This is the second part of a column on Federal Way’s historic race for mayor.
By filing a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission against Federal Way City Councilman Mike Park, at the same time Park was announcing he was a candidate for mayor, fellow council member and mayor candidate Jim Ferrell reinforced an image as an aggressive campaigner. With other examples occurring behind the scenes, even the Federal Way Mirror cautioned him to keep the campaign above board. While Ferrell did run an open and (by today’s standards) clean campaign, the image had taken hold.
In the chess game of politics, Ferrell may have made another tactical error. He had anticipated a field of opposition that didn’t materialize. The two candidates he was most concerned about didn’t run, and the one he thought wouldn’t run, Skip Priest, did. Each one of the other possible candidates had some weaknesses that Ferrell thought he could exploit. But Priest had very few weaknesses. He was well liked and considered a “good government” advocate. By most accounts, he had done a good job on the city council. Both Ferrell and Priest are Republicans, so he couldn’t attack any of Priest’s legislative efforts without alienating possible supporters. Priest had also demonstrated an ability to work with Democrats. In this nonpartisan race, Ferrell would need to appeal to Democrats, so he couldn’t attack Priest for that either. A bigger problem was that Priest had always run positive campaigns and had ignored his opponents. He was very good at not getting drawn into the give-and-take that Ferrell would need to be successful. He also was a hard worker who doorbelled even in years he wasn’t up for election.
From the time Priest announced his campaign, he became the front-runner. The general feeling was that it would be his race to lose. All he had to do was run his typical campaign and avoid any mistakes that would give Ferrell an opening. Ferrell had a difficult situation on his hands, and he knew it. His best chance to win was to create enough doubt in voters’ minds to give them a reason to consider an alternative. His earliest attempt to out flank his opponents had worked well. He knew they all favored hiring a city administrator. So Ferrell announced he would run the city rather than “waste taxpayer money” on administrative staff. Councilman Mike Park and Mayor Linda Kochmar didn’t change their view, but it put them in the awkward position of explaining why they wanted to continue a position, which the public had recently rejected, when the city was facing cutbacks. Priest did modify his position, which opened the door to a charge of “flip-flopping.” But it didn’t seem to gain much traction with the public.
Ferrell trailed Priest coming out of the primary, but he also got two breaks. Park had raised the most money, but his campaign stalled in July and never recovered. Rather than challenge Priest for the lead, he dropped to fourth. Kochmar was well liked, particularly among women voters, and the feel in the campaign air was that she was gaining momentum. She had broad appeal and was emerging as everyone’s second choice. If she had gotten past the primary, she might have been able to give Priest a good race. But she ran out of money and was unable to close the gap. She finished third.
With the race now down to two, Ferrell was chasing Priest hard. He put out signs, doorbelled and sent out two mailers in the closing weeks. Priest was following his usual approach. He doorbelled and ran television and newspaper ads talking about his community service and experience. He never mentioned his opponent. Ferrell believed that Priest’s management background to supervise the city staff of over 300 was open for question. But because his own job with the county prosecutor’s office involved supervising only a small staff, he knew that was a weakness of his as well. So he changed the direction of the campaign and focused on “leadership.” But with Priest’s long history in the community, this proved to be a hard sell with the public. When Ferrell was leading the campaign to change the form of government, he had found that the public felt the Transit Center was unsafe. That became his “wedge” issue to gain public support. But in the race with Priest, he could never really find the “wedge” issue that would give him the “game changer” he needed. Still, he was gaining ground, and most observers felt he and Priest split the two public debates.
In the closing weeks, Ferrell got The Mirror’s endorsement and Priest was endorsed by the Tacoma News Tribune. While Ferrell had trailed Priest by 8 points after the primary, by the last two weeks of the campaign, most observers felt that lead had narrowed. In fact, it had. The final total was about a four-point separation.
For those that like to watch how campaigns are run, it was an exciting race to watch. In the end, Priest’s 20 years of community commitment was too steep of a hill for Ferrell to climb.