Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who's Smiling Now?

Seattle PI
Mayor McGinn has passed the halfway point of his first term and weathered what could have been a mid-range disaster with the May Day parade and its associated vandalism.  For some reason, the May Day event brought up next year’s mayoral politics and made me think about the preparations that are going on right now by those who think McGinn is dead meat and for the McGinn strategists who are saying ‘not so fast.’
It also caused me to look at another election, one held in 1973, which has some similarities to the one we anticipate today.  Not only are there some interesting comparisons, but the 1973 election brings to mind an unusual guy, someone I haven’t thought about in many years – an advertising man who drifted into politics, first producing political messages, then running campaigns and finally running for mayor himself.  Clever, engaging and inventive, he couldn’t resist stretching a perfectly good story into one that was even better.   He claimed that he had invented the smiley face image.  Though the record shows that whatever image came from his night of restless tossing and turning came later than some others who also aggregated two eyes and a big smiley mouth on a yellow background.   

He also claimed to be the first person to put a political message in a fortune cookie, another first that wants an asterisk.  It is, however, the smiley face that still defines his life, witness his book, boiled down from 2,842 pages to a pithy 100 pages of narrative demonstrating how a smiley face guy from Seattle became an Arizona sourpuss in just a few short decades.

For our narrative about the 1973 election, what is important is that David Stern’s hatred of Wes Uhlman, the incumbent mayor in 1973, was such that the candidate he was managing became the front man for a wholly negative campaign that just didn’t seem right for his personality.  The sourpuss campaign squandered a big lead, leaving no one feeling very good except Wes Uhlman. 

Washington State Senate
Unlike Mayor McGinn, who came to elected politics late, Uhlman was a political prodigy who was elected to the state legislature in 1958 when he was 23 years old while still in law school and a year before our current Mayor was born.  Uhlman had become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee just after he turned 30 and was elected a state senator at 32.  He was by no means the favorite when he filed for Mayor in 1969, but comfortably led a primary election field of city council members, a secretary of state, a state legislator and a civic leader in the primary and would easily be elected in the general election as Seattle’s youngest-ever Mayor at 34.

R.  Mort Frayn, finished second in the 1973 primary and would be Uhlman’s opponent in the general election.  One of the very nice men of politics, business and civic life in Seattle, back when Republicans could be very nice, Frayn is important to this story because of Uhlman’s respect for him and the changes Uhlman made in his general election campaign after it was clear that Frayn would be his opponent in the general election. 

Uhlman’s had retained Stern for the 1969 election.  Stern’s views of politics and political motivations were severe and he had a bleak view of political life.  Perhaps it came from product differentiation in the ad business -- praise your product, savage the other.  Whatever the reason, a conversation with David Stern that turned to politics would change the weather in a room, bringing in a ironic and sarcastic dark sky and marble-sized hail.  After Uhlman had won the 1969 primary, Stern  told him that the only way to beat Mort Frayn was to relentlessly attack him and marginalize him as a hapless establishment tool.  Uhlman, who could harden his heart as well as any Seattle politician, would have none of it.  He liked and respected Frayn.  There was a big shouting match and Stern was gone from the campaign and now was a durable enemy.  

Our Campaigns
Liem Eng Tuai had just been appointed to fill a Seattle City Council vacancy in 1969 and was the second Asian to serve on the Seattle City Council, the first being Wing Luke, a gifted community leader who was a rising star in Seattle politics until the float plane he was a passenger in disappeared near the summit of Stevens Pass in May of 1965.  There was something down to earth about Tuai that was very appealing to voters and he earned, as an appointed member in just his fifth month on the job, as many votes as Uhlman had in the 1969 general election, an impressive and unusual accomplishment.

Like McGinn’s first term, Uhlman’s first term was rough as a cob.  The difficulties Uhlman had largely came about because he had a passion for civil rights and equal opportunity and the courage to act on those noble ideas.  Uhlman was the first modern mayor and had been given real executive powers by the state legislature.  This created stresses with the city council and with departments who were used to dealing with council members rather than budget managers with a policy agenda.  Uhlman fought with the city unions, particularly police and fire, because he believed in affirmative action and equal opportunity and was not afraid to take on the specifics of those policies.  Uhlman also had a terrible problem with the police department, his efforts at affirmative action making it harder to fix a payoff scandal that wouldn’t go away.  The municipally-owned electric utility, City Light, was also a source of conflict.  The utility believed it was fully responsible for the electricity part of city government though it was willing to leave the rest of government to Uhlman.  When the utility bought land for a nuclear power plant without his knowledge, Uhlman sent the Fire Chief, Gordon Vickery, to subjugate the electric utility.  Gasoline on the fire was the great Seattle recession of the early seventies – to my mind, a harder shock locally than this one.

Finally, there was something about the Mayor in his first term.  A bit glib, a bit distant, a bit full of himself and clearly with a wandering eye for the next office.  The Seattle Times started referring to him as “The Mod Mayor” which was the easy part.  Times columnist Herb Robinson, who did not think highly of Uhlman, described him a bit harder as:

“…a tough vote hustler who has spent most of his present term polishing his image to run for higher office.  Or, as a fallback position, to try to hold on to the penthouse suite while he sorts out his political future.”

David Stern describes the night the happy face came to him as a confluence of several disturbing events –– a friend with a troubled daughter, an evening searching for her through the streets of the University District, taken over, in his view, by drugs and hippies, in 1966.  One night he had attended a film performance of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” and the lyrics from one of its songs, “Put on a Happy Face” kept churning through his mind.  Up most of the night, he sketched out a rough version of a button, groggily brought it to his art director and asked him to make a a prototype.  Voila!  He orders 25,000 of them for a client, they disappear within a few days, the town is buzzing and the world is never the same again. 

However, a graphic designer in Boston claimed the same voila three years previously and a World War II pilot had one on the nose of his fighter plane.  Don Hannula, a Seattle Times reporter who had a low tolerance for anything but the truth from political figures, confronted Stern about the Smiley provenance when Stern ran for Mayor against Norm Rice in 1993.  Stern claimed that he never said he had invented the Smiley Face.  Hannula pressed on the fortune cookie.  Stern called it a misunderstanding.  The Rice/Stern for mayor match-up is one to forget.

It’s a bit unfair fuss too much about the smiley face invention.  Lots of people have invented it – cookie store owners, used car lots operators, cake bakers, even pre-historic French people, according to the Smiley World website, a London based company that owns the rights to the smiley face in 100 countries, though not in this one.  A French journalist, Nicolas Loufrani, began adding a smiley face to a newspaper so that readers could immediately identify positive stories.  This happened in 1971.  Well after Stern’s moment in 1966 and even further from a Boston graphics designer in 1963.  What distinguished Loufrani is that he got legal ownership of it.  In fact, there is even a struggle over rights to the smiley face emoticon, but it is too vicious to go into and we need to return to the story of the 1973 election.
The primary election is perhaps the most dangerous exposure for the incumbent mayor save a personal scandal.  In the past ten years, two sitting mayors found themselves kicked to the curb in a primary election.  In 2001, Mayor Schell was defeated, finishing a poor third and, most recently, Mayor Nickels was ousted in the 2009 primary for what might have been his third term.   Historically, this is unusual in Seattle.  Since the political turmoil of the twenties and thirties, being Mayor of Seattle has been, while not a sure thing, a relatively stable vocation.

The primary creates a great deal of volatility.  The lower turnout magnifies the opposing candidates' support as well as the disaffections and disappointments created by the incumbent in the first term.  This is especially so because of the legislation which now has us voting in the middle of August when so many voters are soaking in Seattle’s one month of sun.  There is also so much room for mischief, particularly when many city council candidates are in play.  Council candidates are often involved in a wordless negotiation between themselves and the mayor.  One action creates several different reactions, played out in legislation, press releases, letters, questions at hearings to the mayor’s surrogates. 

In Uhlman’s case, african-american city councilman Sam Smith’s announcement that he would be a candidate removed Uhlman as the candidate who would be the largest recipient of black voters, reducing his primary strength by as much as 5,000 votes.    The other council candidate was Tim Hill, one of the emerging progressive majority on the council who gave more liberal voters an option against the mayor.  It was a volatile mix and less than one third of voters gave their support to Mayor Uhlman in the primary.  He had just enough to beat Hill, the third place finisher, but trailed Tuai by more than 12,000 votes. 

Stern and Tuai kept pounding away on the negative.  The mayor was running a political machine on public money, including federal money, through the Johnson Model Cities program.  Tuai released a list of people he would fire once elected.  Uhlman had tried to get another council member to file an ethics charge against Tuai.  The Mayor had offered a municipal judge appointment to Tuai if he would get out of the race.  Some of these charges resulted in Tuai backtracking and waffling on their veracity.  This negative barrage grew so intense that supporters of Tuai paid for their own brochure, featuring the actual accomplishments of their candidate. 

In an interview, Stern defended his strategy. 

“You have to say why one man is good and the other is bad.  You have to throw some punches and some of them might wind up low.”

Tuai, the authentic, decent guy was marked up by his own campaign.  At the end, it was Tuai who looked like the politician.

On election night, down by two points, Tuai looked out at the crowd and saw Stern working the crowd.  “There goes the candidate,” he said, ruefully.  “There were certainly parts of my campaign I just didn’t like.”
The issues that Uhlman and Tuai talked about had remarkable durability over time -- fairness among ethnic and racial players in jobs, housing and education, protection of the neighborhoods from the incursions of large transportation projects, Seattle's role in international trade.  They were essentially the issues of the Mayors who followed them – Royer and Rice. But now, think of trying to speak to a voter in 1973 with the vocabulary of today’s digital age. Think of all the companies who weren’t around in 1973 and all the issues they create today.  About 45% of Seattle residents are under 30 years old today. Do any of the presumptive mayors know what to say to them?  Think of the changed demographics.  Asians and hispanics now outnumber black voters in Seattle three to one.

City of Seattle Archives
To me, the great lesson of Tuai/Uhlman is one of authenticity.  Is the candidate a real person or one that is manufactured?  Liem Tuai, who had a low view of the political arts, ultimately found out that you need to respect it at least enough to keep your own political personality firmly in your grasp.  He gave himself to his campaign manager and Wes Uhlman got to be the only smiley face on election night, 1973.