Opinion, Politics

SE Seattle Must Face Electoral Reality in Citywide Races

By Neale Frothingham

As Southeast Seattle approaches another mayoral race, the question is not which candidate puts neighborhoods first, but which neighborhoods they put first.

The Seattle City Council, from which two of the current mayoral candidates are drawn (Steinbrueck, as noted by Mariana Quarnstrom in her recent letter to the editor, Burgess, and possibly Harrell) all get re-elected by huge margins.

Whether to put tax measures before voters is traditionally the toughest vote for an elected official and getting them passed is even tougher. Not so in Seattle. The measures this Mayor and this Council have put before Seattle Voters pass by nearly 2 to 1 or better. So by all the traditional measures this Council and this Mayor reflect and agree with the neighborhoods that elect them exceedingly well.

So if this crop of candidates for Mayor is so popular with the city voters, why are they, as Mariana suggests, out of step with “our unique community” in Southeast Seattle?

To the extent that they are, it is not because of downtown voters. There are only about 25,000 people downtown and a dramatically lower number of voters. It is true that moneyed downtown interests fuel campaign war chests, but they don’t reside there and can’t vote, so that money has to be directed at voters in, you guessed it, neighborhoods. They have to fight an indirect advocacy campaign for their preferred policy alternatives that leads through neighborhood voters.

There is often much complaining in the Rainier Valley, and the Comment Threads of the Rainier Valley Post are no exception, that elected officials that live in the Rainier Valley aren’t responsive to the concerns of the neighborhoods they live in (two council members and the City Attorney live in SE). The complaints allege that they don’t come to community meetings, champion public safety and other neighborhood issues. To the extent that is or isn’t true, the reason is pretty straight forward. Their neighbors aren’t the ones that elect and re-elect them.

Four out of Five votes of the votes that put someone on the Council or in the Mayor’s Office come from west of I-5 and north of I-90. The vast majority of those from north of the Ship Canal. Those neighborhoods are some of the most progressive, liberal, white, and monolithic voters in the country. They tend to value idealism and vision over pragmatism.

They may have parochial interests unique to a neighborhood, but they don’t disagree within their neighborhood or “war” over issues between neighborhoods. They broadly agree on everything. If you are an elected official in this city, you ignore those neighborhoods at your peril.

Not so in Southeast Seattle. The very diversity that Mariana alludes to in her letter means that if you gather five south-end neighborhoods in a room, you are likely to get seven conflicting opinions about what needs to be done.

To get the needs of Southeast Seattle addressed, we need to develop a degree of political sophistication and unity that has been lacking.

If you will forgive the metaphor, when we are dissatisfied with our elected city officials, we tend to arrange our “firing squad” in a circle. There is no pay-off for an elected official for listening to neighborhoods down here. There is only a downside. We marginalize ourselves in electoral oblivion.

Pragmatically, we need to reach out to “movers and shakers” from neighborhoods outside of Southeast Seattle and convince them of the social justice of our cause.

The current and likely candidates for Mayor are great at electoral math. They can ignore diverse and divided Southeast, and their 19 percent of the vote, with impunity. (The election of Nickels over Sidran was an exception. Southeast tipped a close mayoral race to Nickels. Look how well that turned out for Southeast!)

They pay very close attention to neighborhoods in other parts of the City and are very responsive to those neighborhoods because they vote as a block and they are 80 percent of the votes they need to gain or stay in office.

Our path to getting our issues addressed is an indirect one. Contrary to what Mariana has written, it does lead through neighborhoods, just not our neighborhoods. We need to appeal to the social justice instincts of people in those neighborhoods, north of I-90, and have them appeal to elected officials.   They are the bosses of those elected officials, not us. That may not be fair, just, or right, but it is a reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon.