Inside City Hall, Part One
I was a paid political liar.
You are no doubt familiar with the job by other names: spokesperson, press secretary, public information officer (PIO) or director of communications. It is a burgeoning field. While there are fewer and fewer professional journalists, every level of government from dog catcher (communications specialists prefer the term Animal Control) to the White House seems to have its own well-paid spin doctor.
I imagine most spokespeople do not think of themselves as prevaricators. And to be fair, as a reporter, while I have been misled or spun innumerable times by press secretaries, just as often I have been helped by them.
From 2006-08, I worked as a “Communications Specialist” for the Seattle City Council. It was my first job in government. For the previous fourteen years, I had worked as a journalist, including stints as news editor at The Stranger and Seattle Weekly.
I worked with all nine councilmembers. Let me be very clear: no councilmember ever directed me to lie. I passively went along with the system that was in place and accepted that “truthiness” was part of the job.
In March 2007, for example, a very odd advisory plebiscite was held about the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. On the ballot, there were only two choices: a new elevated structure or a cut-and-cover tunnel under Alaskan Way. Oddly, the ballot did not give the two choices as a head-to-head matchup. Instead voters were asked two yes-or-no questions: 1.) Do you want a tunnel? Yes, or no. 2.) Do you want a new viaduct? Yes, or no. It was possible, therefor, to vote for both a tunnel and a viaduct or neither one.
As soon as then-Mayor Greg Nickels’ office released the ballot language, my bullshit detector went off. It was public knowledge that Nickels and a majority of the council wanted a tunnel. I could think of only one rational explanation for this convoluted ballot: Nickels’ political machine’s pre-election poll must have shown that, in a head-to-head, either/or match-up, a new viaduct would handily beat the tunnel. I checked with a city staffer. Not only did s/he confirm my suspicions, but said, “I’ve seen the polling data myself.”
Meanwhile all hell was breaking loose as the public and the press carried on about the absurdity of this ballot. Famously the Municipal League of King County, for the first time in its nearly 100-year history, recommended that voters cast a blank ballot.
It was time for a little spin. I went to Councilmember Jan Drago, head of the Transportation Committee. Drago was always a pleasure to work with. She was always polite and warm to me and grateful for my help. I told her she should write an op-ed in The Seattle Times that would explain why she was in favor of the unusual ballot. She readily agreed and we talked about what she wanted to say. Neither Drago nor I mentioned any pre-election polling. I wrote a draft op-ed based on her views and she and her staff edited it. “Here’s why the viaduct ballot will ask voters two questions” was published on The Times’ op-ed page.
I marveled that we got away with it. During the entire campaign, I never read or heard a mention of polling being responsible for the weird ballot.
In the end, both the cut-and-cover tunnel and a new viaduct lost at the polls. Voters rejected a tunnel by 70 percent to 30 percent; the plan for a rebuilt viaduct lost 57 to 43 percent. Mayor Nickels’ pre-election polls had been correct about public sentiment. The ballot had been structured to give the tunnel supporters the best result possible. Since the tunnel couldn’t win outright; it was better for the tunnel backers if both the tunnel and the viaduct failed.
Quickly most state and city political leaders coalesced around a new deep-bore tunnel. Voters had said they didn’t want a cut-and-cover tunnel, so the politicians gave them a different kind of tunnel. And now we have a financial and ecological disaster being built 200 feet under downtown.
Personally, I felt tormented by the outcome. For the previous fourteen years, journalism had been my work and my vocation. I had dedicated myself to trying to find the truth and report it. Now, I was helping to deceive the voters.
At this point, you might fairly inquire: George, why did you do it? I’m not going to share all the grisly personal details, but the answer is really quite simple: I needed a job.
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