Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seattle: "Taking on a City Council Incumbent is a Daunting Task"

Photo: David Bloom

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter (Seattle Displacement Coalition):
Well, it looks like all five Seattle City Council incumbents - Bruce Harrell, Jean Godden, Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen and Tim Burgess - will be seeking re-election this fall. It’s a daunting task in Seattle to run against and defeat an incumbent.
As we head into the 2011 council election, there’s plenty of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. But lacking another fiasco like Rick’s Strip Club, it’s inherently difficult for challengers to win under a system of at-large elections and in the absence of publicly financed campaigns. By contrast, with district elections, a challenger could substitute people power for money, and blanket a district with doorbelling, mailings, and issue papers—nearly impossible in city-wide elections.

Incumbents accumulate tens of thousands of dollars from “the establishment” and downtown interests even before the campaign begins. They draw press attention every time they cast a vote or break ground with golden shovels at a public works project, while challengers struggle for endorsements, funding and media coverage.

We followed closely David Bloom’s campaign for City Council two years ago and while he was not running against an incumbent, he was an outsider up against a candidate backed by the establishment and corporate power—the eventual winner Sally Bagshaw.

Bloom raised about $50,000 before the primary. To get there, he spent 6 months on the phone begging for money and building a list of some 600 contributors. He pulled down the majority of key group endorsements and shook a lot of hands in public places. He set up a website and Facebook page and hired a good campaign manager. His volunteers waived signs and planted them everywhere.

He was a credible candidate with a progressive pro-neighborhood message. Yet few primary voters even knew who David Bloom was. He spent most of his funds on cable TV ads no one saw and then could not afford to blanket voters with even one bulk mailing. His second-place finish in a crowded primary carried him through to the final, but with only 18 percent of the vote to Bagshaw’s 51 percent, few took his campaign seriously after that.

In hindsight, our advice to challengers; concentrate like Bloom on fundraising, but raise even more, say, $80,000 before the primary. Cut drastically all expenses except what you’ll need for at least three bulk mailings, including at least two hard hitting pieces right before or even during the period voters mail in ballots. There is no other way to become known. The press might write one piece about your race before the primary, but say little about the distinctions between you and your opponents.

Also you’ll have little space or time to distinguish yourself, so speak almost exclusively about one or two hot-button issues featured prominently on your website and mailings--issues that voters truly care about. MORE...

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