This is a cautionary tale about district vs. at-large elections for the Seattle City Council.
There’s a move afoot to change Seattle’s political map to seven district council members, two at-large floaters. Currently, we have nine at-large council members.
Sponsors of the initiative, Seattle Districts Now, say it guarantees better representation and point to low turnover in the council. In 2003, voters showed the door to three council members; a fourth, Jim Compton, would resign after “Strippergate.”
Arguments for change are compelling. You could call your local council member about potholes and streetlamps. Running for election wouldn’t cost a couple hundred thousand bucks or take half a year; you could go door to door. In theory, we’d have better representation.
Other large American cities — like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York — have district representation. They also have histories of corrupt ward and district politics.
To get what “districts” mean, we don’t need to go elsewhere. Let’s look at the districts we know best, and ask a modest question: Do district pols represent us?
Yes and no.
On a wet October night in 2008, my neighbors and I were taught a lesson about district elections.
Thirty neighbors gathered to meet our 37th District Washington state representative, Sharon Tomiko-Santos.
We are diverse. About half are obviously people of color; several have less obvious multicultural heritage, like me. We are interracial couples. We are small-business owners, both men and women. We are gay and straight, Christians, Jews, believers in faith, believers in none. We are middle-class, though some — like me — know poverty firsthand. All of us worked for our homes, not a trust fund in the room. The organizer of the meeting is an activist in the hearing-impaired community.
Tomiko-Santos wanted to teach us a lesson. It wasn’t the lesson we learned.
By way of introduction, Tomiko-Santos said, “If there’s one thing I want all of you to take away tonight, you have to reach out to people of color.”
First, a Chinese-American woman told Tomiko-Santos she didn’t understand her community. A Japanese-American woman voiced her concern. Then an African-American woman told Sharon off. Then the rest of us did.
We learned we have a district representative who doesn’t care about constituents, their families, the issues that affect us each day. She taught us a lesson about prejudice.
When the meeting ended, an African-American neighbor summed it up. “Wasn’t that weird?” he asked.
Am I being unjust? No. There’s a written record of responses to the meeting on a City of Seattle-sponsored neighborhood e-mail list, which corroborates independently what I’ve written here. Plus, there were all those witnesses.
If it were an isolated incident, I’d write it off as a bad night for a politician.
A year later, at a forum with other district reps, while state Sen. Adam Kline and state Rep. Eric Pettigrew detailed tough budget and legislative challenges, Tomiko-Santos lectured the town hall, “Gentrification is not one of our values.”
District elections do not guarantee representation. Instead, they can open a door for ideologically bent politicians to settle into power, to serve political cliques at the expense of constituents. I can’t believe it’s isolated just to my state district.
Do we want to bring district-level, Tammany-style politics into Seattle neighborhoods?
Tammany Hall was a predominately Democratic Party organization that controlled ward politics in New York City from 1854 to 1934. It came to epitomize civic corruption, patronage, graft and greed. It was finally voted out of power by a coalition of reform-Democrats, Republicans and independents.
In 1938, wards were eliminated in New York. Today, New York has a district-based city council.
Today, a redistricting proposal would limit access to New York’s government by African-and Asian-American neighborhoods, while giving more representation to predominately white and wealthier ones. If you look at the map of proposed districts in Seattle, the similarity to New York’s redistricting proposal is pronounced.
Proponents of district elections for City Council point out that I would still be able to vote for three candidates: Two would be at-large. One would cover Beacon Hill, the Rainier Valley, all of Southeast Seattle, Little Saigon, Chinatown/International District and about a third of the Central Area. This isn’t an integrated model; it’s segregated.
What citizens need in City Council chambers is access.
. THOMPSON, Page 27