Politics pepper non-partisan government

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

All of you who are Democrats, raise your hand.

OK, now all of you who are Republicans, raise your hand.

How many of you are independent and would like to vote for candidates from both parties depending on your view of who makes the best candidate?

This question was posed at a breakfast meeting recently where the primary audience was business leaders who might typically be considered Republicans, and conservative ones at that.

But the majority, surprisingly enough, raised their hands as independent and illustrated why a lot of voters are upset about having to take a partisan vote.

And that small example highlights why Initiative 26 to make King County government non-partisan is gaining political traction. Washington, King County and certainly Seattle have historically voted more Democratic. Just look at your score card on statewide and county-wide office holders.

Initiative 26, which is currently being circulated, seeks voter approval to change the county charter to make the King County Executive, Council and Assessor to non-partisan positions.

The sheriff is already non-partisan. The county prosecutor is considered a state position, and the state Legislature would have to approve any change.

Citizens for Independent Government (C.I.G.), which is headed by Joe Fain, chief of staff to county councilman Pete von Reichbauer, is circulating the petition. If the group gains 52,817 signatures by the end of March, the measure would appear on the August primary ballot.

If it passes, it would go to the November ballot.

Most voters feel distant enough from state and federal government that having a partisan label is helpful in identifying a political philosophy of the candidates.

However, local government city councils and mayors run as non-partisan. King County is considered local government, although it handles regional issues.

So, why an initiative? Wouldn’t the county council put this seemly logical idea on the ballot, you ask? People who watch government have felt if this ever made the ballot, it would pass easily. The answer? Politics.

The real question: Why would a county elected official vote to put an issue on the ballot that makes them more vulnerable at election time? The answer is pretty obvious, which explains why all previous attempts at this proposal have not made it past the county council to the ballot.

Most county office holders are well meaning and try to do a good job, but personal and political jeopardy is a whole different matter.

Due to redistricting, most of the county council seats are considered “safe,” meaning a strong majority of Democrats or Republicans live in those districts.

There are a couple of swing districts. In the safe districts, all you have to do is keep your party supporters happy so you don’t get a primary challenge, which almost never happens, and you’re home free because the other party can’t turn out enough votes to beat you.

But if Initiative 26 passes, all county elected positions suddenly become more competitive, although it may take a couple of election cycles. If that happens, potential candidates from the same party could challenge the incumbent without fear of a party backlash.

The last executive race is illustrative. Democratic County Executive Ron Sims easily beat Republican David Irons, who barely got the Republican baseline vote county-wide. If the race had been non-partisan, another Democrat could have run against Sims. Or it could have been a stronger Republican or independent who, if identified as non-partisan, might have made the race more competitive than Irons did.

Some insiders point to this initiative as strategic thinking, making Republicans more electable in heavily Democratic Seattle or in some of the suburbs, if they don’t have to run as Republicans.

Others say it won’t matter because most voters can figure out the candidates’ political philosophy.

Still others say, who cares? All we really want are the best candidates and 95 percent of King County’s issues are non-partisan anyway.

So, voters, should your county government remain partisan or become non-partisan? Come this fall, you may get to decide.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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