Other suburban cities have had the “strong mayor” system for more than 100 years.
But in Federal Way, it is still a new experience, as this year marked only our second election under the new system. It exposed some raw feelings and class distinctions along with some surprising decisions that would frame and ultimately alter the election.
Three years ago, Republican State Rep. Skip Priest defeated Republican Federal Way City Councilmember Jim Ferrell for the position. Ferrell remained on the council, but kept a low profile, with only a few disagreements with Priest — although he didn’t support the Performing Arts and Conference Center (PACC).
Ferrell has since switched parties and became a Democrat, at least in part to keep his political options open.
Early in the year, there were rumors that Priest was reluctant to run. In fact, some of his supporters said he didn’t really seem to be enjoying the job. Ferrell wasn’t sure he could defeat Priest, so he announced he wouldn’t run. Most political observers felt Priest might run unopposed and was strong enough to control his own destiny against Ferrell or anyone else.
But then Priest made a key error, along with a strategic decision, that would set the tone for the election and re-emerge many times during the campaign. In making his announcement for re-election, Priest used old 2011 crime statistics that were more advantageous to him than the more current 2012 statistics. Ferrell and the Federal Way Police Officers Guild, who wanted Ferrell to run, noticed this along with the media. It looked misleading to the public.
Then Priest, who is a financial conservative, came out strongly in favor of the PACC as an economic development tool. While that was the leadership many PACC supporters were seeking, the significant costs were not popular among many of the city’s lower income residents.
More importantly, it started to define the issues of the election to Ferrell’s advantage. The Pinewood murders then brought Ferrell into the race, with crime joining the PACC and economic development in the election debate. Next came the complaint by Councilmember Kelly Maloney about Priest’s behavior. Priest’s temperament, or “direct mode” as he called it, was not a secret to most insiders, but the general public was unaware of it. Priest’s supporters felt the press should not have reported the complaint. Others felt that not reporting it would have looked like a coverup. Some accused the Ferrell camp.
Priest’s political background showed, as he won the public relations battle with Maloney among the city’s movers and shakers. However, Maloney, who was not previously well known, had a very strong primary vote, suggesting she had gained credibility with the average voter. That would become bad news for Priest.
In the continuing saga of twists and turns came the second investigation about the mayor. Video footage showed him picking up his campaign signs from the city “sign jail” late at night. The question in town was, “what was the mayor doing out at 10 p.m. picking up signs?” Didn’t he have a campaign worker that could do that during the day? Since a police officer apparently saw the mayor, it is likely that the guild knew about the issue.
News of the video footage spread. The facts, as reported in a police department press release authorized by the chief, seemed to suggest there wasn’t anything wrong. But this is where Priest was placed in a no-win situation. The chief, city attorney and mayor knew they had to have an outside review or they would be accused of a coverup.
But to the public, the chief asking for the attorney general to investigate sounded like the mayor had done something very wrong. We still don’t know the answer, as the investigation has not been reported as of press time. But two investigations are hard to overcome in an election.
During the two biggest debates of the election sponsored by The Mirror and Federal Way Chamber of Commerce, Ferrell was the aggressor as he raised public safety, the PACC and other Priest weaknesses. Priest was on the defensive, and even though Ferrell had his own vulnerabilities, Priest didn’t exploit them. This was a strategic error, as Ferrell was clearly gaining ground.
As the candidates headed into the home stretch, a story broke about a little girl and the city telling her she had to get rid of one of her pet pygmy goats. The issue gave voters an idea of the candidates’ sensitivity to problem solving, children and animals. Priest made the first move by meeting with the girl. Ferrell didn’t react. But when Priest didn’t follow up, Ferrell did, and he won crucial political points. The council didn’t change anything, but Ferrell got the political benefit from the public.
Then in another unforced error, the school board adopted a resolution thanking Priest for actions he took three years ago as a state representative. With a majority of the board and the superintendent supporting Priest’s re-election, the tribute was seen as a thinly veiled endorsement. The Public Disclosure Commission called it “suspect.” Public reaction was negative.
Lastly, it was well known that Priest and his supporters were unhappy with the media. In the closing weeks, the Tacoma News Tribune endorsed Priest and The Mirror endorsed Ferrell. However, in looking at the membership on The Mirror’s editorial board, most observers — including Ferrell — expected Priest to get the endorsement. That he didn’t get the endorsement raises questions about his preparation. Priest also declined to do any advertising in The Mirror, which could have given him his best opportunity to define himself on his own terms. He missed an opportunity to show popular supporters such as House leader Rep. Pat Sullivan (D) or Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R), or former candidate for governor Rob McKenna (R). It was another questionable political decision, and it left the ad pages to Ferrell alone.
In the end, Priest simply made too many mistakes, and Ferrell made almost none.
On election night, Ferrell won comfortably in a race that could have gone the other way.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.