Amidst all the media obsession and (not unrelated) TV ads of this mercifully concluded election season, a couple of recent items that will impact future local elections haven’t gotten much attention — yet. But both could change for the better how, in years to come, we elect Seattle City Council members.
Last month, the council voted 7-2 to approve new campaign-finance rules that bar incumbents from transferring money raised in a previous election to their next election cycle, and barred council members from fund-raising until Jan. 1 of the year before their seat’s next election.
(It’s worth noting that the two “no” votes for this measure, Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark, were top fund-raisers in the 2011 election but coasted to victory without needing to spend anywhere near all of the money they raised.) Naturally, council members baked in an exception for themselves: Current incumbents were given 30 days after the signing of the legislation to transfer their existing campaign stockpile to their next election effort.
Nonetheless, this should help, at least somewhat, to make council races more competitive.
Currently, running for an at-large seat in Seattle is an expensive proposition: Incumbents typically raise anywhere from $200,000 to more than $300,000 in their election efforts — much of it from donors (both corporate and individual) hoping to curry favor with the city whether the incumbent faces a serious challenge or not, and much of it raised in previous cycles or earlier in a four-year term, when that favor still needs currying. That gives incumbents a huge head-start in fund-raising and frequently scares off challengers.
With 600,000 residents (more than in a congressional district), at-large seats are too populous for a challenger to doorbell-and-lawn-sign her or his way to victory. So, as in both 2011 and 2009, incumbents running for reelection usually don’t face well-funded challengers. Jean Godden was the sole exception in 2011, and even she raised more than double the money of her opponent.
The measure will make it at least marginally easier for challengers to surmount the enormous money advantage now enjoyed by incumbents. There may also be an advantage in favor-curriers not being able to utilize our thinly veiled system of legalized bribery for half of a member’s term.
The other development would shake things up far more and for the same reasons. A coalition of small business owners, neighborhood activists, progressives, conservatives and immigrants — all
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