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Hacks & Wonks

May 28, 2021

This week Crystal is joined by Marco Lowe, a professor at Seattle University’s Institute of Public Service. They discuss the outrageous length of endorsement meetings which prevents more folks from being able to attend and voice their opinions, the historic amount of money being raised on both sides of the Kshama Sawant recall effort, and what appears to be a suspiciously targeted looking attempt to change the rules of Democracy Vouchers because they’re working too well for outsider candidates.

As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s co-host, Marco Lowe, at @MarcoLowe. More info is available at



“Battle over Kshama Sawant recall has now seen over $1 million raised combined” by Nick Bowman:

“Campaigns for and against recall of Seattle council’s Kshama Sawant gear up as signature gathering begins” by Daniel Beekman:

Proposed rule regarding democracy vouchers:

“Elections Commission Proposes New Transparency Requirements for Democracy Voucher Program” by Nathalie Graham:



Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes. 

Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week with a cohost. Welcome back to the program friend of the show and today's co-host: Professor at Seattle University's Institute for Public Service, Marco Lowe. 

Marco Lowe: [00:00:46] Thank you for having me - I'm always excited to come here.

Crystal Fincher: [00:00:49] Hey, Marco - always excited for you to be here. Always a fun time. So kicking this off - I mean, there's a lot that has happened this week. We were just talking about everything that's going on - from the endorsement meetings, to new developments with the police department and senior staff being demoted, to Street Sinks finally moving forward, and the County Executive race heating up.

I want to start talking off - just talking about, just in general, an issue that we had spoken about online earlier this week. But we are in the midst of endorsement season. And endorsement season, particularly with legislative districts - Democratic legislative districts in Seattle, there really aren't many active Republican ones. Most people who are elected call themselves Democrats - whether Democrats feel that they're Democrats is another thing, but that's what they're calling themselves. But these meetings have historically and are notoriously long - 3, 4, 5, sometimes 8, 11-hour endorsement meetings. And many candidates count on this to get support from within the Party. This can dictate whether they can be endorsed in some other races, whether they get access to party resources - like the voter file, which is a really valuable piece of infrastructure for a campaign. But my goodness, these endorsement meetings being this long really is an issue in accessibility. How have you seen and experienced this?

Marco Lowe: [00:02:28] I think we're both veterans of driving candidates to these LD meetings that go on for hours - in-person in the old days, now they're online. They have not sped up online at all. If anything, they've probably gone longer because now more candidates can participate. If our values are more people participating in the LD level, and more people participating as the candidate level - and when I say LD, I mean like the activists within the party - I think we're going to see some discussions in the future, much as we did with the caucus system that we used to have. How do we make these shorter? How do we make these more accessible? Because multi-hour meetings often held on the same night - I think it's struggling to say that this is working. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:03:09] Yeah, it is really an issue of accessibility. And you brought up a great point about - we had this similar conversation with the caucuses. How back then with the push there - I mean, the caucuses instead of a presidential primary were day-long affairs. How did that work? And I guess how long did it - did you see it take to finally get the momentum to change? 

Marco Lowe: [00:03:37] You know, I think it was the most - gosh, they were - it was 2016 where they were taking 8 hours and we were hearing these long stories with people fainting and other things across the state - that both parties took it more seriously. That some sort of ballot system would be better to allow, again, people to vote from home - we do mail-in voting for everything else. And so that discussion began. 

And I think ultimately it just - I don't know how you can ask somebody to stay that long at a meeting when we could post the interviews online a week in advance, people can get the ballots in their hand, and vote when their schedule allows. It's tough. People have children, people have jobs, people just don't have energy levels to be up that late - I don't have the energy level to be up that late. And I think that we're all for the better, in either party, for the more people that can participate. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:04:32] Yeah. I mean, certainly. There certainly are a few curmudgeons in every LD who kind of view this as, you know, a rite of passage. And these are just the battle scars of being part of the democratic process - but that's really exclusionary. It is not accessible.

Marco Lowe: [00:04:48] It is, and we see that everywhere. We see how people are treated in jobs - well, I was treated that way in the job. I mean, in all of that, the answer isn't - that's how it was done to me. The answer is - how do we make it better for the next generation? Just because I was treated that way does not mean somebody else should. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:05:04] Absolutely. And if we're saying accessibility and inclusion is a value, if Democrats are claiming that's a value, then we have to - one, acknowledge that this is not the most accessible and inclusive process. And to be clear, a lot of people involved in these processes agree. And these are all volunteer organizations, so this is certainly not an indictment on the leadership of those organizations. They're oftentimes just managing these as well as can possibly be managed, given the existing rules - but in meetings where the rules dictate that they have to run them using Robert's Rules of Order, which can be, I mean, they're a gatekeeping tool. They can be exclusionary. They certainly do create order, but you have to ask what type of order. And if people can weaponize their use of those rules - when someone walking into a meeting from the public who may just say, "I'm passionate about these issues and I want to help," but isn't familiar with all of the intricacies of that system - they're actually prevented from participating and can be shut down or locked out through that. 

So, I mean, certainly we have to look at how we run those meetings - you bring up great points. And I think Robert Cruickshank also brought up online - that the 36th LD is already recording some of the candidate interviews beforehand to make those available, so that doesn't have to be part of the meeting. Other LDs are talking about - okay, perhaps moving to just a full online ballot. We can do debating beforehand with members of the LD, we can do candidate statements beforehand, give everyone an opportunity - a length of time - to watch and view them and then give them an online ballot. We've, through the pandemic, gotten used to online balloting in several venues - the Washington State Party used it in their convention. The Washington State Party used it in their convention, other LDs have used it in various forums and committees - so there certainly is the opportunity to address this, to modify bylaws. But I think this should be a priority for the Party, because they're excluding people with disabilities, parents, people with jobs that they have to either go to or sleep for. Yeah, it's rough. It's really, really rough. 

Marco Lowe: [00:07:31] And it's also - I have empathy in that these are, as you said, volunteer-led organizations. And also, I think sometimes humans just tend to do the way we used to do things. And I think this was just a great moment for everybody to pull back and say - Let's - you and I had a funny exchange yesterday about a first baseman who got into tunnel vision, and couldn't pull themselves out of the moment, and made a bad decision. And I would say maybe just - some volunteers at LDs - I understand this is how we've always done it, but let's take this moment to pull back and decide - can this be faster, more efficient for the general, particularly. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:08:03] Yeah, absolutely. And certainly PCOs, who are also volunteers - Precinct Committee Officers - doing the work of democracy from the absolute ground level are really hoping that this becomes less painful too. I think there is broad desire for this to change and maybe there is - there's enough visibility on it, especially following some of the conversations that we had about caucuses - that man, we have to live our values. We have to include as many people as we can and not make attending meetings a barrier, especially when things so consequential as candidate endorsements and who you're giving your stamp of approval on to lead you through the next several years. And these candidates who are starting and going to the LDs today - they're going to hold office at a lower level, but these are the people who wind up in Congress and as Governor. So thoroughly vetting them at this level is really important. The more eyes that we have on them, the better our community and our democracy gets.

Marco Lowe: [00:09:06] Absolutely.

Crystal Fincher: [00:09:07] Another item I wanted to talk about was how much money is being poured into this recall effort for Councilmember Sawant. My goodness - both groups - the group supporting her removal via recall and that defending against it - have raised over $500,000. This is eye-popping. 

Marco Lowe: [00:09:33] Yeah. Each! They're almost - each! We're probably at a million dollars here. I, you know, it's interesting. I really can't recall - I guess I shouldn't use that word - the last recall. I already slipped baseball in here too, so I'm on two for two with puns. No, I really do - I'm having trouble remembering when we had a recall in this state. I know we've watched California go through this a few times, but anyways the group has had - I went through their expenditures and it's a lot of legal money, 'cause they had to go all the way to the State Supreme Court to even have this on the ballot.

But I think one thing you see - and I think this word is sometimes a pejorative and I don't mean it this way - but I think Councilmember Sawant is polarizing. And we tend to see people are either very much in favor of her, or very much wanting to see her out of office. And then a recall, just to be clear, in the state of Washington is not about removing somebody from office as much as it is they broke the law. Because I think people are seeing this as - well, I get a second chance at her. And that's really not how the State Constitution or City Charter is set up. But I think that is a lot of what's going on in the recall effort. 

But you're seeing for Councilmember Sawant - I went through - they had a refund to somebody in Somerville, Massachusetts. And it's like, so somebody in Somerville gave more than the legal amount to this race. And I thought, wow, that is passion - that you are literally 3,000 miles away and over-donating to this effort that's not even a campaign for her against somebody else, but keeping her in office. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:10:54] Yeah. I mean, she - polarizing. She - lots of candidates say - they love to say, "Well, I'm not a typical politician." I think here - we have a factual statement that Councilmember Kshama Sawant is not a typical politician. She doesn't care about making people comfortable or happy, and she certainly speaks with an urgency, and speaks without pulling any punches. Certainly, talks about Democrats falling short. She is part of the Democratic Socialists of America. She is not a Democrat, and has issues and is not afraid to say that. Especially in a city like Seattle, people are not used to hearing that. 

And so - and then just being outspoken on issues and not being an incrementalist. And I think that is something that people are really not used to seeing from major city, major metro elected officials - is just a wholesale rejection, basically, of incrementalism. And the priority being on policy and not working necessarily for a nice, comfortable consensus with her Council, with her fellow councilmembers. So she's pushing and she's leading a movement - and there certainly is a lot to be said for being a leader and speaking to an issue that people don't hear a lot of other people speaking in the same way. So it does get traction nationally. It does reach people in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country. She was one of the first Socialists elected in the country in recent years and in my lifetime, really. 

And so it - really, there's a lot of passion around it. There are people who just - the idea of her, the idea of socialism - gets under their skin. And this is a statement of their values to try and recall her. I think a lot of people are not looking at it in the terms of the actual City Charter and someone did something legally wrong to earn this - but man, we can't stand her. She's bad for America, and bad for society, and we have to get her out. 

Marco Lowe: [00:13:10] And I think all the change that she's pushing is absolutely accurate - on some of the energy - both for and against her. She's also a woman of color. And I just think it's worth saying that - that that also is part of the discussion.

But one thing that's worth throwing out there is Seattle districts were drawn in - by an organization that wanted to bring them to the City. So when they passed the amendment, the charter amendment to make districts - they look, on maps, pretty clean. They are actually kind of - they're difficult because I think most people think, "Well, she has Capitol Hill. So Capitol Hill must be wildly progressive." Well, there's two things on Capitol Hill to know - first of all, there's a heck of a lot of single family homes in her district - that if you look at her map, she has always struggled with the outer part of the district that tends to be near the water, and she tends to be much stronger on the inner part of the district. 

The problem is Seattle has not built enough housing since - really Seattle was founded. And so you've watched increasing rents and other things go up that have pushed even in Capitol Hill - like the proper Broadway, Pike, Pine corridors - a much wealthier renter even. So that when she was reelected two years ago, it was a much closer election than I think most people remember. And now, without somebody else on the ballot, I'm kind of curious - your take - does that even change the dynamics? Is it because she's so powerful on the pivot against somebody? And I wonder if she doesn't have that, if that helps or hurts her? 

Crystal Fincher: [00:14:34] This is so interesting. I was having a conversation with this - about this - a couple of weeks ago. Because it is a different dynamic with her just being on the ballot. And, you know, I was recalling in her last election - there was a lot of people who, again, just gleefully dislike her. And there was a popular media narrative that she had no chance. And I remember just being in one interview, and I'm like, "Okay." They're like, "Well, she got a historically low percentage after the primary. And ooh - things look bad." And she was in the 30s, but it was a crowded primary. So I'm like, "Okay. But if you actually look at the issues, a majority of the voters don't disagree with her on issues. That doesn't seem to be the problem." The Head Tax was a big issue at that time - going up against Amazon was there, and they were trying to make the case that, "Hey, we need to repeal the Head Tax." Most of the voters in that district did not agree with that. They just voted for other candidates who articulated those in the primary, but they're just like, "Ah! This spells doom for Sawant." And I'm like, " No, it doesn't." I mean, there was one TV interview I was on where the reporters looked at me like I was out of my mind for saying, "You know, it's really not over. She's really in this." This is a different - and then saying, because it's a crowded primary and here are the dynamics of a crowded primary.

This being a straight up and down is different. What I don't know - what I'm not familiar with is - is how active she's just been with constituent service. Really, I think a lot of candidates - and I ran candidate campaigns for a long time - they don't realize that - man, talking to people is your inoculation. Just talk to your residents. They may - they might be mad at you for something. They might be, you know, gleefully excited. You'll run into tough conversations, but don't stop at that first conversation. Keep having those conversations. I know Mike McGinn was a fan of the town hall and he'd be like, "Man, those first couple are going to be tough." But you get past that, you just stay consistent, and then people - they vent, they get out the other stuff. If you're earnestly working towards solving problems in your district, they'll see that. And then they'll see that you're there talking to them in a way that other people aren't. So if there has been that presence with constituents, with organizations on the ground in her district, then she's going to be in a lot better position, right? And she certainly has a very motivated army of people willing to canvass for her. Is that also in not a campaign or a recall context? Is that there in a - just a regular constituent service context? I am not saying it is, or it is not. I truly don't know. I think that is going to be the biggest determinant.

Marco Lowe: [00:17:24] I - gosh, that is such a powerful statement, because one of the reasons I have always liked the idea of doing district elections is that the voters are closer. I don't feel a lot - I don't think Seattle is at the level of understanding what a district is. I think Debra Juarez probably comes closest - when you talk to her, it's like talking to a Chicago or New York councilmember. It's just talk - like this is the district. And I don't really - and this isn't about Councilmember Sawant - I don't really hear that from many of them. I mean, they could talk about their district, but not the way that Councilmember Juarez does. And I'm not here to upset anybody, but I think we're still getting there.

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:02] Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, that was certainly a line of attack that I heard against her - that she was concerned with national coverage and being a movement leader, and not necessarily a district representative. But there were lots of lines of attack also, you know, that were disingenuous. So I truly do not know, but I think that's going to be the biggest difference. Because if people just have the chance to vote yes or no, that's an easy thing to do. 

And I do - to your point - think people have a misconception of her district and just assuming - okay, what district is the Socialist going to get elected in? I think they think of her district like a district further south - maybe like a Tammy Morales - and assuming that that's her constituency and it is not. And so, to your point - there are parts of her district that she has traditionally struggled with - higher income, more conservative areas - those are definitely in her district to a greater degree than say a district like Tammy Morales. So it's going to be interesting. I do think that she's going to have to work to fight this - and certainly has the war chest to do it at over half a million dollars. But constituent service, man - if people just realize that if they just talk to people, listen to them, and try and help when they say they have a problem - that is the key. That is actually the key to re-election. 

Marco Lowe: [00:19:32] I love the line Senator Pothole. And again, I just date myself, but Senator D'Amato - who was, I think, the last Republican US Senator from New York State - he was constituent services. He - pothole - you would call with potholes, he would take care of them. King County Councilmember von Reichbauer - his district has changed dramatically since he's been there, but I don't think - you can get him on the phone as a constituent in seconds. And it matters - that's such a great point. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:19:58] Yeah, that is the key. And I wish more electeds would realize that and operate accordingly. A number certainly do, but that's the key. That is a key - for all of you folks listening, advising other people - talk to your constituents. And just listen and try and help. And, you know - man, even if you don't actually end up helping - if they see you making an effort, they will love you.

Marco Lowe: [00:20:25] Yes. And even as a candidate, you can do constituent work. I mean, you do a neighborhood town hall - host an issue, write to the City, write to the County, or whomever on their behalf and let them know. It is such a powerful connection. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:20:40] Absolutely. And, you know, one thing I do like - we see more candidates incorporating mutual aid into their campaigns, and actually helping the community and responding to needs, especially through this pandemic and homelessness crisis - and meeting people's needs where they're at. I think that that is the essence of public service. You know, I've been in here for a while. You can - - a lot of people think, "Oh, she must be really jaded. She's been doing this for a while." But it really is about helping people at the end of the day. And if you can demonstrate that that's where your - the center and the core of your value is - then I think you're off to a good start. 

Marco Lowe: [00:21:18] I think voters can figure it out pretty quick too. That's a great point. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:21:23] Absolutely. You know - still in the city of Seattle, there's another issue that popped up - a proposed new rule regarding Democracy Vouchers to change and require more explicit identification and disclosure of paid signature gathering. This comes on the heel of complaints about one particular candidate, Andrew Grant Houston, who is - on the surface, a Democracy Voucher success story. He is someone who, before this race, and as all the insider-y insiders are talking about - who's likely to run, who is a contender - his name was not in that mix. And I don't think when he announced, many people looked at his candidacy as a serious contending candidacy. And then he released his donation numbers and they were sky high. And all of a sudden people are like, "Oh, I guess we have to take him seriously." He is raising resources - because of Democracy Vouchers, he's able to not have to rely on traditional PAC money, establishment money, special interest money - whether or not we agree with those special interests.

But he can talk to the people, and get those Democracy Vouchers. And he has done it better than anyone else has ever done it before so far. And is actually maxed out. Through that, there was initially - I hear, kind of grumbling from campaigns. You can hear grumbling about - you know, what's he doing with Democracy Vouchers and they're doing something different. Certainly, his Democracy Voucher fundraising consultant, Riall Johnson, has done an incredible job with doing this fundraising. But then that turned to - well, there must be a problem. We don't like the way this is going. And then it was just like - hmm, maybe this is shady. And then heard reports that his paid signature gatherers might not have represented himself - themselves - fully, accurately, or said some contradictory things. Which are reports that we've heard from various paid signature gathering campaigns. And to be clear, most signature gathering efforts for major initiatives and issues that wind up on ballots use paid signature gathering. That is the norm. That's not an exception. 

So this all wound up in proposed rules to change the way that people have to disclose - they have to have signage or badge that says - we are paid signature gatherers, and that they disclose who they're with, and all that kind of stuff. What's curious to me is that - one, in this rule, it cites - well, paid signature gathering encourages fraud and misrepresentation to the people. And basically just unambiguously saying - this is shady behavior, and they're doing shady things, and so we need to protect against this. 

I was just wondering why that doesn't apply to the recall effort, why that doesn't apply to other initiative campaigns. It is odd to me that this is very targeted, and makes it look like it's more targeted towards a candidate, and stopping - just being unhappy at what they're doing, rather than getting at the issue of paid signature gathering. Because it is certainly a lot bigger and also happening - immediately applicable in other contexts within the City. And so, we will have to see. And it's also, certainly, to have this rule come out in the middle of an election cycle. What do you think about this, Marco? What's your take? 

Marco Lowe: [00:25:17] I completely agree. Ace Houston, as a candidate, just saw how the system was designed and did a beautiful job and just shocked the world with his fundraising and it was amazing - and I think in many ways, the intention of the program. I think the candidates will complain. We all complain when we're candidates - when our candidate is not experiencing the same success as somebody else. But changing during the race, I think is a little concerning. I think you should finish the cycle and then retool - because I do think that our system is very novel. And Seattle had a public financing of elections that was actually made illegal during a state initiative that was on a different topic - they actually tucked it in. So these programs are somewhat controversial, statewide and nationwide. And I think the more that we show stability and intention, the more we are able to defend when the inevitable electoral or even an additional legal challenge comes forward.

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:15] Right. And that effort that you mentioned - that was what - 15 years? How long ago was that? 

Marco Lowe: [00:26:21] No, I believe it was like an early 90s initiative, so the program had been in place in the late 80s. We are talking a long time ago - but that somebody took the time to get it banned in a very odd way - tucked into a state initiative - to me, always shows the intensity of dislike in some corners of politics. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:26:41] Absolutely. And I mean, we're in the middle of watching nationwide - the reaction and response to pushes for more equitable voting, more broad-based voting - in all of the efforts, mainly Republican efforts, to push back against that. But we're not immune to that in Seattle. And even though Seattle a lot of times seems like this island, and two people, certainly - we can talk about the accuracy of this - but it has a perception to, definitely outsiders, of people, of just this like island of progressiveness that is immune to any forces from outside. And I hope people understand that that is not reality - that's just a mirage. And Seattle's still vulnerable. 

So, I do think it's best to finish out the cycle with the rules that were established for this cycle. Especially since we have a number of candidates who have finished qualifying - the one that looks as if they've been targeted has already reached the qualifying limit. Unless and until someone spins above that limit, then that ceiling will not be raised. But just why change midstream? And I do ask - why does this not apply to any other types of paid signature gathering? It seems really odd to target, to specifically call out - well, paid signature gathering is a problem. We think that it encourages fraud and bad behavior - yet, we're only addressing it with this one specific program in the middle of the cycle. It just seems odd. 

Marco Lowe: [00:28:19] And paid signature gathering is its own deep discussion on what harms or maybe positives - I can't think of any - that they bring to the political system.

Crystal Fincher: [00:28:28] I mean, it absolutely is - it's this whole discussion. And even - down to the vendors that have traditionally done it, and whether just the choice of vendors and who they also work for is desirable. It's a whole entire discussion. But we - I think at its core - we have to look at what our political system and what our rules encourage and lay out. And certainly the signature gathering requirements as they currently are, both on a local and a national level, encourage this and incentivize this. And if you want to see something different, then those rules are going to have to change. That's going to be the issue - the fundamental rules of how many signatures are required, or what you need to do that - to act like anyone is doing this with just all volunteer efforts is just not reality and not the case. Signatures are gathered by major campaigns and major initiatives. If you hear about it, in terms of paid media or commercials or mail, then odds are, they're also using paid signature gatherers. That's a political reality that if you want that to change, then you can't just tinker around the edges and put a badge on someone. You have to look at, fundamentally - what we're incentivizing through the rules that are laid out in the process 

Marco Lowe: [00:29:55] And what was the intention of Democracy Vouchers, but to have a candidate that wouldn't immediately garner the media attention. And here it worked, and now we're making motions to slow it down?

Crystal Fincher: [00:30:06] And now they're mad - "They work too well! Yeah, we want more people included and we want dark horse candidates, but not that one and not like that. No." Yeah, it just seems odd and it seems like people are - sometimes, and again, I'm not speaking to everyone's intentions here, but there's a lot of political uproar, that at the end of the day boils down to - this person's an outsider and we don't like it. And they're doing things that we haven't done, and we haven't blessed, and we haven't ordained - as the people who traditionally do this and who are traditionally viewed as the experts. They're a them, they're not an us. And it seems like the us-es might be mad at the thems.

Marco Lowe: [00:30:55] Remember Michael McGinn at the end of his first mayor's race - told people to bring their ballots to two locations in Seattle. And they took the ballots down to the 24 hour mail drop at the airport. So after eight o'clock, ballots were submitted. And it sent the Secretary of State into orbit with anger, but it was very creative and novel.

Crystal Fincher: [00:31:14] Yeah, it was within the rules. And I remember that clearly, and it was very much a - the us-es were mad at the thems. They were mad at the other. And so, yeah, I think that the unusual speed, which with these rules are looking at being enacted in this process is just - it's curious.

It's very curious. Well, with that, I thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM this Friday, May 28th, 2021. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler, assisted by Shannon Cheng and Lexi Morritt. Our wonderful co-host today was Professor at Seattle University's Institute for Public Service, Marco Lowe. You can find Marco at Twitter @marcolowe, that's M-A-R-C-O-L-O-W-E. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get your Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like, leave us a review wherever you listen to Hacks and Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to resources referenced in the show at and in the episode notes. Thanks for tuning in and we'll talk to you next time.