for mayor?" Only 27 percent said Schell; 40 percent said "someone else." For comparison, think back one year when a similar poll was done statewide asking about Gov. Gary Locke and "someone else." Locke's margin in that poll was eerily similar to the real poll last month, the election: 58 percent for the governor and 40 percent for "someone else."
This month's Seattle poll sampled 250 registered voters, so the margin of error is a relatively hefty 6.3 percent, plus or minus. A generous reader of the poll could call that statistic small comfort for the mayor.
Realistically, however, the poll has to be a blow to the mayor's prospects for re-election. A tiny 2 percent gave him an "excellent" rating, while 19 percent were at the other end of the scale, rating him "poor." "People want to be positive," said pollster Stuart Elway, so when you find that among the 20 percent or so who have strong feelings, only one out of 10 is on the positive side, it spells trouble.
His poll also asked voters to rate Seattle City Council and it fared only slightly better. Three percent said "excellent" and 16 percent said "poor." Overall, positives for the council were 42 percent to 51 percent negative; for the mayor 34 percent positive and 58 percent negative.
"People think they haven't got much city government right now," Elway told me last week.
That is the real truth captured in this poll, and the source of questions for all of us as we look ahead to a new year and a crucial municipal election in the fall. In a city as grand as Seattle, how did local government become so disregarded? And how can it be changed?
Here are two ideas:
** Round up a new batch of candidates for mayor and council.
I have nothing against King County Councilman and announced mayoral candidate Greg Nickels. But is he the only person with the experience and guts to take on a weak, sitting mayor? Where is the can-do centrist who can appeal to that 50 percent-plus of voters who don't like what they've got now in City Hall?
No one is fooled by the so-called non-partisan nature of Seattle city government. It is deeply partisan, some might say even bipartisan--left wing Democrats and Greens. Surely Paul Kraabel--remember him?--is not the last moderate Republican in Seattle.
When Republicans gave up on Seattle, the city's center of political gravity began to shift. The result is what we've got now--a way-left-of-center council, a politically befuddled mayor and a whole lot of talented folks, including in the business community, who should be players but are merely spectators to the folly.
** In 2001, let's have a debate about electing council members by district.
I have not been keen on that idea in the past, but it's beginning to make some sense. Seattle's great diversity is not reflected on the current City Council; district elections could change that.
One argument against is fear of a council balkanized by geography and single-issue politics. A better argument can be made that district elections would raise the caliber of political representation on the council, with members less beholden to powerful political constituencies and closer to the pulse of the city and life as it is lived in the neighborhoods.
I hate to be the Grinch this Christmas Eve, but all is not well in Seattle's City Hall. The Elway Poll is a snapshot of serious voter disenchantment. It should not be discarded and swept out as just another forgotten greeting among all the holiday debris.
Mindy Cameron's column appears Sundays on editorial pages of The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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