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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Election: Lessons and Predictions from the Voters

It’s a little early, with half the votes still to be counted, though most of the Procrastinators Vote (cast by busy, younger, late-deciding, Stranger-cheat-sheeting citizens) will favor the left-most candidates. So, with that pattern in mind, here are some takeaways from this week’s election.

It’s the Candidate, Stupid! Particularly with the small-district elections in Seattle, voters get a clearer sense of the personalities and abilities of the candidates, which means that quality candidates count more than ideology and PAC money. Also, the candidates who work harder and doorbell more tended to prevail (paid canvassers, which Kshama Sawant used, don’t cut it). The problem with the reform candidates, aside from the Amazon albatross, was that they were reluctant recruits, inexperienced with local politics, and not all that motivated. Phil Tavel (running against Lisa Herbold), Mark Soloman (against Tammy Morales), and Jim Pugel (against Andrew Lewis) all suffered from these problems. Egan Orion, who will probably eke out a win over the late-closing Kshama Sawant, is another inexperienced candidate, but Sawant is a special, deeply polarizing factor. An example of an energetic, impressive, unknown candidate who is winning going away is Sam Cho, who crushed the deeply experienced Bellevue politician Grant Degginger, 57-43.

Divided Seattle Stands. Seattle politics continue the simmering war between two well-financed and motivated groups. One is the Labor-Social Justice coalition that has prevailed in the current council and has held on, maybe even gained one or two votes for the council. The other is a Business-Neighborhoods-Middle-Class-Reform coalition that used to dominate local politics and which mounted a fairly clumsy effort to win back control. Both groups have a lot to gain from the city (contracts, funding, developer green lights, regulatory relief, etc.). Both blew right through the new district elections and Democracy Vouchers by putting big money in independent PACs. Just as in Congress, the standoff will continue as divided, we stand.

My analysis of coalition strength is to put Lorena Gonzalez, Teresa Mosqueda (the two at-large candidates, so not running this cycle), Lisa Herbold, and Tammy Morales on this Labor/Social Justice team. Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen are in the Reform bloc, and Andrew Lewis, Dan Strauss, and Egan Orion are swing votes though generally leaning to the Labor bloc. Sawant and her bullhorn may be gone, but Morales will take her place with Bernie-style proposals and rhetoric; and I expect Gonzalez to be the dominating new council chair. To me, the election was clarifying, and it’s pretty obvious which way the wind is blowing.

Over to you, Madame Mayor. Durkan was hoping for a pragmatic council that she could work with better and that was interested in compromise, not conflict. That wish has not come true, so what does the mayor do now? Keep working the problem, I predict, and then hope for a Democratic President that gives Durkan an escape to a D.C. job. Meanwhile, Gonzales and Mosqueda, allies on the council, will both aim at being the next mayor, so they will need achievements as well as signals to the lefty base. It may well be that the Pragmatic Caucus will pretty much give up on the city council, shift attention to the mayor, and go shopping for a strong center-left candidate for mayor.

Beware the anti-Seattle veto. The state voters indulged their Seattle-anger by passing Initiative 976 (rolling back transit taxes) and defeating Referendum 88 (reinstating affirmative action). This is an echo of the urban-rural/coastal-heartland divide that is paralyzing American politics. Cities need to learn that they can be vetoed by the Legislature, and Sound Transit should have been more cognizant of this danger by providing more express buses to Pierce County (being taxed but told to wait for the trains to arrive) and by forcing the Legislature to modify the radioactive inflated evaluations of vehicles for car-tabs. This is not just an ideological split. It also feeds off the toxic resentment toward Seattle’s grabbing of too many goodies and snubbing smaller cities.

Where’s our Mayor Pete? One analysis of Seattle politics is that voters are looking across the Boomer and Gen X generations, who have kicked a lot of big issues such as climate change down the road, and toward impatient younger politicians such as Pete Buttegieg. Take note of the ages of these new winners: Sam Cho (elected to Port), 29; Girmay Zahilay (knocked off Larry Gossett), 32; and Andrew Lewis (likely to defeat Jim Pugel for the city council), 29. It will be interesting to see if these new faces join up with the Labor/Social Justice bloc or try to find ways to transcend the partisan impasse that clogs local politics.

Amazon: to sulk or not to sulk? Business interests, including Amazon, bet a lot on this election, spending generously, getting into races early, broadening the appeal to progressive causes. It didn’t work, though some will think the trophy of Sawant’s scalp heals all wounds. (It doesn’t change much, in my view.) So now what? Can People for Seattle (the reform group mostly funded by business executives) broaden into a group with staying power? I doubt it, since its debut as an attack-squad was a turn-off. Will companies like Amazon stir up economic anxiety by announcing more of an exodus strategy? (Shake up the boom mentality and a lot of Seattleites will sober up.) Will the Reform coalition reach out to other groups such as labor, teachers, small business, arts groups, neighborhood activists? And will Amazon, as the pace-setter for business in Seattle, once again show its remarkable ability to learn from mistakes, avoid self-pity, and actually figure out how to be an effective partner and innovator for civic issues? We live in strange times, so strange things could happen!

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.

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