This is the first of two columns on this year’s race for mayor. With interviews over several months with the candidates, others close to the campaigns, and with an educated guess or two, we can take readers behind the political veil — and take a closer look at this historical election.
For Skip Priest, the race to become Federal Way’s first directly elected mayor was literally the culmination of almost two decades of community service. He had gotten his start in local politics by serving on the city council and as its appointed mayor. That was followed by four terms as a Republican in the state House of Representatives.
When the issue of converting to the strong mayor system surfaced in 2008, Priest was opposed to the change. He felt the day-to-day operations should be in the hands of an experienced city manager. Priest had worked with former city manager Ken Nyberg when he was on the council and respected his skills. However, Priest was neutral in the second attempt to change the structure of Federal Way’s government. He still supported the former concept, but had become disappointed in city management and was becoming more open to a new approach. After the strong mayor system was passed by the voters, Priest’s name was included in local speculation about possible candidates. He seemed to downplay any interest, and most felt he wouldn’t give up a safe seat in the Legislature on a gamble that might not pay off.
As expected, Federal Way City Councilman Jim Ferrell was the first to announce his candidacy. He was followed by council member Mike Park. Priest and Park had been good friends for years, and many saw Park’s entrance into the race as confirmation that Priest had decided to run for re-election to the House. Mayor Linda Kochmar soon followed Park as a candidate. Each were well known and brought a base of support. Other potential candidates had already decided to forego the race for different reasons.
It wasn’t until early spring — after some soul searching about where he might be able to do the most good — that Priest finally decided to make the race. He commissioned a poll, which reflected high name identification and a positive image.
By this time, Ferrell had been running for months. Ferrell is an interesting person as well as candidate. He isn’t bound by an ideology or philosophy. He is a populist who tries to reflect popular opinion in his actions. His critics suggest that may also be a fault, as public opinion can sometimes be wrong. When it is, leaders should seek to educate the populace, not just reflect its belief.
For Jim Ferrell, changing the form of government and running for mayor was his mission in life for most of three years. He had wanted to be appointed mayor, but had been passed over by
other council members in the behind-the-scenes manner that these delicate decisions are usually made. He felt the selection should be done openly and by the public. In the first election to change the form of government, he had stayed out of the limelight, although many could see his fingerprints. When the measure failed, he decided not to be coy about either his involvement in another attempt, or his interest in becoming mayor.
He hired a professional campaign manager and became the face of the strong mayor campaign. His supporters included many who had difficulties with City Hall and felt disaffected from city government. They had already tried to get their candidates elected to the city council, but that hadn’t worked. Now they felt the time was right to change the entire structure. They brought passion, commitment and hard work to the campaign. But this single-minded focus may have led to several tactical decisions that would eventually cost Ferrell the race. In their zeal to win, they approached each challenge as if it were a checkers board, and directly attacked each obstacle in the way. They forgot that politics is more of a chess game that requires long-range tactics and a bigger game plan.
By leading the change in government effort, and being candid about his interest in being mayor, Ferrell left himself open to charges of political motivation that would follow him throughout the year-long mayoral campaign. It also polarized the community and generated animosity among a large group of active and involved community leaders who would support ABJ — “anybody but Jim.” And by running an aggressive campaign to pass the change in government, Ferrell revealed the style of campaign he would run as a candidate for mayor. Other potential candidates were learning what Ferrell’s methods would be and how to counteract them.