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Thursday, September 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ferguson campaign impresses friends, foes

Seattle Times staff reporter

Election update


King County Elections plans to release an updated vote count at 4 p.m. tomorrow, when it expects to have 80 percent of the absentee ballots tabulated.

With support from labor unions, environmental groups, women's groups, business interests, local Democratic Party groups, her pollster husband and paid consultants, Cynthia Sullivan's fourth re-election campaign had massive political firepower.

But two days after the primary election, it isn't clear that Sullivan's carefully orchestrated campaign to keep her seat on the Metropolitan King County Council was strong enough to withstand the shoe-leather tactics of fellow Democrat Bob Ferguson.

Ferguson holds a small lead, but the race is so close the winner won't be known until tomorrow at the earliest, when thousands more absentee ballots are counted.

Because there is no Republican candidate, the winner of the 2nd District Democratic primary will represent Northeast Seattle on the County Council.

The candidates and others attribute Ferguson's strong showing to a number of factors: an anti-incumbent backlash, the policy issues he raised and, above all, his aggressive door-to-door campaigning.

Ferguson, 38, a lawyer for Preston Gates and Ellis, took a leave of absence in January to campaign full time. After that, he visited the home of everyone in the district who had voted in one of the past two primary elections, and he knocked on many doors more than once.

Sullivan, 54, the senior member and chairwoman of the council she has served on since 1983, also "door-belled" — something she hadn't had to do seriously for years.

Sullivan got many of the endorsements Ferguson had hoped to win. The Sierra Club and Washington Conservation Voters both backed Sullivan, undercutting his early campaign theme of challenging her environmental record.

Ferguson didn't win a single organizational endorsement. Nor was he able to raise much more than half of Sullivan's campaign fund of $179,000.

Ferguson, a former University of Washington student president, King County Democratic Party executive director and chess whiz who repeatedly played the late County Councilman Kent Pullen for the state championship, stretched his $96,000 budget by rejecting advice that he hire political consultants.

Both candidates sent daunting numbers of mailings to voters — about eight for each side. "Trees were dying all over Washington state for this campaign," said Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen.

Although Ferguson attacked Sullivan's unwavering support for Sound Transit's light-rail plan and proposed reducing the County Council from 13 to nine members, it was the personal touch of his home visits that became the most potent weapon in his campaign arsenal.

"I think it's got to be the door-belling," said former Sullivan council staffer and current Ferguson supporter Steve Finley when asked about Ferguson's small lead in the incomplete vote count.

Political consultant and lobbyist Martin Durkan Jr., who supported Sullivan, also was impressed by Ferguson's campaign: "Some of the voters said, 'I've lived in the district 20 years and I've never met Cynthia Sullivan, and Ferguson's been to my house three times.' "

Ferguson's themes of a smaller council and his attacks on Sound Transit management "clearly resonated" with voters, Durkan said. "I think all incumbents who have been in office that long are very vulnerable. The whole Sims team is concerned. They've been in politics about the same time. Ron is a champion of the same issues Cynthia is. You can read the tea leaves."

Sullivan, who linked Ferguson with Tim Eyman — also a supporter of a smaller County Council — said Ferguson did well among early absentee voters because he targeted conservative neighborhoods. (Ferguson claims he reached out equally to voters of all persuasions.)

She also attributed Ferguson's competitive showing in the primary to a low voter turnout resulting from voter unhappiness over the Seattle City Council campaign-finance scandals.

"I feel like I dodged a major bullet," Sullivan said.

Ferguson drew inspiration from Greg Nickels' 1987 campaign, which unseated veteran County Councilman Bob Greive in the Democratic primary.

"No one's going to work harder to win this thing," Ferguson said in July. "If Greg Nickels could do it, that's good enough for me."

Sullivan ran an excellent campaign but might have been undone by the harder work of Ferguson and his volunteers, Allen said.

"People were genuinely touched by somebody who wouldn't let them get out of his way," she said.

Allen waved signs in the rain Tuesday for two City Council candidates at a five-way intersection near University Village where enthusiastic Ferguson supporters also were campaigning.

Every time the light changed, Ferguson's sister led the group across the intersection so they would be more visible to motorists.

"I've got to tell you," Allen said, "that when this crowd is running from hither to yon, from one corner to another for two and a half hours, it made me move my booty, too. It raised the standard of campaigning."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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