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Sunday, December 15, 2019

What to Expect from Seattle’s City Council Primaries (and What They’re Really About)

Image: Wikimedia

(Disclosure: While I do some political consulting work, I am not working for, nor am I being compensated by, any campaign entity involved in the current City Council races. I am, however, mostly supportive of the progressive pragmatist side of the battle lines outlined below, and have offered some strategic thoughts pro bono to one entity, People for Seattle. The views expressed here are my own.)

Our local media outlets have generally done a poor job of framing what’s actually at stake in the current, hotly contested City Council races. Many of them, in some cases consciously intending to take sides and in others as a result of unconscious bias, have declared the races to be a battle between selfless progressives and self-interested conservatives.

But looking at the views of candidates and how races are shaking out, that progressives v. conservatives “analysis” and labeling turns out to be shallow, misleading, and more than a little biased in favor of more extreme populist candidates the media has labelled the “progressive” side (because, duh, Seattle is a liberal city where 80 percent plus of the electorate considers themselves progressives, and conservatism is indelibly associated with the likes of Donald Trump).

Add in that there are 55 candidates(!) on the ballot for seven district seats, that it’s
summer in Seattle and the weather is actually nice outside, and it’s no wonder that
sorting out the Council races before the August 6 primary is confusing. So, before looking at the current state of the individual races, let’s consider, what is the overall election really about?

What we are witnessing is a battle for the soul of Seattle progressivism; between populist left activists who currently dominate the Council, and communitarian progressive pragmatists, who used to. (Yes, there are some actual conservatives running as well, but none of them are going to win). It’s a battle about tone and approach and about what constitutes good and effective governance as much as it is a battle over substantive policy differences (though those do exist too). It’s a battle that pits Seattle’s protest culture against Seattle’s process culture; the entrenched Seattle politics of us-vs-them populist anger against the entrenched Seattle politics of civility, consensus, and compromise; and the noisy calls for ideological purity against the deep-seated public desire for practical, fill-the-potholes problem solving.

Control of the council hangs in the balance as powerful competing forces clash. Over the last decade, populist left activists have mostly either routed or cowed the pragmatists while capturing control of the Council for themselves. They dominate its agenda and set its often angry, adversarial tone, flooding Council Chambers with shouting, hissing and booing protesters during important Council votes. But as last year’s head tax fiasco demonstrated, a significant chunk of the public has grown dissatisfied with the stridency of an activist-dominated Council – the image of District 3 Socialist Alternative incumbent Kshama Sawant shouting into a bullhorn is really the defining image of the current Council – and its failure to address festering problems such as homelessness and street crime.

In essence, then, the races are pitting the politics of backlash against progressive activist overreach against a powerful, well organized, and well resourced movement progressive campaign and activism infrastructure. The coalition that has spent the last 10 years installing a progressive activist majority on the Council is fighting tooth and nail to keep its grip.

Arrayed against them, the business community and progressive pragmatists in Seattle’s civic communities, buoyed by public dissatisfaction over homelessness, rapid growth, lack of housing affordability and perceived declines in quality of life, smell an opportunity to return the Council to the pragmatic progressive, good government approaches that used to hold sway in City Hall. The outcome, as I said, very much hangs in the balance.

Now, what to expect from the individual primary races:

D1 (West Seattle): Incumbent Lisa Herbold and Phjl Tavel will almost certainly come
through the primary, in that order. Herbold has real vulnerabilities, including her role
leading the charge on a head tax, but Tavel’s campaign has not been as strong as it
could be. Brendan Kolding, a former Seattle police lieutenant, is too conservative, and
the recent Times reporting that he was about to be fired for lying when he resigned from SPD has almost certainly sealed his fate. The big questions is how strong Herbold will appear coming out of the primary.

D2 (SE Seattle): Leftist activist Tammy Morales, and most likely civilian SPD crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon, will emerge from the primary, in that order, with some possibility that Seward Park business owner Ari Hoffman could finish second. If Hoffman does come through, the race is over — Morales will crush him in the general election, because Hoffman, an angry Safe Seattle-type and something of a loose cannon, is way too conservative and controversial for the district. If he does get through the primary, it’s likely the pragmatists, who have lined up behind Solomon in the primary, will write off the seat as a lost cause.

The outside money currently being spent on Solomon’s behalf, combined with the fresh endorsement of Mayor Jenny Durkan, should pull him through over Hoffman. A populist who at the outset of her campaign flirted with running openly as a socialist, Morales is running essentially as the second coming of Sawant, only nicer and less strident, which means she’s taken some quite extreme positions that could make her vulnerable. But she also has effectively consolidated movement progressive support in a very progressive district, and as in D1 the question is going to be how strong she looks coming out of the primary.

D3 (Capitol Hill, CD): Sawant, the incumbent, is perceived to be vulnerable this
year but she also has a hardcore base of fervent support, as well as the backing of The
Stranger
. She will almost certainly finish first in the divided primary field, though it
will be interesting to see what her vote percentage turns out to be. The big question is
who her opponent will be. Egan Orion, who runs the Pride Parade, is being attacked as
“the Chamber candidate” by The Stranger and others, as CASE (the Chamber’s political
arm) spends more than $100K to support him in the primary. Zack DeWolf, who is
ideologically as far left as Sawant but who doesn’t have her baggage, has the support of the progressive labor machinery and some activists. Logan Bowers, a former techie and pot shop owner who is running as a strong pro-growth urbanist, has put together a strong grassroots campaign, and Ami Nguyen, staking out a position on the social justice left with DeWolf, has raised a surprising amount of money.

Pat Murakami is the conservative in the race, and while she has some support from the “Seattle Is Dying” crowd, it is very unlikely she is going to make it though (and she will get crushed in the general election if she does). Orion is most likely to emerge with Sawant, setting up an epic general election battle between populists and pragmatists. If DeWolf emerges, the forces of pragmatism will write this race off, letting the left-on-left internecine battle play out without their involvement. Bowers’ and Nguyen’s chances seem to be waning as money and endorsements have flowed to his opponents, but neither can be entirely counted out.

D4 (U District, Ravenna): In this district, perhaps the epicenter of backlash politics,
pretty much everybody acknowledges that moderate policy wonk Alex Pedersen, a
former legislative aide to former Councilmember and Interim Mayor Tim Burgess, who
has been campaigning full time for months and has personally knocked thousands of
doors, is the frontrunner. The competition for second is between Emily Myers, a twenty-something woke UW grad student and strong lefty who has enthusiastic backing from organized labor, and Shaun Scott, a hyperwoke socialist who has been rolling in voucher money and who recently scored the endorsement of The Stranger. Labor will likely do enough in the primary to get Myers through — they really want to keep Pedersen off the Council — but Scott could emerge. Both Myers and Scott have staked out positions too far left for the district (like opposing essentially all encampment clean ups), and Pedersen is going to be the general election favorite to win the seat.

D5 (North Seattle): The incumbent, Debora Juarez, is the most independent-minded
and district-focused member of the current Council, and her opposition is weak and
divided. But Juarez lost the Times endorsement to Ann Sattler, a closet Republican who
voices conservative “Seattle Is Dying” type positions on the homeless problem. The two will very likely face off in the general. Given how far right Sattler is, Juarez should be able to beat her in the general, despite the strong anti-incumbent mood of the
electorate.

D6 (Ballard, Phinney): The conventional wisdom is that former Councilmember Heidi
Wills and doctor Jay Fathi, who has significant support from both business and labor
(typically a winning combination in recent Seattle campaigns), are most likely to come
through the primary. Wills is also running a strong campaign and has the backing of the Times, as well as an independent expenditure campaign by Moms for Seattle, a
recently formed group of women unhappy with the current activist bent of the Council
(SEIU is spending some money on behalf of Fathi). Also in contention is Dan Strauss, a
City Council aide who has The Stranger’s backing — the outcome will be a good test of
the value of The Stranger’s nod in D6 — and his camp expresses confidence that Wills
and Fathi will split the pragmatist vote, allowing Strauss to sail through with the backing of more activist/populist voters, a theory that could possibly pan out. Sergio Garcia, am beat cop in Ballard who has some support from small businesses, is also running a visible campaign and generating some buzz.

D7 (Downtown, Queen Anne, Magnolia): Backed by a massive $150K primary
independent expenditure by Unite HERE, Andrew Lewis is the most likely candidate in a divided field to make it through the primary. The question will be who gets the second ticket out. Former SPD chief Jim Pugel just scored the Times endorsement, which is a major boost, and split the Chamber’s endorsement with Michael George, a senior project manager at Kidder Matthews with expertise in transit-oriented development. Those developments probably give Pugel the advantage, but George can’t be counted out. There’s a fourth candidate, Jason Williams, a thirty-something marketing person at Microsoft, who has impressed on the campaign trail But he doesn’t appear to have much chance to make it through. Arguably the most conservative voice in the race is Daniela Lipscomb-Eng, who has a base of support in Magnolia, and in a very fragmented field it is conceivable that she could slip through. But there’s does not appear to be a realistic pathway for her to win the general election if she does.

Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I would add to this analysis another dynamic — the anti-incumbent mood, tired of debates and polarization that preclude progress. Four incumbents have already decided not to seek reelection (many of whom would not have won if they ran), and I think the three who are running — Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold, Debora Juarez — will face this dynamic. After all, the city council is deeply unpopular with voters (the Mayor is popular, by the way). Voters really want to toss bums out and enjoy, as one candidate headlines, “a fresh start.” Welcome to the age of novices.

  2. I think most of this is pretty spot on, but will add that the punk rock anti establishment move in district two, is to vote for Ari.

  3. Sattler has stated that she’s a Democrat and caucused for Hilary. Tell us more about her being a “closet Republican”, lol. Does she have a secret Trump shrine in her bedroom? Is there a secret Republican cabal in Seattle that have black masses? If she wins, will she peel off her Democratic mask and cackle?

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