elizabeth campbell construction activist
Image: Rory Kurtz

WELL, THAT WAS EMBARRASSING.

It’s 2009, early September, three weeks after Elizabeth Campbell’s bid to become the next mayor of Seattle came to an end. That she would not be the one to unseat two-term incumbent Greg Nickels surprised few. She had never held office. She’d raised less than $2,500 in campaign contributions, most of which had come from her own bank account. And her decision to run had as much to do with gathering support for an initiative that would prevent the state from building a tunnel along Seattle’s waterfront as it had to do with storming city hall. So while community organizer Mike McGinn and telecom company executive Joe Mallahan split more than 77,000 votes in the primary to advance to the general election three months later, Campbell garnered just 3,485—less than 2.5 percent of registered voters. But that was not what embarrassed her.

While sorting files in the Magnolia home she shares with her daughter’s family, she spotted the flap of an unsealed envelope sticking out from the middle of a stack of papers. Her mouth dropped open as she pulled it free. It was addressed to King County Elections, and inside was her mail-in ballot—her mail-in ballot that was three weeks overdue. It was only one vote and would have hardly been enough to change the election, but it was hers. So she put a stamp on the envelope, and slipped a note inside: “I know my vote doesn’t count. But for the record, I’m sending this in to show that I voted for myself.” And then she dropped her meaningless ballot in the mail.

It was the principle of the thing.

ELIZABETH CAMPBELL LOVES THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT. “It is a perfect piece of roadway,” she says of the four-mile elevated roadway built in 1953, less than one year after she was born. “You drive up it and you drive down it.” To some it’s a hulking poured-concrete fence that looms between downtown and the horizon. But to Campbell it’s a utilitarian piece of transportation infrastructure that just needs a little sprucing up. For nearly seven years, she has done everything but lie down in front of a bulldozer to prevent the construction of the proposed deep-bore tunnel that would replace it, and the only reason she hasn’t may be that the digging hasn’t started yet. On December 6, 2004—the very day then Mayor Nickels announced the city and state’s hope of replacing the crumbling viaduct with an underground roadway—she filed an initiative to kill the $4 billion project. She failed to gather enough signatures to bring it to a vote, but she seemed to feed off the defeat. Since late 2008, Campbell has sued the Federal Highway Administration once and the ­Washington State Department of Transportation twice; she has run for mayor on an antitunnel, pro-viaduct platform; and she has filed two more antitunnel initiatives. Then in March 2010, Campbell joined a handful of other tunnel opponents to form Protect Seattle Now, which filed a referendum intended to derail the project.

All but two of those efforts failed, and even they face significant tests this month: Last winter Campbell collected the requisite signatures for Initiative 101, which would prevent the state from using city rights of way to build the tunnel, and by August 15 a King County judge will decide whether to place it on the November ballot. (Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes tried to quash the measure by suing Campbell soon after she filed it.) And one day after the judge’s ruling, Referendum 1, Protect Seattle Now’s attempt to challenge the process by which the Seattle City Council authorized the state to build the tunnel, will be put to a vote in the primary election. No one knows exactly what will happen if the referendum is successful, although conventional wisdom says construction may only be delayed by a matter of weeks. But should the initiative go before voters in the general election and win, the land would be off limits and the deep-bore tunnel could very well die. And the teeth gnashing over how to move 110,000 cars per day along the waterfront will begin again.

Campbell enjoys this. Not the chaos; she’s not lobbing wrenches into the political process just because she likes the sound of grinding gears. For her, there’s meaning in the doing. “I like working,” she says with a shrug. “I’m good at details.” More specifically she enjoys the work associated with her self-anointed role as secretary of government accountability and boondoggle oversight. Between January 2008 and June 2010 she made 56 public disclosure requests of WSDOT, accumulating more than 132,000 pages of emails, permits, licenses, and studies related to the tunnel project. (Just a guess, but this could explain how she misplaced her ballot for the 2009 primary.) And last May she sued the department for not producing documents in what she considered a timely fashion.

She reads just a fraction of what WSDOT sends her, searching for bits of information she can use in her ongoing legal fights with the state. But as far as she’s concerned, the request is an end in itself. “Even if I did nothing with the information, the fact that somebody inquired about it has a good effect on people involved in government,” she says. “Maybe they’ll make better decisions. Maybe they’ll realize that they’re not powers unto themselves. There’s a whole public that they’re accountable to.”

A LOT WOULD CHANGE AROUND HERE IF CAMPBELL WERE IN CHARGE. Like, for example, the streetlights. They’re rusty and need to be painted. “There are so many things that I see and think, Why doesn’t the city clean this place up?” she says. “We’re spending big bucks to do something brand new instead of maintaining and taking care of what we have.”

The brand-new something she’s referring to is, of course, the tunnel. It would take an entirely separate article to discuss everything she’d like to see better cared for, but here’s a taste. “I’d like to see all of the parking strips all mowed and neatly maintained,” she says. “I used to work in our yard, so I know how to maintain those things.”

About seven years ago, near the time she ramped up her fight against ­WSDOT, her desire to clean the parts of the city that had gone “trashy” inspired Campbell to join the Magnolia Community Club, the neighborhood’s advocacy group. (She was also looking for help in dealing with the late-night train noise that came from the tracks just east of her house. Going down there herself and complaining to the on-site conductor hadn’t worked as well as she expected.) Not long after, she won a seat on the group’s board. And almost from the beginning she sparred with the other members who weren’t as passionate as she was. She sent lengthy, combative emails to the board when they wouldn’t take up the causes she believed in, and members who served with her say she would dress down those who disagreed with her in meetings.

Campbell’s aggressive style led board president Vic Barry to ask on several occasions that she voluntarily step down. When she dug in deeper—she stayed, she says, because she refused to be railroaded—the board rewrote its bylaws partly to prevent her from seeking another term. (Barry wouldn’t comment for this story other than to say that Campbell’s relationship with the board was “contentious and adversarial.”) Yet being cast out didn’t deter her. In 2006 she founded the Magnolia Neighborhood Planning Council, a group that she vowed wouldn’t be afraid to take on anyone who threatened the neighborhood’s character. Two years later she sued to prevent the City from building low-income housing at the soon-to-be-vacated Fort Lawton reserve base next to Discovery Park. She won the suit, and although representatives from Seattle’s Office of Housing say it didn’t technically stop the development, the City has yet to announce any official plans to move forward.