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New Monorail Idea: Save the Old One
WHAT WAS HE THINKING? -- by Dick Falkenbury
(article appeared in The Stranger, November 6th 2003)
He launched the monorail and promised to bring big ideas and a bold vision to a city council that lacks both--but he didn't even make it through the primary. Failed city council candidate Dick Falkenbury looks back in anger.
My name is Dick Falkenbury, and I look like an aging linebacker. I've got a quick mind and a voice big enough to fill the average hotel ballroom. And in 1997, I came up with one good idea: build the city of Seattle a monorail system. Literally the majority of people in Seattle agreed with me. Three times.
Fast-forward through more meetings than the average AA member's and a personal financial landscape as bleak as a Goya painting. By the spring of 2003 some decisions had to be made at the Rancho Falkenbury. I had quit the monorail board with big plans of being a transit consultant, trying to stop the monorail from stomping all over businesses near the track. But my business wasn't going anywhere.
Since I wasn't doing anything, I figured I might as well run for the Seattle City Council. As my girlfriend said, "It's not like you're going to screw up a great career." Besides, I might win. Peter Steinbrueck had won not once but twice. Apparently anyone can win a seat on our city council.
Five incumbents were up for reelection: Heidi Wills, Judy Nicastro, Jim Compton, Peter Steinbrueck, and Margaret Pageler. They all would run--and conventional wisdom said that they would all win. The last time an incumbent lost a Seattle City Council race was in 1995, when John Manning beat Sherry Harris.
So I talked with Cathy Allen. Allen is a short fireplug of a woman who can talk the ear off a bronze statue. She's what the papers call a "political operative." Allen broke out the wine and suggested that I run for Heidi Wills' position on the city council. I didn't care for that idea. Heidi is a political Fort Knox. She raises money like rabbits raise bunnies. She would raise $250,000 easily--$400,000 if she had to. Besides, Wills had come to be a big supporter of the monorail, and that puny idea still had a place in my heart.
I looked around. The Nicastro race had more entrants than the Kentucky Derby. Kollin Min looked like a lock, and he could also raise a boatload of money. Compton would cruise, since he hadn't done anything wrong. Of course, he hadn't done anything right, either. And Peter Steinbrueck is one of those puzzling people in politics who've never actually accomplished anything but still have a loyal following.
That left Margaret Pageler. Twelve years ago Pageler joined the Seattle City Council as a reformer under the banner of a group called Vision Seattle. She quickly went over to the dark side, joining forces with downtown businesspeople. She proudly took credit for the Nordstrom garage. I decided I would take on Pageler.
But I wasn't so much running against Margaret Pageler as against the entire Seattle City Council. The city council had become a national embarrassment. During the 1990s when the city was wallowing in money, the council tapped the public for cash to build new offices, a new city hall, and an opera house, along with a central downtown library. They showed all the fiscal responsibility of an ID thief, and our children will be paying the bills for decades to come. Meanwhile, they held hearings on circus animals, told Eastern Washington to breach its dams, and asked Bush to bring the troops home. Now, you may be for better treatment of circus animals, returning the Snake River to its free-flowing state, and peace on earth, but resolutions and unenforceable laws passed by the Seattle City Council will not accomplish these things.
Worse than any single thing is the fact that the Seattle City Council hasn't accomplished anything-- save for those things that they passed on to the voters to decide--in the past four years. They are not evil; they're just nothing. So I decided to take on the person I considered the poster girl for the Seattle Do-Nothing City Council.
- - -
Three weeks after I entered the race, all hell broke loose. Three of the five incumbents changed their votes on a rezone after taking money from the owners of a strip club. We know that they took money for their votes, because when they got caught and gave the money back they changed their votes. Just my luck: My opponent was one of the two who didn't trade their votes for money.
Under the rules, I could have changed opponents and run against one of the dirty three. But I'd told people when asking for money that Pageler would be my target. More importantly, if I was truly running to be on the city council and not so much against any one member, it shouldn't have mattered. I had also committed to running a positive campaign. No attacking my opponents. Focus on the positive things I would bring to the Seattle City Council. So I wasn't going to focus on scandals.
What was I thinking?
There is a difference between attacking someone personally and going after someone for the votes he or she takes as an official or the statements he or she makes as a candidate. It is a line that is fairly easy to draw. I could talk about Pageler's inability to lead the Seattle City Council in a meaningful way, without getting personal. Her lack of any significant accomplishment was a matter of public record, not a personality flaw, as was her disastrous leadership on Seattle City Light. She wasn't doing her job, and that was a fact.
Another fact: There were other candidates in the race for Pageler's seat. Linda Averill was the Freedom Socialist Party candidate; she would get a few thousand votes. And then there was Tom Rasmussen.
Tom Rasmussen looked and talked like a better-than-average high-school accounting teacher. He's a well-preserved, neat man who ran the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens and began his public service back when mastodons roamed the hills. He also didn't have a single idea in his well-coifed head. In all of the forums that we attended I never heard him turn down a request for more spending. Whether it was affordable housing, replacing the viaduct, the Westlake streetcar, or more library hours, he was for more of this and even more of that.
What Tom Rasmussen did have was money. His partner, Clayton Lewis, started a dot-com called Onvia that raked in several hundred million dollars. Tom threw $45,000 into the pot. Later, he would add a few thousand more. When I first met Tom, I knew about his work; I knew nothing about his money. I thought, "This guy will be easy to beat."
But it was Tom Rasmussen--with his money and empty promises--who made it through the primary, not me. I got beat.
- - -
Someone told me that you really get to know yourself when you become a candidate for public office. The first thing I learned is that I hated asking for money. All candidates say that they hate asking for money, but don't believe it. There's no way that Heidi Wills could raise the money she does without getting a special tingle every time she scores another maximum donation. Nicastro crowed to the press about setting the one-day record for donations (she was mistaken--she had merely set the record for taking money from strip clubs with business before the city council). Me? I muffed every money call I made. I would tell people that I understood that times were rough--even before they had mentioned it. A family friend who had known me for over 30 years, a friend who had given Grant Cogswell $500, gave me only $100. I let her go with a polite "Thank you." About halfway through the campaign, I stopped making calls for money.
Which may be why I lost. City elections have become nothing more than expensive high-school class president contests. The name of the game is name familiarity--and nothing more. There is no great debate about the issues--especially when you're limited to three minutes at a forum. (At one forum, the candidates were admonished not to mention their opponents!) In fact, I'd say that the forums I attended were pretty much useless. I was repeatedly questioned about the 10-cent latte tax, but never about the $1.7 billion City Light deficit. Nor was Pageler asked about it. There were never question & answer sessions. Statements were made, promises thrown out with never a worry that someone--like, say, your opponent--would question you about them. You could, like Tom Rasmussen, promise affordable housing, streetcars, tunnels, and longer library hours without ever having to explain where you would, say, build the housing or how you would pay for it. Rasmussen never had to explain where the money would come from to pay for the $500 million in transportation improvements that he pledged to Vulcan and others in South Lake Union.
The system of electing leaders is flawed. In Seattle, it all comes down to name recognition, and name recognition all comes down to money. Even in the case of Bob Ferguson beating Cynthia Sullivan, he won by literally doorbelling everyone in the district. But in order to do that, he had to have enough personal money to take a year off to do the doorbelling. So, even for Bob, it still comes down to money.
And what's the best way to build name recognition in Seattle? Mailers! But it costs to send out mailers--lots of money. People say that they don't read the political mail they get every election cycle. Bullshit. If all they read is the name and then they throw it away, the mailer has done its dirty work. You might have noticed that these full-color postcards say nothing. No mention of taxes, budgets, or proposals. The candidate's name in big letters. Picture of the candidate with (1) seniors, (2) people of indeterminate color, and (3) KIDS, KIDS, KIDS. The whole point of these expensive political mailers is to get you to remember a name and nothing else. I received three mailings from Rasmussen at my home, and I cannot remember one single thing about Rasmussen's mailings other than his name. A mailer from David Della showed a stunned voter reacting to a City Light bill, but I don't remember what David Della proposes to do about it. Politics has become a game of making your name stick without actually committing to anything.
- - -
There are some glimmers of hope. No, not the newspapers. They have only so much room because newsprint is expensive. That, and nobody reads the papers anymore.
The Internet's greatest accomplishment so far is putting more and better porn at all of our fingertips. The Internet has the potential for disseminating more useful information--it does that now, if you care to indulge. We need a group like the Municipal League or the League of Women Voters to put together a truly fabulous website that would provide in-depth information on all candidates. Imagine a site where you could read a candidate's stand on dozens of issues, and be able to e-mail in follow-up questions such as, "How are you going to pay for that, Tom?". The site could have streaming video from candidate forums, voting records for incumbents, and side-by-side comparisons of candidates' stands on various issues.
More importantly, Seattle--the whole nation--needs public campaign financing. We had it once in Seattle. In fact, Margaret Pageler ran her first two successful campaigns under partial public financing. Then, in a complicated scheme, the state Republicans took away Seattle's public campaign financing. But Olympia is more willing to let Seattle go its own way these days. So let's form a commission to address election reform here in Seattle. Districts would be helpful, of course, but they're not the only answer. Another thing to look at is shortening the time in which money can be spent on campaigning. Limiting the length of campaigning would go a long way toward lowering the cost of running.
As things stand now, running for office in Seattle forces candidates to beg for money so they can send mailers out to people who claim not to read them. When you're not begging for money, you're standing on a street corner waving a sign with your name on it, like a street-crazy but with better clothing, in an effort to build your name recognition. Elections are supposed to be about issues and ideas and answers. They have degenerated into telemarketing and yelling. It is going to take a long, hard, and tedious study by a commission of outstanding citizens to rescue our democracy.
Dick Falkenbury for Seattle | 2518 South Brandon Court, Seattle, Washington 98108