Safe Prediction For 1997: The Politics Of Potholes

For most people, the holiday blast of heavy snow followed by heavy rain is a lingering memory today, but the irascible weather did more than trigger mudslides and dangle houses precipitously over cliffs. The storm altered the tone of upcoming elections by reminding people at gut level why they have a local government and what they rightfully can expect from it.

Here's a safe prediction: The theme of the 1997 Seattle mayoral race will be back to basics, complete with endless sound bites about more efficient, accessible city services. Prepare for the Politics of Potholes. I mean potholes literally, and as something that reminds people that their government exists and is ready to handle life's basic necessities.

With Seattle's share of regional population and political power declining, it's easy to forget the mayor, City Council and the operation they oversee. Fifteen inches of snow, and boom, everyone in town is discussing how many snowplows a responsible city should have. And, hey, when did those rascals finally pick up your garbage?

The storm had one more effect: It created potholes faster than Ken Behring adds chins. And supplies weren't exactly low before the wind roared, the rain pounded and the snow dumped. Down at Pothole Central, known in bureaucratese as the section on pavement management, they aren't certain how many potholes were created by the storm. Yet with annual rainfall 40 percent above normal and snow and ice parked on roadways for days, experts predict the pothole tally will increase dramatically in the next few months.

How quickly these mini-craters are filled, how much empathy is shown those who blow a tire in their clutches, will have much to do with the mood of the electorate next fall.

The mood as recently as November was strongly in favor of neighborhood-oriented City Councilman Charlie Chong, elected to fill the remaining year in Tom Weeks' term. Chong's common-sense, back-to-basics message isn't all that different from one pitched by Vision Seattle several years ago. That group emerged in 1987 and protested what it considered overbuilding of downtown office towers and oversized apartments slapped incongruously in residential neighborhoods.

More striking than Chong's election was the strength of his victory - 57 percent. If his election wasn't a fluke - and I don't believe it was - expect more candidates to sing a similar tune in the mayor's race and contests for open Council seats created by members jumping into the mayoral derby.

The list of possible wannabes so far is said to include Councilwomen Martha Choe, Margaret Pageler and Jane Noland and City Attorney Mark Sidran. Who knows? Mayor Norm Rice may seek a third term. He endured seven years of tight budgets and may want to enjoy healthier economic times now looming on the horizon.

No matter who runs, Seattle almost could operate on cruise control. Violent crime is down. The economy, especially downtown Seattle's, is chugging along briskly toward the millennium.

Several years ago when the bus tunnel and numerous office towers were under construction, comedian Martin Mull visited and quipped: "Seattle is a nice town. It'll be even better when it is finished."

In some ways, as Mull intimated, Seattle is a victim of its own success. If sweeping visionary projects are out and upgrading basic services is in, it's because the city has already built, or is building, one of everything - a new concert hall, a new basketball arena, a greatly refurbished Seattle Center, a major downtown redevelopment project, a new transit system and, despite fierce saber rattling, a new ballpark.

A back-to-basics civic mood puts all mayoral contenders in a giant pickle on the Mariners deal - if not for the price tag, then for the principle. How does Jane Noland, for example, play to the neighborhoods if she votes to help the Mariners?

It's tricky. My view is the Council should settle this non-event by splitting the difference over game-day costs. The Mariners will not tell Major League Baseball they have to sell the team because they can't agree who pays cops and street-sweepers. Once the city realizes how much it benefits from taxes generated by the team, it will agree to pick up some costs.

The way the Mariners extracted the last few concessions from the community, however, is likely to provoke a backlash and a call for a breather on major public projects, possibly at the expense of a new downtown library.

Periods of quick building are often followed by cooling trends. In 1989, Seattle voters opted to limit downtown office construction, not because the vote would dramatically change things - most buildings were either under construction or grand-fathered in - but because everyone needed a mental break from rapid change. Once public projects under way are completed, the city seems poised for another pause.

And that's OK. Great cities of the world don't merely provide splashy amenities and brag about their innovative international relationships; they maintain basic services.

Having a sister city in Surabaya, Indonesia, for example, is exciting, but if basic operations in Seattle don't run smoothly, who cares? The best cities have a seamless quality that keeps buses running, garbage collected and streets at least marginally passable - yes, even in a nasty humdinger of a storm.

Mindy Cameron will be sharing this space with other staff writers throughout the year. Please continue to e-mail remarks about the editorial pages to her at