Doorbelling Denied

By Josh Feit February 28, 2012

As a former campaign manager for Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, I can assure PubliCola readers who've been mulling over Roger Valdez's contrarian essay about the lack of money in local politics (a response to City Council member Mike O'Brien's complaint about the influence of money) that—Yes!—money plays a huge role in Seattle City Council elections. It is the most important resource, aside from name recognition, to guarantee victory.

Every candidate, or potential candidate, is immediately placed in a Catch 22 of not being able to raise money because they lack organizational endorsements, and not being able to be considered for such endorsement because they do not have enough money. That is true of just about any political office in the United States and hardly unique to Seattle. Fortunately, there is a silver bullet to the effect of money in politics. Candidates simply have to introduce themselves to every voter in their district, listen to their concerns, and follow up. It works in legislative districts, it works in county council districts, and therein lies the problem with Seattle: We don't elect the council by districts. [pullquote]Therein lies the problem with Seattle: We don't elect the council by districts.[/pullquote]

The real barrier to accessibility in Seattle city council elections is not campaign spending, but rather that there the only  alternative to big spending, doorbelling, isn't viable in Seattle.  By electing council members city-wide, door to door politics becomes impractical. Consider: 166,184 Seattleites voted in 2011's most competitive council contest between council member Jean Godden and challenger Bobby Forch. How could either of them have possibly made the time to doorbell a statistically significant number of those voters? And how could they have followed up with them in a meaningful enough way to earn their support? Challenger Maurice Classen made a run at it by doorbelling some of Seattle's highest performing precincts, and he finished over 10,000 votes behind Forch in the primary.

Maurice is not alone, many city council candidates have tried the shoe leather approach to campaigning over the years without success. Casey Corr proudly doorbelled over 10,000 doors in his bid against Council member Jan Drago in 2005. In the general election 161,242 votes were cast and Corr received 58,339; presumably the 10,000 people he doorbelled voted for him, but statistically it made little difference.

Those skeptical of the effect districts could have on city council elections should look no further than the prime case study of Council member Bob Ferguson's first election. In 2003, a 38-year Bob Ferguson raised around half as much money as incumbent King County Council member Cynthia Sullivan; bringing in $96,000 to her $179,000. On top of that, Ferguson was shut out of every organizational endorsement, including labor unions, the local Democratic party, and the Sierra Club. When all the votes were counted, Council member Ferguson won the primary by 488 votes.

How was Ferguson able to pull it off? He doorbelled voters who had cast ballots in the two previous primary elections. And when he had spare time he did it again. The turnout in Ferguson's 2003 primary was about 30,000 voters; making doorbelling a viable tactic.

None of this is to say that districts are absolutely necessary to overcome the perceived grip big money has on Seattle elections. With lots of hard work and luck underdogs and populists can make it onto the Seattle City Council under our current system. Tireless grassroots campaigning got Council members Charlie Chong, Licata, and O'Brien got elected.  Moreover, Bobby Forch came within 2 percent of unseating Councilmember Godden, proving that no incumbent is absolutely safe.

That said, the safest strategy in Seattle politics is, and will remain, chasing $700 checks. Not necessarily because candidates want to, but because there is no viable alternative strategy. Districts would demand that talking to neighbors, not writing checks, be the dominant campaign tactic.

Andrew Lewis managed Council member Nick Licata's re-election campaign in 2009. He is currently the Director of Government Relations for the UW student association. He is a senior at UW studying history and political science.

Editor's note: A district elections ballot measure was defeated in 2003, 53 to 46.
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