[Editor's Note: Originally published on Thursday, this is the second article in a series, as PubliCola profiles the candidates running to fill Rep. Sharon Nelson’s open House seat in the 34th District. The first article, "Marcee Stone: Campaign Finance Activist Makes Her Case in the 34th" ran last week.]
Joe Fitzgibbon, the candidate as a young wonk.
When, earlier this year, the City of Burien set about updating zoning rules along the city's shoreline, some residents—particularly those with waterfront property—were furious. Feeling that the planning commission was wresting away control of their land, they showed up en masse at city meetings—125 at one meeting, according to city officials—to protest the perceived takeover.
The smart-growth-style plan pushed back the shoreline from 25 feet from the water to 65 feet, causing residents to fear they wouldn't be able to rebuild their waterfront homes. The residents also feared attempts from the city government to turn private land on Lake Burien into a public park.
Burien Planning Commission chair Joe Fitzgibbon was an obvious target for their ire. When the impassioned citizens went over their three-minute limit, Fitzgibbon banged the gavel. He had to tell a few speakers to keep it civil. Feeling they were being silenced, a few got angry at him. (A commenter on a post about Fitzgibbon on the Burien news site B-Town Blog called Fitzgibbon "the Hitlerian head of the Burien Planning Commission.")
"People who lived along the shoreline did come out to make themselves heard," Fitzgibbon, who's currently running for the state House in Olympia, said. "They were articulating that we should be very careful, and their point was well-taken. We made a lot of changes."
Fitzgibbon, 23, who also worked as a legislative aide for Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-34, West Seattle, Burien, Vashon, Maury Island) for the last three sessions, is running against fellow Democrats Marcee Stone, a campaign finance activist, and Mike Heavey, an aide to King County Council Member Jan Drago, for Nelson's open seat. (Nelson is moving to the state Senate.)
Burien City Manager Mike Martin (a position that holds joint governance over the city with the City Council) attended the land-use meetings and confirms that they got ugly. The "old Burien" crowd protested against young Burien, he said (and no one on the commission is younger than Fitzgibbon). "It's an issue that involves property owners who are very interested in preserving their property," he said. "It's highly controversial."
But Martin was impressed with Fitzgibbon. "He handled it with remarkable sophistication," said Martin. "In my opinion, he showed a maturity way beyond his years."
Fitzgibbon, an idealist who talks about wanting to have "the biggest impact possible on people's lives," found his cause in green urbanist objectives like density and mass transit (or regulating shoreline development in the suburbs)—long-term solutions, he says. His first move was to bring the cause to Burien, the town where he grew up, interposing as a whiz-kid technocrat in a generational battle over land use, between old-Burien upholders of the status quo and a volunteer commission's plans for change.
The story of a liberal technocrat jumping into a generational schism is a microcosm of what Fitzgibbon wants to do in Olympia.
Ftizgibbon is campaigning on a message of taking Olympia Democrats to task on tax reform, transit, and green development. He has raised $6,535 and spent $89.51, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. That puts him in third place behind Stone's $7,789.40 and Heavey’s $10,269 (an independent candidate, Mac's Triangle Pub owner Geoffrey McElroy, has raised $3,610).
Fitzgibbon graduated from Principia College when he was 20. Principia is a tiny liberal arts school in rural Illinois for Christian Scientists, a sect that holds, among other things, that most illnesses are spiritual in nature and can be healed through prayer. ("I'm not much of a churchgoer these days," Fitzgibbon told me). He wrote his senior thesis on dam construction on the Columbia River.
Fitzgibbon worked on state-wide issues for the first time in 2005 (at age 18) as an intern with the League of Conservation Voters in Seattle. He was inspired by the group's dedication to local issues. "It's the local issues that really effect people's lives. I knew this level of politics was the level I wanted to be in."
After graduating college, he came back from Illinois to Burien with the idea of finding a job in local government. He worked for a summer as a barista at a coffee shop in Pike Place Market, then quit to intern with King County Council Member Bob Ferguson. That's where he met Sharon Nelson, who was working as an aide to then-county council member Dow Constantine.
Fitzgibbon's tall and friendly, but not quite casual—when he's in a political setting, he likes to talk about the issues. I've never seen Fitzgibbon in public without a tie. And he only acts awkward when someone gets him outside of his wonky home turf—like when he had to explain his love of Soundgarden to a group of befuddled older politicos at last month's 34th District candidate forum.
But when he gets on the subject of Olympia, he sounds like a (well-versed) man-on-a-(wonky)-mission. Zach Carstensen is a lobbyist in Olympia for the Jewish Federation who phonebanked for Dow Constantine's King County Executive campaign alongside Fitzgibbon. "Joe knows about every issue," said Carstensen, sipping drinks at a recent Fitzgibbon fundraiser in Seattle. "He was winning votes for Dow just talking to people about the issues.”
Fitzgibbon says the Democrats lost focus on transit and wants to work on the Complete Streets bill, pushed in Olympia last session by the Transportation Choices Coalition. The bill, which died on the floor, would have created a fund for bike and pedestrian projects and would have required the state to consider cyclists and pedestrians when refurbishing state highways that function as city streets.
More broadly, he wants to work on expanding the transit network throughout the state (although he didn't give me a specific legislative proposal). "There has not been strong support in the Democratic caucus for expanding high-capacity transit throughout our region," Fitzgibbon said.
Fitzgibbon also wants to end tax exemptions for big polluters (like Canadian power company TransAlta, which has a major coal plant in Centralia and a major exemption—$4 million a year—from Olympia). The Senate ended the exemption, but the House killed the legislation under pressure from Governor Chris Gregoire. Fitzgibbon criticizes Gregoire for preserving the exemption, as well as for vetoing legislation in 2009 that would have expanded the definition of basic education to include early learning, among other things.
Fitzgibbon's number-one issue, which, for the most part he shares with the other candidates, is tax reform. However, he says he doesn't think there's much of a shot at getting an income tax passed in the upcoming session, so he wants to push a value-added tax. Popular in Europe, a "VAT" taxes goods at each point in the production process, rather than simply at the point when the good is sold. (Critics consider VATs regressive because they cost poor people more, as a percentage of their income, than rich people---much like a sales tax, of which VATs are a fancy variant).
His mentor, Nelson, stressed Fitzgibbon's knowledge of legislative specifics when I called her to ask about Fitzgibbon. "I don't care if my seatmate is 23 or 53, I want somebody who understands the complexities of working in Olympia," she said. An example of that, Nelson said, is when Fitzgibbon helped draft Nelson's payday lending bill, which was signed into law last year, prohibiting lenders like Moneytree from making more than eight loans to one person in a year. "Joe was really instrumental in talking to people and making that bill happen," said Nelson.
Fitzgibbon's has garnered a few endorsements from key members of Nelson's Blue-Green Coalition (the ad hoc lefty coalition of environmentalists and labor Democrats in the House), including Reps. Geoff Simpson (D-47, Black Diamond), Dave Upthegrove (D-33, SeaTac), Kevin Van De Wege (D-24, Olympic Peninsula) and Rep. Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia).
In addition to resonating with the dissident Blue-Greens, Fitzgibbon's theme of challenging the status quo is capturing a few young Seattle Democrats. Fitzgibbon held a crowded fundraising party last week at Grey Gallery, a hip bar and art gallery in Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine neighborhood in the 43rd District, not the 34th. No one I talk to at the fundraiser actually lives in the 34th District, but it was Fitzgibbon's early base. Supporters and professional activists from groups like the Sierra Club and NARAL were talking up Fitzgibbon with law school kids and City Council aides, all of whom seem to think of Fitzgibbon as a fresh face with a knack for grasping and explaining particularly-wonky local issues.
“I just had a campaign event in Vashon, and I’ve got another one coming up in Burien. But, [Capitol Hill] was just a central place for a lot of friends of the campaign,” Fitzgibbon says. “It’s early in the campaign, and we’re trying to raise money wherever there’s money to be raised.”
A few young graduate-school types congregated around Christian Sinderman, the hot-shot political consultant who has been advising Fitzgibbon on his campaign moves ("We have a strong personal relationship and I wanted to work with a consultant who I trusted to tell me the truth," said Fitzgibbon). "I'm all about the young candidates this year," Sinderman told me. “I think we should elect smart young people to shake things up in Olympia.”
A week later, back in Burien, Fitzgibbon participated in a sparsely-attended candidate forum, held in a large high school auditorium. He was clearer than Heavey, McElroy, and Stone, emphasizing Olympia specifics (like state licensure rules for town car drivers, and the requirements of the Growth Management Act for the annexation of White Center) and stressing the long term ("Instead of making decisions for two or three years out, we need to be making decisions for 20 or 30 years out," he said at one point).
Near the end, a few folks from Burien come up to the podium to confront Fitzgibbon about the new shoreline plan. A bit frustrated, Fitzgibbon tried to explain the final details his planning commission arrived at. But he still didn't assuage his questioners. "I was not happy with his answers," an older Burienite, who didn't want me to print his name, said after the meeting. "This is an issue we've thought a lot about over the years, and it's being taken out of our hands."
Fitzgibbon, who got into local politics because "things like changes to people's bus routes are what affect them most," said he's happy with the changes he made to the shoreline plan, and he doesn't let the more over-the-top protesters get to him. "It's something you sign up for when you go into public service," said Fitzgibbon. Besides, picking battles with entrenched interests over complicated issues like land use seems to be Fitzgibbon's modus operandi.
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