Mercer Island: The Partisanization of a Local Government

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To be clear, I’m not a long time Mercer Islander. I didn’t take the pre-floating bridge ferry to Garfield High School nor miss the last ferry at 11 pm, forcing the long trek up Lake City Way and around the north end of Lake Washington to cross the East Channel on the old wooden bridge. No, I’m a late comer arriving with the Space Needle in 1962 when the Great Northern Railway transferred my father from Montana. I came wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, only to learn of my fashion faux pas from my new classmates at North Mercer Junior High School.

Ridding myself of the Stetson and boots, I eventually found a place on Dan Evans’s 1964 gubernatorial campaign riding many miles in the back of an Econoline van, sitting on stacks of yard sign sticks and practicing penmanship addressing envelopes. The campaign participation led to a high school Young Republican club created by my friends and me, and later to county and state high school YRs (I chaired the state organization as a senior in high school). It also opened the door to work on national campaigns, so when I returned from my service in the Air Force in the early ‘70s, you can understand why I was inclined to reject the chance to get into non-partisan, amateur politics on Mercer Island. 

Fortunately, one of my mentors took me by the scruff of the neck, inserting me into a nonpartisan city council campaign, which turned out to be about stormwater. In the late ‘60s, a committee named Moss-Ralston after the co-chairs recommended Mercer Island levy a property tax to purchase sensitive lands, generally referred to as “steep slopes.”  The committee intended the levy to publicly fund stormwater management projects across the island. 

The proposal never got off the ground. Voters concluded that no one could build on those slopes, so why should the public tax themselves to protect something obviously not needing protection?

The need eventually became clearer. A gulch created by a county planned development east of Pioneer Park began to take back yards at an accelerating pace, creating a new peninsula in the East Channel. A hillside on the southwest side of the island slid into a development at the hillside’s foot. City councilmembers found themselves mucking out kitchens in newly built ramblers and split-levels.   Developers started to build on “unbuildable” lots. And groups of progressive citizens began to lobby for action from a council aligned with the rejection of Moss-Ralston.

The election turned out well for the “environmentalists.” In 1977, we defeated three incumbents with three challengers — which was three of only six incumbents defeated in the 60 years of cityhood. In the next two years, the council passed the first watercourse setback ordinance north of San Francisco Bay (a staggering 50 feet!) and placed a successful levy on the ballot to purchase the Mercerdale hillside, where developers had secured the permits to develop the “steep slope.” That became a recurring theme in Island’s open space investments following Moss-Ralston: only buy it once the price goes up! 

In 1979, I ran for council, winning a race against the former president of the school board and joining a council that was split among five members generally supporting the environmental legislation and two generally reluctant. 

In the aftermath of the campaign, the King County Chair of the Republican Party at that time offered to take me to breakfast. I’ve learned to have a bit of skepticism about those kinds of offers over the years, but then naivety ruled. From 1974 I’d served as a Republican precinct committee officer and expected compliments on my brilliant campaign. I didn’t expect to be told whom to support for the non-partisan mayor,but that was the stern command. 

I didn’t take it well. Why would I start my service in a minority by voting against the new mayor? My friendly county chair then informed me the vote against his candidate would end my political career. “What political career?” I asked and voted for a Democrat.

In 1980, I worked for John Anderson’s still born presidential campaign, washed away by the Reagan tsunami. I’d not run for PCO in 1980, largely because my wife and I had a new baby and I had two jobs: systems manager and councilmember. But I watched as the Reaganauts who controlled the county and state parties became interested in local races.

When the 1981 council campaigns arrived, the Republican Party arrived as well.  The new council quickly split 4-3 in picking the mayor (Mercer Island has a city-manager form of government, where the council picks a mayor among its members) and remained that way for years. The three-member minority consisted of two Reagan campaign volunteers and a councilmember from the pre-1977 council. The four-member majority consisted of two Democrats and, to use an archaic phase, two liberal Republicans.  

When 1983 rolled around, I got to work on my campaign for re-election and found the district Republican organization had recruited an opponent for me. He out-fundraised me big time (his two largest contributors were the county and district Republican parties), but fortunately he didn’t doorbell. I did. Without a walking list, I doorbelled voters and nonvoters. I got bitten by four dogs, but I won.

Stormwater continued to be a divisive problem. The obvious answer seemed to be a return to the ideas of Moss-Ralston, creating a funding source to make public improvements in watercourses. We tried modest public infrastructure investments, public-private partnerships and ultimately, once the last opponent of Moss-Ralston left the council for Olympia, a series of public engagements, watercourse by watercourse. 

We started each set of neighborhood meetings with education sessions, bringing geologists, civil engineers, and finance consultants to describe options and outcomes. We then asked, how did the neighborhood wish to proceed? 

After several weeks the first neighborhood came to consensus on the need for a public stormwater utility managed by the city. Good. The second watercourse went much quicker, as consensus developed at the second meeting. The third watercourse neighborhood told us to quit wasting tax dollars and get on with the stormwater utility.  The council unanimously enacted the island-wide stormwater utility ordinance and utility charge. 

So, 25 years after Moss-Ralston, Mercer Island proved Winston Churchill right about Americans: We’ll always do the right thing – after we’d tried everything else.

But the process exposed a deep divide on the Island. It was not a partisan divide, though it presaged a lot of how our national politics evolved, but rather it was a divide between those who saw government as a tool to solve community problems and those who perceived government as wasteful and taxing them for things they don’t value.

In recent years, this divide has produced a consistent theme of campaign attacks in Mercer Island and the Eastside campaigns generally, by which non-partisan candidates for councils and school boards are accused of being tools of Democratic activists. That attack suggested non-partisan candidates would bring the dysfunction of Seattle polarization to our suburban communities. Making the non-partisan “partisan” translated into a charge of smuggling in national, left-wing policies. These charges usually came from Republicans, without mentioning their party. 

Both parties now follow the precedent set by Republicans in the early ‘80s, making local, non-partisan elections partisan by bringing in the sophistication of campaign consultants and political activists and framing campaigns around national partisan themes. The flyers are slick, the yard signs tested, and the campaigns expensive. Council campaigns cost between $20,000 and $40,000 in 2021.  The two incumbents won spending $38,000 and $22,000 against challengers at similar amounts.  Both challengers were endorsed by the Democratic district and several officeholders.  The third race was won by a candidate similarly endorsed with a cost of $25,000.

By contrast, the first city council campaign when I broke into Island politics cost a few hundred dollars and a lot of shoe leather. Had I known this was going to be the outcome, perhaps I should have killed my political career at the outset. 

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Currently enjoying retirement after of public service and a long career, Fred’s been an active participant our region’s political life for over five decades. Most recently, Fred lead the executive branch of King County government, the King County Executive Leadership Team and the Executive’s Best Run Government Initiative. Previously a state senator, he served four terms in the state House of Representatives, after stints as Mercer Island Mayor and as a city council and school board member. Mr. Jarrett has also had a 35-year career at The Boeing Company.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Who benefits from the victory of candidate X over candidate Y? Is $5K dropped on your guy likely to be returned at least ten-fold if it works?

    Industry deregulation (e.g., real estate development)?

    Big public works projects (are Transportation Choices Coalition officers running for the office?)

  2. “[P]erhaps I should have killed my political career at the outset.”

    We would be facing a better future had you done that. Here’s one of the reasons why that is:

    https://crosscut.com/2016/09/sound-transit-population-growth-light-rail

    “Our region is growing. So should our light rail system”

    by Fred Jarrett / August 31, 2016
    ————–

    That didn’t age well.

    None of your trite talking points there remains valid. Society and employment realities have evolved smartly away from that “commutes above all else” paradigm. You and your colleagues have left us with a massive financial albatross around our collective necks, one that is precluding smart planning for the right kind of future.

  3. Only by not forgetting our past can we master the future. — Bo Jin

    Thanks for sharing this small piece of history, Fred. It’s good to remember where we came from.

    • Thanks, Renee.

      If you’ve not you should read Heather Cox Richardson’s history of the Republican Party. Very interesting read.

  4. I don’t know Mercer Island but I do see local politics becoming increasingly polarized. One of the tragedies of this is that the uneducated voters are doesn’t know the difference between candidates and will vote for whomever presents the best yard signs and best advertising.
    Where is the educated voter now that he/she is needed? Answer: Not extinct but definitely endangered.

  5. Good people do good stuff and the result is good people in good government.
    He also assisted the Snohomish. County Executive run the office office effectively.
    Decency reigns when Fred is involved.
    Thanks Fred.

  6. There was another aspect to the Moss-Ralston plan that I heard from Dick Ralston himself. If Mercer Island taxed itself to buy up all the developable land it could effectively limit its population and save money on the attendant infrastructure that would have to be built to accommodate growth. Stripped to its essentials, it was presented as a very sophisticated NIMBY proposal that would have made Mercer Island a population-limited community even more exclusive than it is now. And certainly beyond the pale of any regional population-density planning.

    Some of the more scurrilous campaigning in this last election came from folks who see Lake Washington as a moat, and their job is to prevent any kind of growth, density, or community amenities. Some of the more prominent ones are major Trump backers. They always harken back to some hazy imagined golden age that is coincidentally whatever year they arrived on Mercer Island. Politics here is non-partisan in name only, as you point out.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking stroll down memory lane, Fred.

  7. @Frank – Wrong! Sound Transit is smart planning. It’s an investment for future generations and a must have if we stand any chance of turning the tide on climate change. Our generation has chosen to invest in our city’s future whether we’re around to see it to fruition or not and no amount of right wing whining will change that.

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