PubliCola Q&A with Bellevue's Big Winner Claudia Balducci

By Erica C. Barnett November 16, 2011

In our election predictions last week, we guessed that Bellevue City Council member Claudia Balducci would win reelection "in a squeaker" against her challenger Patti Mann. The basis for our prediction? Balducci's challenger---an opponent of Sound Transit's preferred light rail route through the city---was backed heavily by Bellevue megadeveloper and light rail opponent Kemper Freeman, who poured thousands into Mann's campaign, both directly and by funding a hit piece accusing Balducci, who directs King County Jails and sits on the Sound Transit board, of multiple financial conflicts of interest.

Boy, were we wrong. As of the latest vote count, Balducci was beating Mann 66 to 34 percent---a routing second only to her fellow council member John Chelminiak's win over challenger Michelle Hilhorst, whose campaign received only nominal backing from Freeman and other rail opponents.

What were Bellevue voters thinking last Tuesday? Does the victory represent a mandate for Balducci's pro-rail agenda? And where does Bellevue and its council---a group riven by disagreements over rail, development, and their members' personal financial interests---go from here? [pullquote]"I think we need to recommend that Kemper read to the end of Moby-Dick, because it doesn't end well."—Claudia Balducci.[/pullquote]

Well, for starters, on the Monday immediately after the Freeman rebuke,  after years of acrimony---including allegations of financial improprieties and conflicts of interest, charges of open-meetings violations, screaming matches between council members, and council member Grant Degginger's announcement that he would retire rather than endure the loss of civility on the council---council members unanimously adopted a light-rail route through Bellevue last week that four of the council's seven members had adamantly opposed.

Balducci stopped by PubliCola yesterday to talk about Freeman, the election results, and what's next for Bellevue. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

PubliCola: To what extent do you think this election was a referendum on Kemper Freeman?

Claudia Balducci: What [Freeman] did this election was, he really went all out on transportation issues. Putting a million dollars into [Initiative] 1125, [Tim Eyman's anti-tolling, anti-rail initiative] is about as big a stake in the ground that you can stick. My first campaign four years ago cost $19,000. Now they're going for $80,000, $90,000.

The press has always been interested in Kemper Freeman's one-man jihad against light rail, but this time around, everybody was writing about the money and where it was coming from and what it means. ... There were significant negative mailers, and [yet] my percentage went up. ...

PubliCola: The Bellevue council has developed a reputation for its heated meetings; you even walked out of one meeting after your colleague Kevin Wallace kept shouting you down. Now that you and John Chelminiak have won reelection is there a chance council members will bury the hatchet?

Balducci: We made a lot more noise in the last two years. We've been involved in big regional decisions in the past, but we've done so quietly and professionally. This year, we were literally screaming at each other. The fact that we took this circuitous, painful route to a decision [on light rail] --- people say to me all the time, "I never used to watch you, but now it's like a soap opera--you want to know what's going to happen next." It became a bit of a spectacle.

I think it's very situational. I think that nobody likes to be surprised and nobody likes to be treated unfairly or blindsided, and there was a lot of that going on in the last two years. People were showing up to meetings with issues that were not on the agenda, things like, "here's a letter we're going to vote on about how bad Sound Transit is." And [the council minority, including Balducci] would react. We definitely had our moments. [The anti-Sound Transit council faction] had a majority. There was no reason for it. They could have advanced their agenda in a way that was far less provocative.

This year, everybody who ran, ran on restoring civility to the council, so I'm hoping that even if Aaron Laing wins, he's going to want to return to that. I think that we will all make an attempt to try to work together better towards common goals.

Last night [when the council adopted the light-rail route through Bellevue] was a real turning point. We spent a lot of time getting to last night. We, and Sound Transit, too, have spent dozens of hours in the last two week ... to get us to the point where we can finally vote on this document in front of us. [From now on], I'm looking forward to playing on the same team, because we now have common interests.

Last night, [rail opponent] Kevin Wallace came out with us to the Pumphouse, where people go to celebrate political victories and softball games. And I said, "I think we need to recommend that Kemper read to the end of Moby-Dick, because it doesn't end well."

PubliCola: There has been some discussion of a lawsuit against Sound Transit to stop the project at some point in the future. Is that off the table?

Balducci: Last night, we voted on an agreement that had a waiver of litigation in it, so we're all in.

PubliCola: Some in Seattle have expressed concern that our city might end up on the hook for rail to Bellevue, which could be a violation of subarea equity (the requirement that improvements funded by one Sound Transit subarea benefit that subarea), since the North King County subarea would be funding up to $110 million of the project in the East King subarea. How do you respond?[pullquote]We're more diverse than Seattle now---economically, probably not, but racially, definitely so. If people came over to my side of town, they'd be surprised to see that my side of town looks a lot like parts of Seattle --- a lot of small houses, a lot of apartments, a lot of Section 8 housing.[/pullquote]

Balducci: The East Link project starts in Seattle. There's the King Street Station that will be built in Seattle. The line from there across I-90 starts in King County. Some say [funding a portion of the line outside the North King subarea with North King dollars] is a violation of subarea equity, but it isn't really. Subarea equity says you can only use subarea money to pay for projects that benefit your subarea. It's been done before. I want the tracks to come into the subarea, not have a line that runs only from Bellevue to Mercer Island. That was the justification for them contributing some additional funding.

PubliCola: A lot of our readers are from Seattle and don't know much about Bellevue politics. What are some big upcoming decisions for the council? Is there anything about Bellevue, politically, that would surprise Seattle readers?

Balducci: The budget hole and the recession are jointly driving a hole so large in [the city's] future transportation funding that it's basically done. That plan is over. That's going to be big thing we're going to have to talk about next year.

Council member [Jennifer] Robertson is thinking about a ballot measure for property tax. We went through almost a decade of never, ever touching the property tax, which is why the rate is so so low but we're also not keeping up with our needs. And we do have car tab authority from the state.

Once upon a time, we talked about a parking tax. There's a lot of free parking in Bellevue. We're not ready yet.

In a few ways, we don't meet the stereotype. We're more diverse than Seattle now---economically, probably not, but racially, definitely so. If people came over to my side of town, they'd be surprised to see that my side of town looks a lot like parts of Seattle --- a lot of small houses, a lot of apartments, a lot of Section 8 housing.

We're clearly not anti-transit. Bellevue has voted for every transit measure in at least the last 10 years. Our voters are strongly in favor of paying the money it takes to pay for the transit system.
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