Here in the ultra-liberal 43rd Legislative District, 6 candidates are vying in the Democrat Primary for an open State House seat. The winner of the Primary faces only a token Republican opponent in November, and is certain to be our next legislator . The candidates are all pitching to the same far-left constituencies with very similar positions. There is no clear front-runner. Moderate and conservative voters can provide the margin of victory here. I spoke with all 6 candidates this week. I stop short of endorsing anybody, but I'll say who I'm leaning toward voting for.
For the punchline, scroll to the bottom. But first, some background. I see no really good choices for me here. All of the candidates are very far to the left. Many of their policy positions are unrealistic and in some cases downright nutty. It's tempting to throw up one's hands and not bother to vote for any of them. But that would be self-defeating. All of the candidates also have their respective positive qualities and would act differently in the legislature. Some may be better than others, some will be noticeably worse. One of them is going to win, so one might as well help influence the outcome and choose a candidate who seems to be incrementally better in relation to the others.
I see two different ways to make a rational choice in this situation: The first and most cynical approach is to choose a candidate who you think is least likely to succeed at implementing their agenda. The second is to choose a candidate who shows signs of being more practical, less dogmatic and more inclined to seek common ground with people of differing viewpoints. If you want the punchline of who I'm voting for and why, scroll down to the end. But first an overview of the candidates and my impressions of each of them.
I spoke with 3 of the candidates over coffee for about an hour each -- Jamie Pedersen, Lynne Dodson and Dick Kelley. I met Stephanie Pure and Bill Sherman very briefly when they were in the neighborhood campaigning and spoke with them for about half an hour on the phone. I haven't met Jim Street in person, but we spoke on the phone for about an hour.
I focused my own questions on transportation and education, and also followed up about whatever issues were most important to each candidate. Overall, the only issue that came up where there was a real diversity of opinions was the Viaduct. The most consensus (and disappointingly so) was on education. As a group, their views on public education are appallingly silly and counter-productive. All the candidates recognize that Seattle Public Schools are not performing as well as they need to be, and that the management and fiscal discipline are lousy. They all recognize that a very large percentage of families in the district have opted out of the public schools altogether (25% in Seattle overall and a much larger percentage in northeast Seattle vs. 7% statewide). Nevertheless, they insist that the schools deserve a vast infusion of money, yet reject proposals for the normal performance-improving competition and accountability, such as merit-based pay to retain high-performing teachers, or school choice for parents who are poorly served by the schools. Don't expect any of these folks to do much to change education except to waste more of your money on dysfunctional institutions.
There are few traits that I like less in a politician than a "do as I say, not as I do" liberal Democrat, especially those who oppose school choice and stridently defend "public education" (for other people) while sending their own kids to private school. Nobody, in my view, deserves to be ridiculed out of public life more than the relatively affluent folks who send their kids to private school yet would deny choice to families of lesser means on the grounds that "that would only drain the public schools of resources and the best students" (Hint: it already happens, but only the more affluent among currently get to choose). In this race, the "do as I say, not as I do" candidates are Jim Street and Dick Kelley. Two of Street's kids graduated from the elite Northwest School. Kelley sent his own two sons to private Catholic high schools.
Hypocrisy on schools aside, Jim Street has the most expansive resume and the most gravitas of the bunch. He has been endorsed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and by Ron Sims. Both endorsements are a red flag. He has raised over $94,000 so far, second highest in the race. Street wants to force people out of their cars, impose a state income tax, and offer property tax relief to seniors (i.e. raise the cost of housing for young people and workers). He would prefer to replace the Viaduct with a tunnel, instead of a rebuild, if we can afford it. His answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for him: His breadth of experience as an elected official and as a judge, applying laws.
Dick Kelley's top priority is campaign finance reform. "Get big money out of politics", proclaims his brochure. (Hint: if you want to take the money out of politics, first reduce the role of politics in the economy, which Kelley does not seem inclined to do). He has limited his own campaign contributions, (he advertises $100 per person, but in practice, it's $400 per couple), and has raised $50,000, the second lowest in the race. Kelley has been endorsed by the King County Democrats. His answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for him: He's the only one in the race who has actually run a small business, and he's been in Seattle the longest.
Stephanie Pure seems like a genuinely nice person, but the youngest and still wet behind the ears and with the lightest grasp on policy details. She would fight for "adequate funding" for education, but has no idea what dollar amount constitutes "adequate funding". She is the only candidate who would tear down the Viaduct altogether and replace it with surface transit. She favors rapid transit to replace much of the automobile traffic that currently uses the Viaduct, but says that is "a vision, not policy" and has no idea how much the rapid transit solution would actually cost. (Hint: the Monorail was up to $11 billion before the voters pulled the plug). During our conservation, I helped Pure save herself from being disenfranchised in her own primary -- I pointed out that she had been dropped from the active voter rolls. It turns out that she and her fiance moved into a new house back in April and never informed the elections office of their new residence, and therefore never received their absentee ballots. She emailed later to tell me she called K.C. Elections and it was straightened out. To her credit she also indicated that we should allow both vote-by-mail and voting at the polls:
Both are okay and I think we should accommodate both so more people have the opportunity to participate in democracy.Score! Another fair-minded Democrat who opposes Ron Sims' obnoxious scheme to force us all to vote by mail. Pure has raised $40,000, the least amount of money in the race and her only major endorsement is from The Stranger. Her answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for her: She worked for her parents' small business and understands small business. Also, as an aide to a City Councilmember, she does a lot of customer service and understands constituent issues better than most bureaucrats. She has a lot of personal appeal and I think she would be a more impressive candidate in a few years, especially if she both masters more details about policy issues and also has some managerial experience in the private sector.
Bill Sherman is the most impressive policy wonk of the group, with the best ability to rattle off facts and figures. His top priority is "cleaning up Puget Sound". He has no idea how much this will cost and acknowledges that it will be expensive, but discusses the problem in sensible terms, pointing out the economic benefits, and stresses the need for solid quantitative research and measurable benchmarks before spending money on cleanup. His support for the expensive Viaduct tunnel is less impressive. He's least impressive on education -- wants to lower class sizes to 18, without having any idea how much it would cost, and is rigidly opposed to school choice. He is endorsed by environmental groups and the Seattle Times. He has raised $92,000, 3rd highest amount of money in the race, but fully half of his cash contributions come from outside Seattle, by far the highest percentage of out-of-area money in the race. He worked in the Clinton administration and has a national network, but it seems inappropriate to finance a legislative race with so much out-of-state money. His answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for him: calls himself a "common-sense Democrat," who "believes in public safety and personal responsibility" and says that can "find common ground with people who don't identify as liberal Democrats". Yet he also threw in the unnecessarily divisive "Most conservative Republicans are not going to like what I have to say" and "Please don't endorse me".
Um, I won't.
Jamie Pedersen is best known as a gay-rights activist, now focused on gay marriage. But he insists that he's more than a single issue candidate. He acknowledges that changing marriage laws is not a high priority for most legislators and that gay marriage won't get passed into law for a long time. He says that his own highest priority is actually health care. His website says "we must guarantee health care for every child in Washington". He really does mean "every child", without regard for immigration status, and he has no idea how much this will cost or where the money to pay for it will come from. He likes light rail more than buses, because light rail has right-of-way, while buses can get caught in traffic, but he hasn't looked at the economic costs/benefit comparison between buses and rail. He supports the more expensive tunnel replacement for the Viaduct. Pedersen and his husband (his preferred term), Eric, would like to adopt children. Eric is an administrator in a Bellevue public school, and would prefer to send the kids to a private school or to a Bellevue public school, but not to a Seattle public school. In spite of this revealing information from a trusted and well-informed insider, Pedersen is opposed to school choice for other parents in the district. Pedersen has raised over $150,000, significantly more money than anybody else in the race. He has been endorsed by incumbent Ed Murray and a number of gay civil rights groups. Pedersen's answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for him: He's a partner in a law firm (i.e. part owner of a business) and is a business lawyer, who has sensitivity to business issues. He also believes that government should do a better job and insist on efficient delivery of services and that money is used correctly. [However, his support for various programs without understanding the underlying economics undermines this claim]. My overall impression is consistent with what others say about him, which is that he's focused on gay rights at the expense of other issues. He just doesn't seem to have a grasp of the details of other issues. Whatever lessons he might have learned about economics while working as a business lawyer do not seem to have sufficiently influenced his thinking about public policy. He's a passionate advocate for an issue that is very important to a vocal minority, but he doesn't impress me as having the mindset that would make him an effective legislator on a wide range of issues. A cynical conservative who wanted to stymie the Democrats by promoting the candidate who was least likely to be effective at advancing the liberal agenda might vote for Pedersen.
Lynne Dodson is a community college instructor and union leader. Most of her endorsements are from labor and the far left. As with the other candidates, I probably disagree with her on most issues. Based on her biography, issues and endorsements, I expected to have the the least in common with her out of all the candidates. But having met her, I found that I liked her the most of the bunch. That's not to say that I agreed with her more often, I didn't. I also think that it is a big negative for an elected official to be too close to public employee unions. But out of the candidates in this race, she struck me as the most practical and down-to-earth person in the group. She gave me the most straightforward and sensible answer on the Viaduct. She favors the rebuild, because the tunnel is too expensive and that the disruptive impact on the working port is not acceptable. She also gave the most interesting answer to the question why a moderate/conservative should vote for her: Being an effective legislator is not just about having good ideas, it's about listening and forging coalitions. She calls herself progressive, but not dogmatic, that there is not much she would automatically rule out and nobody that she would not listen to. She recognizes that people often may have similar goals even if they advocate different means. As someone who has negotiated on behalf of her union, she has learned to find common interests with the party on the other side of the table. In a nutshell, more than the other other candidates, she gave me the impression that she was more interested in practical, achievable results than ideological crusades. And even if our interests are often not aligned, I would tend to have more trust in someone who is focused more on the bottom line than on abstract fantasies. I also got the feeling during our conversation that she tried to listen to and learn from my comments more than the other candidates did.
This is not an enthusiastic endorsement, but I'm inclined to vote for Lynne Dodson. Not because I'm favorably impressed with her policy positions or core constituency, but out of the limited group of candidates I have to choose from, I get the impression that she might do a better job than the other candidates of listening to, learning from and finding common ground with those with whom she doesn't always agree.
I invite comments, particularly from the candidates if they feel a correction or amendment of the above is in order.Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at September 08, 2006 04:47 PM | Email This