Local elected leaders cherish time with Valley residents
October 2, 2008 · Updated 11:38 AM
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - The closest many Valley residents may ever get to seeing the personal side of a political candidate may have been the presidential town hall debate last week.
Local political races, devoid of sound bites and televised debate, are another affair. In small towns the mayor is known on a first-name basis, and the city council members also attend PTA meetings.
"The higher up the office, the more remote the candidates become," said Jay Rodne, a state representative who was a Snoqualmie City Councilman for two years.
Like Rodne, city politics is often the first step for those leaders. North Bend Councilman David Cook, who was elected to office last year, first became interested in getting involved in politics in 2002. Although he'd kept an eye on the North Bend City Council since moving to the city in 1997, it was a proposed driving law that motivated him to go door to door gathering signatures that would have given the residents of North Bend the power of initiative and referendum.
While the driving law was later rescinded and with it Cook's attempt at initiative and referendum, it did get Cook on the local political map. Even though he had been watching the televised City Council meetings from home for years, Cook's efforts gave him momentum to mount a successful campaign last fall.
"I overall saw a pattern of decisions that were being made that didn't seem to reflect what the constituents wanted," Cook said. "I didn't feel there was balance on the City Council."
Karen Tavenner had similar feelings last fall as well. After becoming involved in local efforts to keep the Si View pool open and a sexual offender halfway house out of the Valley, Tavenner decided to go after an appointed council member position last summer. She ran for the seat again in the fall and won.
Like Cook, Tavenner went door to door to get her message out and relied on friends for help. Her neighbor created her Web site and her parents were her biggest financial supporters.
"I really didn't sit down and strategize with too many people," she said.
The personal contact of door belling, however exhausting, was one of the highlights for the local politicians. Despite a lot of unanswered doors and doors slammed in the face, they said getting a chance to talk to someone about the direction of their community was a treat not everyone can experience in a larger city.
"You get the occasional person who gets to talk to you and you find out what people are thinking," Cook said.
Matt Larson, a Snoqualmie City Councilman who was elected in 2001, had a similar experience. When Larson moved to the Snoqualmie Ridge neighborhood in 1998, he never thought about getting involved in politics at all. That changed when the city started to consider an alternative to its parks plan that Larson disagreed with. When he looked around at Snoqualmie City Council meetings, Larson saw few faces from his neighborhood and became a regular attendee of the meetings.
After gaining some neighborhood notoriety, Larson felt he could run for a City Council position in 2001. Larson, along with two other Snoqualmie Ridge neighborhood residents (including Rodne) ran against incumbents from downtown Snoqualmie.
During the campaign, Larson said he also learned that news traveled fast and to watch what he said. As opposed to a large community where comments take a while to circulate, Larson said he learned to choose his words carefully to avoid unnecessary contention.
"You bite your words," Larson said.
Contention was something Cook and Tavenner both dealt with last fall and have been dealing with since they took office. North Bend's election included Web site postings, letters to the editor and public meeting animosity that neither Cook or Tavenner said they expected. During the campaign, Cook said some of the businesses that posted signs of support for him were targets of harassment.
"When I look at this presidential campaign, which is very polarized, it reminds me of North Bend," Cook said.
Even after the election, the council has struggled to come together on some issues and both said it has been a frustrating experience at times. Tavenner, who said she had no complaints about her opponent during the campaign, said she wasn't prepared for the name calling she experienced once she got into office. She was afraid her daughter would hear negative things about her on the playground. Tavenner said she couldn't understand why the name calling had gotten so out of hand or was taken so literally.
"I couldn't understand why people were getting so bent [over the Valley Ghost Web site] when people in America can call our president an idiot or a fool or a moron or whatever else and no one wants to sue over calling a sitting president names," Tavenner said. "Yet, here we have this little Valley Web site that the people who ran it were going to be sued by others and citizens in the town over things that they had or had not said."
While contentious politics may be at every level of public office, political parties are not. Larson said he has enjoyed the lack of parties in Snoqualmie politics. Elected positions in both Snoqualmie and North Bend are nonpartisan races and Larson said he relished the freedom he feels from an established party dictating policy for a candidate.
"It forces you to go out and build that support base on your own," Larson said.
Cook was a bit more skeptical of the supposed nonpartisanship of local elections. Cook said that when he campaigned, some people demanded to know what political party he belonged to. When Cook told them he was running for a nonpartisan position, they would smirk and ask again.
"That's nice [nonpartisan election], but it's always partisan," he said. "Everyone knows which side you fall on, so there is really no such thing."
A lot of the rules of local politics change with a jump to state politics, which is exactly what Rodne did. Rodne was appointed to his post late last year after some legislative musical chairs following Dino Rossi's decisions to run for governor. Rodne went from a full-time lawyer with a part-time political job to a full-time politician.
Rodne was involved with campaigns for both Republicans and Democrats before running for office, but he noticed a difference early on between being involved and actually putting your name on the ticket.
"You have to be okay with disclosing your personal side to the public," he said. "When you are working on a campaign it's all exciting and it's fun. Now when you are doing it personally, it's your personal life that has to become exposed. It takes a little time to get used to that."
The higher the office, the higher the personal cost. When Rodne ran for Snoqualmie City Council, he said his campaign budget was right around $1,000. Now, he plans on spending more than $100,000. He spent about two months campaigning for his Snoqualmie seat, while he has been working since April to get elected this fall for his legislative seat and estimated he has knocked on 10,000 doors.
"It's just a real jump and leap in terms of the scope and size of the campaign," Rodne said.
All of the local politicians said a love of community was what got them involved in public office. No one came to their communities determined to be in public office, but they all wanted to help. All moved to the Valley from other communities and all have families they are raising next to the people who will vote them in or out of office. It is part of Valley life none of them will forget.
"There were a couple of times in the early going after the first of the year when I am thinking, 'Why am I doing this?'" Tavenner said. "For me, truly, the only reason I do stay in is because I look at that little girl [daughter] ... and she could potentially live here her whole life. What am I leaving for her as a legacy?"