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Originally published Wednesday, June 3, 2009 at 4:12 PM

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The Hutchison and Drago campaigns: Time to skirt the gender thing

Women are running for the two top local political jobs this campaign season. Both Susan Hutchison and Jan Drago cannot expect voters to be overly wowed by their gender. Our state and our region are too sophisticated for that.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Susan Hutchison, the only female candidate for King County executive, has been skipping early public forums. She has other things to do. Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago, new to the mayoral race, did a pre-announcement poll that asked voters if they are tickled to learn she could be the first woman mayor in eight decades.

There is something off-putting about the two female candidates in the two hottest local campaigns this season. Hutchison is all but saying she is woman, hear her roar, and more conservative than the other candidates, so a built-in voter bloc will carry her through the primary to the general election. She's apparently not too worried about the lousy message her lack of participation sends to voters who trudge to forums to learn something.

Drago is hoping people dislike the current mayor so much they fall for tired old gender politics. She's a woman, with 16 years on the council, so come on out and vote for her, even if she is similar on policy with the mayor. One notable exception is her stance on the plastic-bag fee: She's against it.

It's great to see two strong women candidates in both races, but I bristle at any assumption that female contenders somehow get a leg up. Washington voters are too smart for that.

With her years at KIRO-TV, 100-watt smile and name familiarity, Hutchison's calculus seems to be to wait until after the primary to get her hands dirty. She probably can get away with this approach, but voters should feel dissed by a candidate too busy to participate in grass-roots events.

I stopped in at a county executive forum Monday night in West Seattle, and once again, the four major male candidates lined up on stage taking questions, giving useful information about their positions on everything from land use to transportation. Hutchison has had at least four no-shows.

State Sen. Fred Jarrett and state Rep. Ross Hunter, both from the eastern suburbs, were there and so were two current Metropolitan King County Council members, Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine of Seattle. All four are known Democrats in a race that recently switched to nonpartisan status.

Hutchison is not saying she is a Republican, but she tried to become a candidate for the Republican Senate primary in 2006 that produced Republican Mike McGavick, who then got crushed by Democrat Maria Cantwell.

Drago is the only known female candidate in the mayor's race. (She is almost the only well-known opponent, male or female). In her kickoff speech, she did not tout gender as a campaign plus but her campaign ran an earlier quasi-push poll that tested the message of being the potential first woman mayor in 80 years. Bertha Landes served from 1926 to 1928. Landes was a pioneer then, a trivia question now.

Seattle and King County are politically sophisticated places. As the only state with two female U.S. senators and a female governor, Washington is the most progressive state in the country when it comes to electing women. Year after year, the state ranks near the top of the list for highest percentage of women elected to the Legislature.

You could take that to mean voters prefer women candidates. I think the political Ouija board says something else: Yes, we like female candidates plenty but we expect female candidates, just like male candidates, to offer real stuff. Blowing off earnest citizens trying to learn more or trying to capitalize on gender will ultimately be viewed as superficial and off-putting.

Drago says she is more agreeable and easier to work with than Nickels. Maybe she is. But she can also be overly impressed with her own skills and importance. It is also no secret that before deciding to run for mayor she applied to be chief executive of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and didn't get the job.

Hutchison needs to come out from behind the curtain and talk to voters. She needs to stop assuming everyone is so excited she is familiar, female, conservative, moderate, whatever, and let people see what she has to offer, or not.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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