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Press Talk: Give challengers a chance

What if I told you there’s a local election going on right now and before the first ballot was even tabulated, it was a done deal. Guaranteed.

Oh you should still vote, mind you. And the elections office should dutifully tabulate the votes. But in this race — you’ll find out which one soon enough as you read on — has such an unfair advantage built into it, we’re just going through the motions.

And why it’s a done deal — and how we could fix it — is the point of this column.

• • •

In Vancouver, about 100,000 of you are eligible voters. And some of you will do your civic duty and vote. But you’ve been overly influenced in such a way that I already know how you’re going to vote. What happened?

One of the names you’ll see on your ballot — if you live in Vancouver — belongs to city Councilor Erik Paulsen. I’ve met him a few times, and he seems like a very good guy. People I trust tell me he has what it takes.

He’s running against Maureen McGoldrick and Justin Forsman. I don’t know them well at all. But let’s assume they’re better than a summer breeze at Waterfront Park on a moonlit evening.

They still have no chance against Councilor Paulsen. No chance.

“But why?” my skeptical friends are shouting right now. Why? Because it really is sort of rigged.

It’s rigged because Councilor Paulsen is, well, a councilor. When you’re already sitting in the chair, the odds are overwhelming you’ll stay sitting in the chair. Like more than 90 percent certain, the math will tell you.

In other words, once you get elected you’re almost certain to get re-elected. But here’s the rub with Paulsen. He was never elected! He was appointed by the other six city councilors to fill an open seat.

So Paulsen is running now but with an almost insurmountable advantage of having the word “councilor” in front of his name. More than a 90 percent advantage. I’ll take those odds every time.

• • •

I spoke to Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle about all of this a few days ago, and she pretty much agrees; the process is inherently unfair to the challengers.

“You’re absolutely right. It’s not a good thing in my mind. The community should be making the decisions,” McEnerny-Ogle told me.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I suspect most people don’t look at the collective damage this appointment stuff has done to our democracy.

• Councilor Bart Hansen was appointed in 2010. He then ran in 2011 and won. (He’s still there.)

• Councilor Laurie Lebowsky was appointed in 2018. She ran later that year and won. (She’s still there.)

• Councilor Eric Paulsen was appointed in 2019. He’s running now. (He’ll be there.)

That will be three of the seven council members who essentially are there not because of the will of 100,000 Vancouver voters but because of six people.

Let’s throw in another name: former Mayor Tim Leavitt. He was appointed in 2003 as a city councilor, ran that same year and won. After several victories he opted not to run for re-election. But he would have won and — more math — that would have been four of the seven members on the council.

Oh, there will be those who say something like, “Hey, you don’t know that they wouldn’t have won if they hadn’t been appointed.” And that’s true. But I do know they had an unfair advantage. And I do know what 90 percent means. And consider this. When an appointed councilor runs for the seat, they are much less likely to get serious challengers. Why? Because they’re doing the math as well.

• • •

Let me be clear. Paulsen isn’t the issue. All he did was follow the rules. And as noted earlier, he’s a good guy. It’s the system that’s broken, not Paulsen.

I met Paulsen at a luncheon a few weeks ago. I happened to be sitting at a table with him. I had been thinking of doing this column, so I suggested we get together to talk. He considered it, then later sent me a note:

“Regarding the column you mentioned among appointments to elected office, as you might imagine, it is a subject to which I have given a great deal of thought over the last 18 months. Despite this, I have no interest in an on-the-record conversation with you on the topic.”

Look, people who seek these appointments get it. They understand the enormous advantage they have. And the city councilors who make the appointments also see the enormous influence they have. If they tell you otherwise and you believe them, you’re on a fast train to Delusionalville.

• • •

So are there solutions? A way out of damaging our democracy? Yes, there are and — frankly — they are pretty simple.

One, leave the seat open until the next election. Two, when an appointment has to be made, appoint someone who agrees not to run for that seat. Choose a placeholder. That will allow candidates to play on a more level field.

McEnerny-Ogle was open to those ideas.

She does point out a concern. Selecting a placeholder could mean choosing someone who is just going through the motions. And leaving a seat open temporarily would mean less representation for citizens.

Those are small potatoes in my view. The city would be just fine, thank you very much. And, frankly, preserving a fair election is much more important than anything else.

So let’s strike a blow for democracy. We won’t always get it right when we vote (like electing the head guy now driving the clown bus in D.C.) but a fair election is better than anything else.


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