Challengers focus on incumbent Drago
Seattle Times staff reporter
Jan Drago is pro-dog and pro-toilet. She worked to push street drunks out of Pioneer Square. As she seeks a third term on the Seattle City Council, Drago says she has developed constituencies where they didn't used to exist.
In very public fights for off-leash areas, $638,000-a-year public toilets and the removal of cheap alcohol from convenience-store shelves, Drago has taken on seemingly quirky issues. But all the while, she has made sure to tout herself as a steady force in the handling of city finances and a practical politician who knows which fights to pick.
"It's the experience that gets you to that point," Drago said, "when you can see the larger picture and have the expertise to know what to do with it."
The race to oust Drago from her Position 2 seat has attracted two candidates, liberal activist Curt Firestone, who is in his second run for the council, and neighborhood leader Susan Harmon, who has jumped into a campaign for the first time.
The top two finishers in the nonpartisan race will move on to the Nov. 6 general election, in which four of the council's nine seats will be at stake.
Both Firestone, who lives in Leschi, and Harmon, of West Seattle, are focusing their criticism on Drago, the obvious front-runner, who gets all the publicity that comes with incumbency. So far, she also has received $114,000 in campaign contributions, compared with Firestone's $23,000 and Harmon's nearly $1,300.
Of the two challengers, Firestone got the earlier start, is better organized and offers the most specifics about why he thinks Drago must go.
Firestone rejects Drago's claim that the city needs an incumbent's expertise to help Seattle through what are expected to be trying financial times.
Now retired, Firestone said his background in running a mental-health agency in California and as a tax preparer have given him plenty of experience.
He also criticizes Drago as paying too much attention to downtown issues — at the expense of other neighborhoods — with the exception of her advocacy of off-leash areas in neighborhoods around the city.
Firestone wants the council to do more to emphasize alternative energy sources, such as wind energy. He wants the city to "get serious" about bettering the community's relationship with the police force, especially the relationship with African Americans in Seattle.
He said he would bring a sensitivity to the job that Drago lacks.
"Jan's relationship with communities of color is nonexistent," said Firestone, who has been active in the Rainbow Coalition. "She has not provided leadership or helped to heal the wounds in our city."
In the aftermath of the riot at Mardi Gras and the fatal police shootings of David Walker and Aaron Roberts, Firestone said the council needs members who have previously worked in the community on racial issues.
He also said council members haven't done enough one-on-one constituent service, and he pledged to take a portion of his $91,000 council salary and hire an aide to deal with traditional constituent concerns such as how to get a pothole fixed, whom to notify about problem intersections and other neighborhood concerns.
Like Harmon, Firestone said Drago and her council colleagues erred in not approving taxpayer money for a West Seattle parking garage to help businesses there.
Drago did support city funding of the Pacific Place parking garage, which her challengers say showed downtown favoritism. She says it proved to be the right move in helping to rejuvenate the city's core and, in turn, attracting millions of dollars in sales taxes.
In her campaign, Harmon emphasizes her ability to listen. She says Drago doesn't. She also says she has a proven record of, "OK, it's a cliché, but yes, I've been making a difference."
Harmon has a consulting contract with the Seattle schools for a middle-school drug-prevention program. In her campaign pitch, she mentions the need to fight youth violence as a priority.
Active in neighborhood issues, Harmon fought for a new police precinct in Southwest Seattle and started a program known as Powerful Partners for Powerful Youth, which matches West Seattle schoolchildren with mentors from business, the Police Department, social-service agencies and churches. Children also mentor other children.
"The point is to develop kids who are involved in the world," she said.
Though her campaign is small and rather informal, Harmon said her record made her a standout — someone who got things done on the neighborhood level.
Harmon said that while other candidates make sure to reach people who usually vote in primaries, she was trying to reach people who aren't usually moved to fill out a ballot.
Drago says her experience — on the council and as a businesswoman and neighborhood activist before that — has both challengers beat.
Because the City Council has many first-term members, Drago said, experience is needed.
As the chairwoman of the council's budget committee, she works most closely on the budget. Mayor Paul Schell's announcement this week of a revenue shortfall and $3 million in budget cuts should make it clearer still, Drago said, that the council would benefit from her knowledge of the city budget.
Drago considered making a run for mayor but decided to stick with a council campaign — a seemingly more sure thing as incumbents are rarely defeated.
Drago says she has the long view of Seattle, and said her work on the council in remaking downtown was part of the evidence.
She rejects criticism that she is too focused on downtown.
"It's the biggest package of accomplishments in my time," she said. "People forget it didn't just bring shopping and nightlife, it produced thousands of family-wage jobs."
Downtown became the center of many of Drago's most public causes early on. She lives in Pioneer Square now, but her downtown activism started after she opened a Haagen-Dazs store near Pike Place Market in the mid-1980s.
She became active in the neighborhood and lost a council campaign to Margaret Pageler before first winning election in 1993 (Firestone lost to Pageler two years ago).
After two terms, Drago is running for re-election more as a moderate than an activist.
"I'm the voice in the middle," she said.
Beth Kaiman can be reached at 206-464-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.