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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Insight: How Go the Seattle City Council Races?

I recently attended a discussion among experts about the tactics, themes, and trends of the current City Council races in Seattle. (Election day is Nov. 5, and ballots will soon be arriving.) The session was “on background,” so in this survey I won’t be quoting, even as I liberally borrow and riff on points made by experts and audience members.

Democracy Vouchers have some unintended consequences. If you accept these vouchers from citizens, you also limit your campaign spending (primary and general in total) to $150,000. That means, after all the overhead staffing expenses, very little money is left to spend on advertising. Instead, this money has been pushed out to independent PACs, which means the candidate loses control over his or her message.

An example: Egan Orion, running against Kshama Sawant, will be boosted by nearly $200,000 from the Chamber of Commerce political arm, CASE, as compared to the nearly $300,000 Orion has raised. Sawant, for her part, gets nearly half of the $375,000 she has raised from outside the city. Andrew Lewis, running against Jim Pugel in the old Sally Bagshaw district (Queen Anne/Downtown) is swamped by $300,000 of national and independent-expenditure money from the culinary workers union, who have a lot of hotel jobs in that district. Footnote: Did Sawant, in eschewing Democracy Vouchers, undermine her claim for being funded by the people?

District Elections mean “small ball.” This is the first real election where all seven races are district (not citywide) elections, and the result is candidates going micro and local. Few are raising big ideas, but instead concentrate on governing style (listen more, get things done, attend to district needs). In tactics, this means lots of doorbelling and a blizzard of yard signs. Sawant will focus on canvassing voters by touting her rent-control proposal and confronting voters who support Orion by telling them they are effectively voting for Amazon and corporate control. One problem with doorbelling: you can’t get access to apartment dwellers.

The Stranger Effect remains potent. For many young and newcomer voters, a last-minute crib sheet is The Stranger’s endorsement list in print and on the website. The paper is doing less political coverage these days, but it showed in the primary that it still swings a lot of late-deciding voters, particularly in the First (West Seattle), Second (Southeast Seattle), and Third (Central Seattle) districts. The Seattle Times also endorses, but young and last-minute voters don’t heed it; the Municipal League seems to have dropped its evaluations; and nonprofits like Crosscut and KUOW legally cannot endorse. Given the strong primary turnout (42 percent), there will likely be a goodly number of younger and infrequent voters, which will help those candidates on the left.

Paltry polling. Candidates don’t have money to do district polls, so the only ones out there are private polls by independent groups like CASE and People for Seattle. A few peeks: Mayor Jenny Durkan remains quite popular (60+% approval), while the City Council is very unpopular (too much spending without clear plans, too much feuding, too much Sawant). While voters are worried about crime and homelessness, all the candidates who seemed to favor a law and order approach did poorly. Amazon, despite being a pinata for some candidates, is still quite popular since so many voters use it heavily. Seattle voters are still happy to raise taxes, but they have to be assured that there is some kind of plan for spending it well.

We are two cities, north and south. For example, West Seattle used to be a bungalow bastion of Boeing workers and moderate/union Democrats. It’s now very urbanized, Stranger country, and supports strongly a left-leaning incumbent, Lisa Herbold. District 2 (the ethnically diverse Southeast) has been the home of moderate Bruce Harrell (who is not seeking re-election), and most likely will elect Tammy Morales, well to the left of Harrell. Districts 1, 2, and 3 are now Seattle’s “Left Bank.”

North of the Canal, districts 4 (NE Seattle) and 5 (far north) will hold down the moderate seats. The two at-large seats, Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez (not up to 2021) are well to the left. That leaves three swing districts, all with close races. The third (Central Seattle) is really part of the Left Bank, whoever wins. The 6th (Ballard and Northwest Seattle) was a strong part of the Left Bank bloc under Mike O’Brien, who chose not to run again; it will now move to the center. The 7th (Downtown/Queen Anne/Magnolia) probably has as many moderate homeowners as the 5th, but it has focused under Sally Bagshaw (also not running again) on homeless issues rather than traditional “downtown” issues like development, urbanism, arts, and design. These three districts, all with close races, will hold the balance of power.

So this year will be less a change or pendulum election and more an entrenching of the impasse between center-left and left-left. Mayor Jenny Durkan, who has surprisingly been a kind of “pleaser,” probably will continue to try to mediate the factions rather than come down on one side.

A generational change is afoot. A feuding, disliked, Sawantified City Council meant that recruitment efforts to change the council did not turn up impressive challengers. But some younger candidates, such as Andrew Lewis (7th) and Dan Strauss (6th), bear watching. They, like Egan Orion (3rd), are hard to read, since they are running on “governance-style” appeals. Lewis, overtly ambitious and young, is a reminder of the days when the council attracted candidates who had visions of higher office (Bruce Chapman, John Miller, Randy Revelle, Tim Hill, Norm Rice). The inexperienced Orion may win the “most-improved” award for this class. Strauss, who has been working for Sally Bagshaw, is perfecting the non-answer. Alex Pedersen (4th), who worked for Tim Burgess, is more moderate than transit-focused Rob Johnson, who declined to seek reelection, and nerdly.

Meanwhile, in the County Council there are two “grandchildren” candidates taking on Larry Gossett (on the council since 1993) and veteran legislator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, 77. The Gossett challenger (Central Seattle), Girmay Zahilay, is 32; Kohl-Welles’ challenger (Queen Anne and north), Abigail Doerr, is 29. Both are strong comers and may bestir the sleepy county council — and be bellwethers for the next round at Seattle.

Media Desert. City Council races used to be idea-rich, ideologically competitive, break-in places for serious political talent. One reason for the decline could be the absence of local media whether from shrinkage (Seattle Times. Seattlepi.com, KCTS-TV, and The Stranger), or demise (Seattle Weekly, Seattle magazine).

The district system narrows the discussion. Civic organizations (Municipal League, Allied Arts, League of Women Voters) are lower-profile. A string of half-successful mayors (Paul Schell, Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray) has turned off the citizenry. In many ways the civic sector has been obliterated by the commerce sector as Seattle has gone from being a bastion of middle-class reform to a rich and complacent boomtown. There are counter-currents: Crosscut.com, public radio, The Seattle Channel, Seattle CityClub and its debates, new organizations such as sea.citi.org (aimed at tech workers). But it does feel like a lull, a slump, a pause.

Don’t slump, folks. Vote!

Image: Wikimedia

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

7 COMMENTS

  1. This is a sweeping review of the election landscape and it contains a number of worthy insights, as well as many leaps in assumptions. But overall, it’s a good piece to read and opens up one’s mind to consider various roads to go down.

  2. I think it’s a strong piece. I’ll just go with two quibbles.

    First, to lump Greg Nickels with Mike Mcginn and Ed Murray is a total misrepresentation of Nickels’ 8 years in office. Sure he lost in the end but he was an intelligent hard-working focused mayor on climate change, transit and multiple other issues.

    Mcginnn was lost from the beginning and of course Ed Murray developed a set of unanticipated problems.

    Second I am no fan of Sawant but to attribute to her a difficulty in recruiting candidates seems to be a stretch.

  3. David Harrison makes a fair point about Mayor Nickels. The one point I would make is that Nickels and the council were in a constant state of warfare, particularly over the Viaduct issues, that made for a mixed record. As for the Sawant effect on recruiting, I meant that she is such a divisive force on the council that some potential candidates didn’t want to endure that or join a council that has a hard time reaching consensus.

  4. Greg Nickels was a liberal, but he did not believe in empowering anyone but himself. He sent his chief of staff Tim Ceis to tell Department of Neighborhoods staff that they were “wandering off the reservation”. In other words they worked for the mayor, not the neighborhoods. He instructed executive department staff to communicate with the Council only through him.

    This election is the most important in our lifetimes. The issues threaten to divide us. Homelessness versus “public safety”. Housing affordability versus “neighborhood character”. More progressive revenue versus “the business class”.

    The Seattle Times has never been as personal and vindictive in its attacks on the Council. The Times alleges that council members are simultaneously the enemies of the business class and in the pockets of the developer class….?

    This election is about us. What values do we want to define our city? Social, racial and economic justice, or “Fairness matters but not when it impinges on my back yard.” Fairness matters but not when it raises taxes on big business.

    When I chaired the City Council Land Use Committee in the 80s and 90s, we spent lots of time protecting single family zoning. Climate change wasn’t on our agenda. That won’t work for our grandchildren, much less the disadvantaged, who want to work and live in our city and in this world.

    Vote!

  5. The impact of the media desert is worth exploring more. Where do voters get their news? How many follow neighborhood blogs, Facebook pages, newer digital news sites? Do people only get “news” filtered through like minded sources? Following this churning media landscape and its impact on elections will be worth watching.

  6. The Democracy Voucher program deserves to be taken under full review by a task force outside of City Hall. Does the program achieve its stated goals? Each candidate who applied for DV needs to be surveyed. I was hoping the DVs would make elected office more accessible to a wider pool of candidates. But the unintended consequences have been significant.

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