Assessing candidates before the candidate forum

As we head into the debate tonight for the November 8 elections, including the Sammamish City Council, here’s my take on our candidates. This is based on talking with five of the six candidates, their responses to questionnaires, campaigning, the debate on September 28 and a variety of other sources. I’ve also know two of the candidates—Tom Vance and Nancy Whitten—since 2001 and 2003 respectively. I served on the Planning Commission with Vance from 2008-2009.

Position 2

Nancy Whitten v Kathy Richardson

Whitten has a long history of involvement in Sammamish area interests, predating the incorporation in1999 with land use actions and environmental causes. She first ran for the City Council in 2001 against Ken Kilroy, who was seeking his second term.

Nobody gave Whitten a chance. Kilroy was part of the slate of seven candidates who swept the 1999 election by wide margins. It was thought the conservative and Republic establishments of which he was a part solidly controlled Sammamish politics, making it impossible for Whitten—hardly a charismatic candidate—for have a chance. Kilroy was complacent.

Whitten essentially refused to campaign, largely to a personal distaste and discomfort for the process, though she put together a highly creative newspaper insert on her issues—one of which was opposing the so-called “Village Plan” of development for the Comprehensive Plan, then being written by the Planning Advisory Board of which I was a member. This would have put little commercial villages throughout the city at key points. (I supported the Village Plan.)

A large community meeting at Discovery School, attended by about 200 people, pretty much handed the PAB’s heads to us in opposition. Whitten made this a major campaign issue.

On Election Night, all of us interested in the election, were stunned when Whitten led Kilroy by 17 votes. In the end, Whitten lost by fewer than 150. Two years later, she ran again and defeated Karen Moran, Kilroy’s neighbor, hand-picked successor and a PAB member, by 10 percentage points.

The moderate-to-liberal wing in city politics took over six of the seven council seats between the 2001 and 2003 elections, completely reversing the balance of power in city politics from 1999’s crushing defeat.

Whitten was re-elected in 2007. Like 2001 and 2003, Whitten herself did virtually no campaigning. She became complacent and nearly lost to John James in 2007 (51%-49%), who correctly perceived weakness in Whitten’s support but ran a rather poor campaign and didn’t capitalize on his opportunity. (James then won an open seat in 2009.)

Whitten’s early years on the council were marked by vociferous defense of the environment.

The last two or three years, however, have been marked by an erratic pattern where Whitten’s fellow council members and even many of her supports could no longer predict where she would emerge on any given issue, except for opposing any traffic increase on 228th, typically citing her own difficultly in getting out of her 228th-facing driveway. Whereas for many years, her traffic concerns were city-wide, the recent past bears little evidence that city-wide traffic issues are a priority.

Even her environmental record has become a bit spotty. While she voted for the Town Center Plan and its strict requirements for structured parking in order to protect the headwaters of Ebright Creek, a salmon-bearing stream, she now questions the proposal to put the Community Center in the Town Center because of the parking garage requirement, citing the cost. She has suggested locating the Community Center elsewhere. (At the same time she complains about the traffic the Center would bring to 228th, leading cynics to question whether he true motive is her driveway again.)

Whitten is also prone to outrageous statements and comparisons, such as the analogy of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green public housing project to the proposals to Town Center affordable housing.

Whitten has served eight years on the council and did a good job for perhaps six of these years. She should be honored and thanked for her service.

The last two have become so erratic and myopic that many (including some of her past supporters) believe it’s time for a change. The question then becomes, is Kathy Richardson the agent of change that makes sense for Sammamish.

In one sense, the match-up between Whitten and Richardson is perfect. Both hate campaigning and would be content to post a few signs and place a few advertisements while eschewing pressing the flesh and making campaign appearances.

Having said that, the contrast between the two is pretty clear. Whitten is perceived as an aggressive environmental steward. Richardson comes out of the Sammamish Homeowners Organization/Citizens for Sammamish crowd and is perceived as strongly property rights, and the environment be damned.

As with most perceptions, neither candidate is entirely as perceived. Richardson is building a home on the shores of Lake Sammamish and is walking the walk and talking the talk in terms of environmental sensitivities that Whitten didn’t follow when building her home on the shores of Pine Lake.

Is Richardson more conservative and less aggressive on environmental regulations than Whitten? Yes, she is.

Is Richardson more prone to “property rights” than Whitten? Not necessarily. Whitten, an attorney specializing in real estate matters, often is more conservative on property rights than her image might suggest, rooted in legal interpretation. Nonetheless, it is true Richardson is center-right while Whitten is left of center.

While I was on the Planning Commission, Richardson appeared several times as a member of SHO to testify about issues she (and others) viewed as shortcomings with the Shoreline Master Plan update that were too onerous. She was thoughtful, well reasoned and professional in her approach. The Commission as a whole accepted some of her suggests but not all (which was true for others commenting on both sides of the issues). In the end, the Commission voted 6-1 to send the SMP update to the Council for adoption. (I was the one negative vote, saying the SMP proposals were too restrictive, and I sent the Council a minority report outlining my concerns. The Council wound up rewriting the mess three times before the State approved it.)

Richardson, working with SHO and the Citizens for Sammamish, continued to push for their changes.

She later was appointed to the Planning Commission and is ending her second year of a four year term. If she is elected to the Council, she will resign, creating a vacancy.

When it comes to the broad issues facing the City, Richardson has a lot to learn. Whitten can run circles around Richardson on “policy-wonk.” This is only natural given Whitten’s eight years on the Council, long history of community activism and legal expertise.

Richardson’s election will mean a shift to the right but not to the extreme right. It will mean someone who doesn’t have a well-rounded grasp of all the issue, requiring a learning curve. It will mean restoration of a level of consistency that has been eroding during the past few years.

For Sammamish voters, it comes down to these personal and philosophical differences.

But Richardson’s distaste for campaigning exceeds even Whittens. While Richardson had a long-scheduled trip to Africa that causes her to miss the forum tonight, she had ducked other forums and won’t doorbell or otherwise press the flesh.

Richardson (as does Whitten) owes it to those who support her to get the hell off her butt and get out there. At least Whitten is willing to participate in candidate forums if refusing to press the flesh in other traditional campaigning.

Position 4

Ramiro Valderamma v Jim Wasnick

Wasnick presents an interesting choice. He has potential. He has to learn all the issues from scratch. I think he would be better served to get appointed to the Planning Commission (to a Richardson vacancy, perhaps?) and get a couple of years of experience under his belt and then run in 2013.

This is what I initially drafted prior to the despicable, dirty campaign tactics that can be traced directly to Wasnick that appeared today in the Sammamish Review.

Wasnick, as this column has previously reported, is kindred spirit to John Galvin, whose tactics for the past 10 years in interacting with the city is beyond belief for someone of his education and professional training. He is a PhD in psychology and even a first year student knows you don’t continually insult people then ask them for a favor.

But Wasnick, like Galvin, has good ideas. But what is proving to be the case now is that Wasnick, like Galvin, prefers to engage in tactics of personal destruction rather than working toward a positive, productive and constructive approach.

Wasnick lost his own precinct to Valderamma in the primary. Many of his own neighbors slam him for his one claim to fame, the barricade “solution” he takes credit for along his street (at a huge financial cost, which runs contrary to his fiscal conservative advocacy).

Valderamma’s work with the Citizens for Sammamish produced a record that speaks for itself. The CFS was initially regarded as a gadfly group that has emerged to become a major force in city policy. CFS efforts resulted in budget reductions, abandoning the ridiculously costly East Lake Sammamish Parkway project Phase 2, a commitment to put the equally ridiculously costly Community Center to a public vote and other changes.

Valderamma has now been tainted by a scurrilous campaign tactic over an unfortunate incident that was clearly timed to come out today, the day of the candidate forum, in a manner that the Sammamish Review unfortunately failed to reveal how it came by the information and the obvious smear motive for it.

Position 6

Tom Vance v Jesse Bornfreund

This race is one of those where you groan, grind your teeth, close your eyes and hope for the best when you vote. I like to vote for a candidate, not against the other person. For the life of me, I can’t find a reason to vote for either one. I may sit this race out entirely.

Vance is, by far, the better informed, understanding the issues in detail and understanding the difficult dynamics between local desires and mandated state law. These often are incompatible.

Vance is the quintessential policy wonk. He loves policy and he does his homework. He will run circles around the novice Bornfreund, whether in debates on issues or on the Council. There are three problems, however.

The first is that he is totally tone-deaf to the mood of his peers (the Planning Commission, when he was chairman, and likely the City Council if he is elected) and the citizens. (More about this below.)

The second is that Vance wants what Vance wants. He is pretty closed minded to other views, and for a public official, this is a real problem.

The third is that Vance’s ego and arrogance matches national politicians, and this is the local level.

Let me explain.

On being tone-deaf. I served with Vance on the Commission for two years. He was chairman in the second year. He did not communicate with the commissioners, he did not work to resolve differences before they burst into the meetings, he often didn’t even realize a bomb was about to go off and then he was perplexed when it did. Predecessors Scot Jarvis, Bob Conger and Bob Keller did a great job of staying in touch between meetings and working consensus where differences existed. With Vance, his principal action was to open, close and run the meetings. During his second year as chairman, his vice chairman handled the internal communications.

When Vance ran for Council in 2009 (losing by 10 percentage points to John Curley), Vance lay the foundation for his campaign by obtaining statements from four sitting council members praising him (effectively, four endorsements though they weren’t called that). Vance also read the results from the survey the City does every election year which said people were satisfied and based his campaign on what amounted to “stay the course.” I had warned him to avoid the endorsements and people were not happy, and don’t run on “stay the course.” There was a strong anti-incumbent mood emerging (which hit the national scene with the 2010 Congressional elections) and Vance didn’t get it. He, along with fellow Planning Commissioner Erica Tiliacos, also running for Council, got the stuffings knocked out of them.

To this day, Vance thinks the reason he lost was that he was running against a celebrity (Curley). I urged Vance to run against Jack Barry, an incumbent who was vulnerable, which would have dismissed the “insider” label effectively placed on Vance, but Tom insisted on his way or the highway. Barry, of course lost, to outsider Tom Odell. Curley ran as the outsider in his race and trounced Vance.

In reality, Vance ran on the wrong platform, in the wrong race and he didn’t understand what the mood of the electorate was.

On wanting what he wants. Even then, and still to this day, a frequent refrain of citizens and even some members of the Council is that for Vance, “it’s my way or the highway.” I would agree.

On arrogance and ego: Vance figures he has an easy ride in this election because he’s not running against a celebrity but a no-name nobody.

He’s right, of course, about running against a no-name. Bornfreund is a total novice who came out of nowhere and while it’s a stretch to say he’s a nobody, he’s run a poor campaign and hasn’t worked very hard to master the issues. He’s been a regular at the Farmer’s Market (Vance has been nowhere to be seen, at least the several times I’ve been there). Bornfreund is essentially a running mate to Wasnick, despite denying it to me on several occasions. He campaigns with Wasnick. He confers with Wasnick. He has been spotted, his ponytail making it unmistakable, taking down Valderamma signs. His advertising in the paper today is pure John Galvin messaging.

Based on campaign contributions, Bornfreund doesn’t have much of a base of support.

Vance has a much broader base of support, but it is clearly from what has been correctly labeled (by Galvin, of all people) the “old guard.” His contributions rely on the original movers for incorporation in 1998, his Democratic Party friends and a base of environmentalists.

Your own predilections will tell you if this is good or bad but what it tells me is that Vance has done nothing to broaden his base of support across various spectrums, which represents an open mind to new ideas.

Election for this position comes down to who you are against most, then voting for the other guy. Or sitting this one out and letting someone else choose.

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