The 2017 mayoral election is different than the campaign of 2012, Nancy Backus said of the year she made her first successful run to be Auburn’s mayor.
The year she bested then-fellow councilman John Partridge to become the first woman ever to hold the city’s highest office.
Different from today, Backus said, in that she and Partridge had “a much more civil campaign.” Different from today, she said, when “the person running against you doesn’t have a record to stand on, so they attack the incumbent.”
Personal attacks, Backus adds, that her opponent, Deputy Mayor Largo Wales, did not need to make.
Attacks on Backus’ ability to get along with fellow elected officials, in Auburn and elsewhere, accusations that she is “out of touch,” and “distant,” that she is the maligned status quo, and that she has failed to provide the leadership Auburn needs.
“Instead of deflating me, it pumps me up because I realize I’m doing things right. And there’s a desperate act going on to try take me down, and it’s not going to happen,” Backus said of the contentious race that’s approaching the finish line, the Nov. 7 general election. “… But, does it weigh on me to have my integrity attacked? Sure it does. But I can’t let that be the focus or momentum of our campaign. Too many people and their futures are at stake for me to languish in negativity. I think Auburn deserves better than that.”
Still, there is no diminishing the burdens of a long campaign, especially on one’s family.
“This campaign has been hard on them because they’ve read a lot of nasty things about me,” Backus said. “While I signed up for this job, they didn’t, and they don’t want to see the negativity. They know my heart, how many hours I put in, the lack of sleep I get because of serving. Now, add into that a campaign, which is also a full-time job, and there’s very little family time, very little free time.”
It would be easy to get discouraged, Backus said, if she didn’t believe so much in what she is doing.
“I’ve said it before – this is my dream job, but I really doubt if it’s my husband’s dream job for me. (Keymon) sees how many hours I’ve put in, the entire four years I’ve been mayor,” Backus said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job, and it never has been. That’s part of what I love about it – no two days are the same. But that does take a toll on my family – family dinners are few and far between.”
Backus said her daughter, Lucky, has also given up a lot to be at her side, but mom makes a point of being at every one of Lucky’s soccer games because “there are certain things I will not give up. Lucky and Keymon are always at my side. They believe in what I’m doing, and they’re very, very supportive. I get to be myself when I am around them.”
Backus looks forward to the negativity going away.
“I will still work with the entire council, regardless of who they are supporting, or for what reasons they are supporting. I’m a professional, and I was elected to do a job, as were they. I believe with my whole heart that we’re still there to do a job for the people we serve.”
Tired? Of the late nights? The door-belling?
Yeah, Backus said, but makeup helps a lot.
As does that inner sense of buoyancy she gets from the people she meets.
“As I have been walking around, knocking on doors, I’ve heard a lot of really positive things. People like what’s going on,” Backus said. “Of course, there are always going to be concerns, every city has concerns. But I’ve heard so many positive comments like, ‘We love our city, don’t let anyone tear us down.’ That, along with the great people who’ve been part of our campaign, city employees, many of whom have come to me and said, ‘We’re all behind you, we love what you’ve done, we love the changes you’ve made at City Hall since you’ve been here.’ ”
Backus said she’d like to believe, as Wales claims, that there is some advantage to being the incumbent, but she insists she hasn’t run her campaign that way, indeed, has tried to run as if she were the underdog.
“I want to focus on my record, and I am proud of my accomplishments in the first term, but I am never going to assume that the incumbency is going to push me over the finish line. I am not one to rest on my laurels,” Backus said.
Running for public office is never easy
The time commitment, the sacrifices it demands, big and small, the physical and psychic wear and tear – candidates past and present will tell you they all take a toll.
But running against an incumbent mayor as Backus is? That poses a special challenge.
Judging by the emotions that play across her face as she struggles to find the words to describe it, this much is clear: for Largo Wales, the campaign has been tough, and, at times, personal.
“The incumbent has all the power, the incumbent has all the resources, the incumbent has an already-established voice, the incumbent already has established credibility, and it’s an uphill battle,” Wales said.
Uphill in that there’s the power, spoken or unspoken, an incumbent mayor wields over his or her employees and what they say. Wales said city staff have shown up at functions, taped the mayor and put her on Facebook.
A staff advantage baked into the pie.
On-duty police, Wales claims, have shown up at campaign functions to express their support for the mayor.
“I knew that it would be difficult, but I didn’t think it would be unfair. But by now, I’ve just come to expect it,” Wales said.
Running to unseat an incumbent calls for someone who’s a bit of a risk taker, and not all people are up to the challenge, Wales said.
It requires as well an incredible time commitment, with which one’s family and friends must bear as best they can.
Knowing that even though the timelines for reporting and showing up at campaign events are scheduled, a candidate must be flexible to handle the unexpected, Wales said.
Like being booed and jeered.
But there is a bright side, too.
By now, Wales said, she has knocked on 14,000-plus doors, often with her husband, Mike Dukes, at her side and at most, 20 of those encounters have been negative.
“… I am tired until I go to a door and knock on a door. The excitement out there is real. The caring out there is real. And it’s caring for Auburn. And I can be just beat-down tired and go to my first door and be cheered up,” she said.
“Somebody up there on Muckleshoot Hill said of me, ‘I wouldn’t vote for that bitch if I saw her!’ And by the time I’m done, he’s ready to vote for me,” Wales said. “… I think that there is a lot going on in this world, and that Sound Transit 3 (decision) has really gotten a lot of people angry. And one of the main reasons is that it has cost them so much. … When the next property taxes come out, they’re going to be blown away.”
Wales has faced skepticism and scorn for her claim that five of her fellow seven council members support her, including herself.
But she stands by her words.
“I’m on the council, and I’m going to be on the council,” Wales responded.
As for the personal stuff?
“I don’t think it’s personal for me, but I think it’s personal for her,” Wales said. “The personal stuff – or what you see, the undercurrents – was there before I declared. It was there, and it was getting worse. Now, at least it’s out – that a significant number of people are not happy with how the balance of power exists between the executive and the legislative branch. That’s the bottom line. That’s the reason why I declared.”