Game Theory As Politics
Wednesday, May 22, 2019
GAME THEORY AS POLITICS: The week of officially filing for public office is over, and the Gristle will make two predictions about elections leading into the fall:
Tony Larson will be the top vote-getter for the office of Whatcom County Executive in the August primary, because the votes of those most disgruntled and annoyed with the direction of county government will rally around him. Whoever emerges in second place from the jumble of other candidates will be elected to the office in the fall, because all the votes for a more progressive candidate than Larson will stack onto that second surviving candidate—and there are more of those than of the disgruntled.
Garrett O’Brien will be the top vote-getter for the office of Mayor of Bellingham in the August primary, because the votes of those most disgruntled and annoyed with the direction of city government will rally around him. Whoever emerges in second place from the jumble of other candidates will be elected to the office in the fall, because all the votes will stack onto that second surviving candidate—and there are more of those than of the disgruntled.
Does anyone detect a pattern here?
More importantly, is this the best way to select the chief executive of an increasingly technocratic hundred-million-dollar municipal corporation?
The state’s dysfunctional top-two primary system is additionally burdened by the deep polar division and political gamesmanship of the current era—where the Left imagines they will create greater participation and more progressive outcomes in a ferment of many candidates and many voters, while the Right understands they need merely anoint a single deconstructionist firebreather to collect upward of 40 percent of a restricted vote. Neither aim is particularly suited to the mechanism available to carry it out—a shoddy primary that teeters toward tepid centrists.
As has become the norm in recent cycles, Filing Week was colored as much by the calculated monte carlo of the chessboard gambit as by the sense of enthusiasm and duty of those who seek service in the public sector.
But let’s celebrate the latter, and praise the churn of interest in local legislative offices. Last week, 199 people filed to run for office in Whatcom County.
In the City of Bellingham, every council seat is challenged as incumbents have retired or shifted in interest. An election will be held for every council position—a refreshing change from several cycles of static ennui. This is a city that is fired up.
The At-Large seat vacated by the departure of Roxanne Murphy and temporarily filled by Hannah Stone is vacated again as Stone moves to replace April Barker in Ward 1. Barker made the bold shift to run for mayor rather than for reelection to represent the city’s northwest corner. Four have applied to fill the politically dynamic At-Large position; and the telegenic Stone drew a gifted challenger in Ward 1.
Incumbent Dan Hammill similarly draws a primary runoff in Ward 3. Two others have applied to represent the city’s central voting district.
County Council is in a similar froth, with new political districts created several cycles ago coming at last into focus.
Most inscrutable of these is the competitive District 5, the coastal voting division that contains the county’s most populous small cities outside Bellingham—Ferndale and Blaine. The political spectrum is well represented here, with three qualified candidates vying for an August winnowing.
Less uncertain and far less competitive is a primary in the deeply conservative central farmland district encompassing Lynden, District 4. Yet in an electrifying reversal, Barbara Brenner—considered by many to be undefeatable—withdrew from the race in a sudden decision to retire after 28 years on Whatcom County Council, creating an open seat. At the close of filing, Brian Estes bravely threw himself on the pyre of an impossible task—trying to get elected as a progressive Democrat in the inner circle of verdant Trumpland. More likely to emerge from the blaze is Kathy Kershner, who formerly served on County Council and is current chair of the Whatcom County Republican Party.
In the county’s third primary runoff, the Council’s At-Large position is a complicated cauldron of woe. Carol Frazey was just elected to the position to replace a temporary appointment as seated Council members shifted following a redistricting. Now she must run again against an arrayed field of conservatives. This is a position that is advantaged by the progressive population nucleus of Bellingham—all who live in the county may vote in this election—and is therefore a prize of intense interest the rightwing must claim to wrest ideological control of Whatcom County Council.
This race is the polar inversion of the scenarios we predicted above, where Frazey is likely to be the top vote-getter in a crowded primary against conservative candidates. And she’ll likely pull through in the general—because progressives and centrists outnumber the firebreathers in races where all voters get a voice on the full slate of candidates.
This is exactly the natural political landscape Whatcom conservatives sought to pack-&-crack with their 2015 district-only voting scheme—kneecapping the majority of county voters from being able to vote in a majority of county elections. To put that more mildly, the electeds who as a body spend our taxes most of us taxpayers now cannot touch.
This gaming of our political system continues, and at all levels.
As conservative apostate David Frum notes in a new book on the corrosion of American politics, “The Republican Party has a platform that can’t prevail in democratic competition. When highly committed parties strongly believe in things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs—they give up on democracy.”
Fortunately, ours still appears healthy in 2019.