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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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October 5, 2007 11:06 AM

What I learned in school this week

Posted by David Postman

I'm co-teaching — with Times editor Jim Simon — a UW class on political reporting this fall. Thursday, the class heard from our first guest speakers: Democratic campaign consultant Christian Sinderman and Chris Vance, the former chair of the Republican Party and now a public affairs consultant.

It was an on-the-record discussion. (It's worth teaching journalism students that off-the-record is overused and widely abused.) It was wide-ranging, too, and Sinderman and Vance were candid and insightful. I was particularly interested in what they said about the race for county prosecutor between Republican Dan Satterberg and Democrat Bill Sherman. Sinderman is working for Sherman. Vance has no professional connection to the race.

They agreed on the issue most likely to sway voters: Party affiliation. It's not about experience, qualifications, character or endorsements.

For Sherman's campaign, that means moving away an earlier track of pledging fealty to Norm Maleng-like non-partisanship. You could see the early theme in this Sherman campaign e-mail from July 1:

I have friends at different prosecuting agencies around the country, and I am well aware that the fair and nonpolitical way Norm ran our office is both precious and rare. Please rest assured that I am dedicated to carrying on Norm's tradition of blind and impartial justice.

But Sinderman said the prosecutor's office is as much a political as legal job. And that's why more and more the campaign and the candidate talk about Satterberg's party ID as much as anything he has done, or not done in his years as Maleng's No. 2.

"Our frame ... is to keep the focus on the political part of that job."

If you want the plain-talk version of that, here's David Goldstein, excoriating Democrats who endorsed Satterberg:

This is a partisan political race, and Democrats need to wake up to what is at stake. This is not about whether Satterberg is a good lawyer or an experienced administrator or decent guy. It's about whether or not he is a Republican.

And in this race, facing a qualified Democratic opponent, that should be all we need to know.

He may be right. Satterberg has tried to combat that with an impressive list of endorsements from prominent Democrats who all pay homage to his non-partisanship. But Vance said endorsements do little to move voters. And he was unsure whether Satterberg would be able to raise enough money to neutralize the power of the D behind Sherman's name.

"It's just an enormous challenge," Vance said.

(I heard Satterberg say this week on 710 KIRO that he wants to make the office officially a non-partisan position. That's one way to deal with his challenge.)

But I don't think it's easy to run a campaign based on the less than black-and-white distinction of a wholly partisan election that would lead to purely non-partisan administration of justice. You can see some of that delicate balance in coverage of this week's debate between Satterberg and Sherman. The Times reported:

The Republican and Democratic candidates for King County prosecuting attorney, who both say party politics has no place in the halls of justice, debated Wednesday whether voters ought to consider the values of their respective political parties when choosing between them.

...

Sherman, running in a county that tends to vote Democratic when all else is equal, said that although justice should be blind to political party, something can be learned about the values and priorities of candidates based on their party affiliation.

And the P-I led its story with a good description of how the two candidates deal with the reality of the county's Democratic voting majority.

Dan Satterberg wrapped himself in non-partisanship and the legacy of Norm Maleng. Bill Sherman wrapped himself in the Democratic Party.

MORE: It was pointed out to me that the ad at the top of this page is a Dan Satterberg ad touting his non-partisanship credentials as he continues that strategy.

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