Apparently receiving the “Key to the City” is the gift that keeps on giving, and after tax credits for the Performing Arts and Events Center, it’s the hottest debate in town.
Earlier this year, just prior to announcing her candidacy for the state Legislature as a Republican, Teri Hickel received the “Key to the City” from Democrat Mayor Jim Ferrell in recognition of her community service.
The result has been an avalanche of name calling and finger pointing with Republicans accusing Democrats of playing politics, and Democrats claiming Republicans are misleading the public and violating Public Disclosure Commission rules.
How you view the mess largely depends on which party you identify with. However, since the race between incumbent Democrat state Rep. Carol Gregory and Republican challenger Hickel, will likely be decided by turnout and independents, let’s try and connect the dots objectively. You can follow how one decision builds on another in this political drama.
Based on several interviews over the last few months here is how this little political theater unfolded.
Former Republican, turned Democrat, Mayor Ferrell lit the fuse to this fiasco, but it was former President Bill Clinton who handed him the matches. Clinton is a master politician and a firm believer in triangulation. Triangulation is the art of a candidate co-opting his opponent’s goals or policies in an attempt to gain political support.
That makes it harder for your opponents to attack your position. In this case the candidate is Ferrell and he politically adopted Hickel with the award. He is also a fan of triangulation as a political method. Like most office-holders Ferrell always has one eye on policy and the other on the calendar. He is up for re-election in 2017. There are a lot of Republicans still angry with him for switching parties, and many Democrats haven’t fully accepted him into the fold yet either. To win in 2017 Ferrell may need Independents and Republican crossover votes; ergo the appeal to Hickel supporters through the timing of the award.
When Ferrell gave Hickel the award he, along with most other political watchers, was well aware that Hickel was going to run. Ferrell likely felt that because she hadn’t officially announced, he could give her the award and curry favor with her Republican supporters and the Democrats wouldn’t notice, or wouldn’t put up a fuss. Big mistake, because as soon as the picture of Ferrell making the presentation to Hickel was published, every political person in town knew it would be used by Hickel in the campaign. The picture would come to be an embarrassment to Democrats.
That is not to say Hickel didn’t deserve the award, she probably did. Both she and Gregory have made significant contributions to the community. But any political adviser would have told Ferrell he should have given Hickel the award when she first retired several months ago, and his reasoning wouldn’t be questioned, or he should wait until after the election.
If for some reason, Hickel decided not to run, then he could safely give her the award. Ferrell’s timing actually detracted from the honor to Hickel as the political quagmire quickly became the story rather than the honor itself. But Ferrell was trying to have it both ways; keep his Democrat support while hopefully winning over some Republicans who might then support him in 2017. Ferrell either didn’t seek advice or didn’t listen to the advice he got, or got bad advice.
Behind closed doors the Democrats likely made it clear they were not amused by his maneuver, and Ferrell realized he needed to find a way to earn back his blue stripes.
Enter the marijuana debate. In another example of trying to play both sides Ferrell publicly threatened to veto City Council action that would extend the moratorium on marijuana shops in Federal Way. That would make the pro-marijuana Democrats happy. Ferrell also knew that the City Council had the votes to override his veto. But that was alright, as a former prosecutor he didn’t really want marijuana shops in town anyway. It looked like a win for him on both sides.
Ferrell soon realized that he would look weak politically and invite challengers if his veto were overridden, so he had to come up with another plan. This time he sought political advice and came up with a credible solution. He proposed to the City Council that they compromise, have a public advisory vote on marijuana, and agree to abide by the results.
Ferrell also proposed that the vote be in November as that would help bring out more Democrat voters. That would have the affect of helping the advisory vote pass. But of more importance, it could help Carol Gregory and that would ease the pressure from the Democrats. However, some Republican-leaning council members figured out Ferrell’s strategy. Since November would be more expensive, they argued for the August primary when the Gregory-Hickel race wouldn’t be on the ballot. Ferrell’s plan passed 4-3.
Ferrell had endorsed Gregory, and with the vote scheduled for November he was hoping the issue was now behind him. But it wasn’t and it got hotter as Hickel’s campaign, predictably, ran the picture of Ferrell giving Hickel the “Key to the City ” in ads, brochures, in television commercials and on social media.
If you’re involved in politics you learn that if you are going to run a picture with someone else in it, make sure you have that person’s permission. Because intended or not, the implication to the average voter, who doesn’t live and breathe politics every day, is that the person in the picture with you is a supporter of yours.
That is why politicians seek to have their picture taken with important people. It elevates their own importance. But that is also why there are rules against this specific type of activity. Most office seekers have people sign a form that allows the candidate to use the picture. Ferrell signed a form endorsing Gregory.
Hickel may not have known all the rules candidates have to follow, but her campaign staff either knew, or should have known. These are not amateurs and shouldn’t make amateur mistakes. The action all but forced the House Democratic Campaign Committee to file a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission to stop the use of the picture, which they did. They, like their Republican counterparts, want to support their candidate.
Gregory wisely stayed above the fray. Hickel’s campaign staff should have kept her out of it as well, but didn’t. The one person who should have been talking was Ferrell and he wasn’t. Ferrell should have apologized to all sides for his misjudgment in the timing of the award, repeated his reason for giving Hickel the award in the first place, all while also asking her to stop using the picture. He then should have underlined his reasons for endorsing Gregory. Lastly, he should have asked the candidates to focus on the needs of the residents of the 30th district and have a real adult discussion about their differences on issues.
Sometimes politics isn’t pretty. Candidates, and their advisers, on both sides try and gain an edge because their goal is to win. But the ill-considered timing of presenting the “Key to the City” started a snowball that in turn affected the marijuana vote, led to an expensive advisory ballot on marijuana, complaints to the commission and more anger than normal between Democrats and Republicans that will have to work together in January.
Some would like to think that all of these issues are somehow separate. That is naive. They are all related. It’s politics in an important year. But this spat could have been avoided very easily. And then maybe, just maybe, the candidates would be talking about real issues.