The most overlooked Olympia stories in 2011

Posted on December 29, 2011

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The New Republic has an interesting itemization of important national and international stories that have received inadequate coverage by the mainstream media. Perhaps the most relevant nomination from a local perspective might be Jon Cohn’s discussion of budget slashing by state governments.

What would be included on an “overlooked stories” list if we came up with our own — and focused on issues of importance to the Olympia area? As with the top 15 leaders discussion, there is the ever-present danger that it could devolve into “my issue is better than yours” turf battles. Nevertheless, I would very much like to know what you think. To get the conversation moving I’ll offer a few ideas, which focus on some of the issues I’ve been tracking that spill over into the new year.

1. Washington Democrats could be caught in a pincer movement in 2012. Democrats have been attempting to keep control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion by balancing the state’s budget largely through cuts and importing “Lean” efficiency measures from the private sector. So far this has not helped presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jay Inslee hold moderate independents in the Puget Sound, who could determine the outcome of the race. Why aren’t the Democrats getting more credit for steering rightward? This may partly reflect the prominence of “false equivalency” punditeering by the likes of Crosscut’s David Brewster.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are pissing off traditional allies. KUOW reporter Austin Jenkins quoted Jeff Johnson, head of the Washington Labor Council: ”I haven’t seen such a sense of disillusionment, lack of hope and optimism and also anger since 1994.” The Occupy movement has also expressed frustration with the deep cuts Democrats have proposed, e.g., check out Marissa Luck’s and Carole Willey’s essays in the December Works In Progress. That said, if The Stranger is going to keep on beating up on Democrats it could do a better job of presenting a viable way to balance the budget. The lack of bold action in December’s special session has fueled complaints about weak leadership, but if it is any consolation we’re not anywhere near the state of crisis we were in 1981-82. And balancing the budget will be difficult regardless of what approach is used. Is it possible for activists to lobby hard without succumbing to Russian roulette?

2. A McKenna administration could have wide-ranging impacts on Thurston County. I think it is too early to write off Inslee. However, Seattle PI reporter Chris Grygiel has pointed to early polls as evidence that McKenna could defeat Inslee by tallying an unusually large proportion of King County votes. How would the first Republican governor in more than a quarter century steer state government? So far the Washington State Wire has been the most comprehensive source of campaign information, e.g., here is a report from Erik Smith on McKenna’s campaign kickoff and a transcript of his first major policy address. Darryl at Horse’s Ass recently posted a provocative polemic decrying “McKenna’s campaign of petulence.” I’ve run three relevant pieces: McKenna’s rejection of the Norquist pledge, the McKenna campaign’s attempt to spin away bad news and an overview, “What does it mean for Olympia if a Republican governor is elected?”

3. Election campaigns are getting weirdly dirty. Last month, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney’s first television ad presented a remarkably blatant lie. The ad cut off a key part of an Obama film clip, thereby making it seem like the president was saying the exact opposite of what he did. The Romney campaign’s response to complaints was, “He did say the words. That’s his voice.” If this tactic spreads across the country, we could be seeing here in Washington a wild west of ads that have no relationship whatsoever with actual facts. Will the press, the state Public Disclosure Commission and watchdog groups stop such unethical behavior in its tracks?

The response to the smear campaign against Olympia mayoral candidate Stephen Buxbaum offers at least modest hope. In this case, The Olympian didn’t engage in ethically questionable reporting like Rob Richards charged that it did in 2007. But I would still argue that our community’s monopoly local news outlet should not be in the business of censoring a major news story.

4. Local activist organizations could be more transparent. Even in the electronic age, all successful activist movements require a reasonably effective means of self organizing. Operational details are generally attended to quietly — even when big problems erupt. However, the controversy surrounding the Olympia Food Coop’s boycott of products made in Israel has powerfully illustrated the importance of good organizational governance. Well, sort of. The media’s focus — both mainstream and alternative — has been on the political battle (yup, I’ve succumbed to this tendency). But less discussed is how well is the Co-op — arguably the Olympia area’s largest and most successful “progressive” organization — adapting to its steady growth and advancing age?

A similar question could be raised about other local organizations. So far I’ve purposely steered clear of this sensitive subject but did post a piece about the outcome of an internal battle in the national Sierra Club. Seems to me that this power struggle is emblematic of those which routinely play out in local groups regardless of issue area. A key problem is that just as we activists aren’t very good at linking the personal and the political, we also have trouble talking publicly about the governance challenges our organizations face. How do we get better at that without devolving into mediagenic psychodrama?

5. Why is the Westside so damn “brown?” The battle over a proposal to build a 7-Eleven at the corner of Harrison and Division is a presenting symptom of a larger issue. The Westside arguably has the highest concentration of green-leaning residents in the county. You’d think this would eventually translate into land-use patterns that give this part of town a unique character. That’s not at all the case along Harrison and Division, which look like a vast suburban wasteland. Here again the local media have too often focused on the immediate battle, e.g., Works In Progress had a useful news update in its November issue and I posted a short piece. But what about the bigger picture? For example, what does the draft Comprehensive Plan update have in mind for this area? Will that plan matter all that much anyway? Do we need changes to neighborhood-to-city governance? What is — and should be — the role of city staff in any proposed changes?

These are some highlights from my list. What does yours look like?