This Family Feud We Call Seattle's Gestural Politics

SEATTLE remains afflicted with one-party politics, since the Republicans continue to cede cities to Democrats. The result is a Republican Party without urban leavening, and cities like Seattle with impoverished debates at election time.

We're all Democrats here, so campaigns tend to be invisible (such as Proposition 1 to remodel the Opera House and build community centers), or personal (Charlie Chong's too old, but Heidi Wills is too young), or exercises in the narcissism of small differences (is rowdyism in parks to be stopped or simply deplored?).

If memory-challenged old folks have "senior moments," our campaigns have "Seattle moments." One classic instance was when Wills, a candidate for City Council, was reported to be in favor of the new civic campus, maybe, but she'd insist that it have a hygiene center for the homeless. In a Seattle moment, you finesse the big issue with an artful waffle but then hang a feel-good ornament on the issue.

Even so, this election did manage to reveal some interesting political fault lines in Seattle, even if they are all family disputes among us Democrats. Here are a few:

STIGMATIZING SIDRANISM. City Attorney Mark Sidran, who introduced the "civility reforms" to Seattle that are sweeping other cities, is now on the defensive. Sidran, a provocateur, has become the pinata for all office-seekers to beat with sticks.

A few years ago, Sidranism was somewhat deplored by politically correct Democrats but quietly supported for helping to drop the crime rate and returning streets to shoppers. Sidran played an important role as adviser to Mayor Norm Rice, and downtown's rebound (Rice's major achievement) was partly attributed to his reforms. Now he's in the doghouse, and he may be getting angry enough to run for mayor in 2001.

Sidran's problems began with the election of Mayor Paul Schell, for the two do not get along well. The new economy is making Seattle politics more libertarian, which means expressive rights of individuals are trumping communitarian standards. The battle over the noise ordinance, pitting neighborhoods' right to sleep against young folks' right to boogie, shows which way the decibels are blowing.

LIVING LARGE. It's not just billionaires who are building trophy houses. The city, too, is getting into the act. When it was possible to use the argument that downtown was dying, the city could slip a big subsidy to Benaroya Hall or Nordstroms. The new formula, as with the Opera House and the Library, is to load up the request with neighborhood goodies and promises of "leverage" (translated: getting money from rich angels). For now, all the candidates are singing from the same song book on this issue.

SLIPPING CIVVIES. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Seattle Commons ballot issues, and the rise of Charlie Chong, the Civic Foundation was surfing the backlash. This interesting but volatile group, which arose out of homeowner and blue-collar Seattle resistance to the apartment-rich "urban villages" plans of Mayor Rice, did well in placing its advocate, Nick Licata, on the council two years ago. But this year, its endorsement process, tilted to impossibilist activists, has backed two horses who will probably lose, Dawn Mason (running against Jim Compton) and Chong.

Part of the problem is the lack of good messengers for the Civvies' message, aside from Licata. The urban villages plan, massaged by years of citizen participation, has now come back with a veneer of acceptability and a new urgency from all the traffic congestion. The old demons of Commons, Pacific Place and the stadiums are losing their ability to galvanize anger.

SCHELL: LEADER OR LOVABLE? Mayor Schell has an interesting personality conflict: He dearly wants to be loved and he also wants to propose bold and controversial ideas. His failure to check the veto box on the noise ordinance was emblematic, since he wanted to be tough with the council but couldn't help his mollifying self.

Schell may get a workable majority on the new City Council (Compton, Wills, Richard Conlin, Jan Drago, Margaret Pageler), but can he keep it? Council members owe the mayor little, and they get attention by opposing and amending his ideas. Meanwhile, lots of politicians are positioning to run if Schell declines a second term (I think he'll run again) or even if he does run. My list of likely challengers: County Councilman Greg Nickels, retiring City Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski, current council members Peter Steinbrueck and Licata.

THE POLITICS OF ME. Washington state used to be about public initiatives (public power, good state hospitals, schools). We are now a bastion of libertarianism, in which the unencumbered individual, or corporation, is the basis of happiness. The young, the techies, the GOP, the suburbs, the angry form the majority party. Initiative 695, tapping the irritation of people paying high license fees on their SUVs, shows where the state is going. Seattle's egregious new wealth just rubs this in for the rest of the state: Where's mine?

The result is a double bind for Seattle politics, increasingly cut off from allies in the burbs or the hinterland, and starved of money for programs scaled to serious problems. The result, as we have seen in this campaign season, is gestural politics - beating up on globalism, rallying to the rights of circus animals, patting the neighborhood plans on the head while having little money to implement them. We may be living large, but we're voting small.

David Brewster is executive director of Town Hall, a new community-based cultural center in Seattle. His column appears alternate Fridays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is