Take 5: Handicapping the Seattle Mayor’s Race, a Pivotal Election

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Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Now that (almost) all candidates are in the Seattle mayor’s race, it’s time for an update. It remains fluid since no one candidate is dominating the endorsements (as both Ed Murray and Jenny Durkan successively did in the last two contests). And there are critical factors hanging over the races and yet to be determined (more about them below). 

Since the field has firmed up, my ratings this time are about candidates’ likelihood of surviving the August primary (with 10 being the top score). 

Lorena Gonzalez (7). The City Council president ought to be the front-runner, given her breadth of constituent support, including a new endorsement by Rep. Pramila Jayapal. But her race is off to a slow start, and she has the liability of being head of a very unpopular city council. The big question is how unified and mobilized labor unions will be on her behalf. They might split or keep their powder dry. Gonzalez also will face tough questions about her role in authorizing the sketchy Black Brilliance project on participatory (Black-led) budgeting.

Jessyn Farrell (7). The former state senator and fourth-place finisher in the 2017 mayor’s race will likely run as a kind of Goldilocks candidate — left but not too far left. She has stressed paying more attention to basic city services, typically a centrist theme, but her record indicates conventional liberal/Green stances and lots of political ambition. She is likely to run an effective, modern campaign depending heavily on social media, and she is likely to chip away at Gonzalez’s base of support. One big question is whether venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, for whose policy shop Farrell works, will chip in big bucks to an independent expenditure campaign.

Bruce Harrell (8). The former city councilmember and mayoral candidate in 2013 will have three important constituencies behind him: Blacks, Asians, and business. His opening salvo stressed Asian, timely given a rising tide of violence nationally against Asian Americans. He will have lots of independent-expenditure money from business, which has hesitantly settled on him as their most business-friendly and electable candidate. Harrell’s campaign consultant, Christian Sinderman, has a winning track record for constituency-assembled local races. Harrell’s vulnerabilities are his city council experience, where he compiled a so-so record, his wealthy lifestyle, and his friendliness to business interests (now a third rail in Seattle politics). He’s a strong campaigner who could imitate the Biden approach (grown-up in the room, Harrell being 63), pragmatic, bi-partisanish, and a focus on economic recovery.

Colleen Echohawk (6). The admired leader of a homeless nonprofit, the Chief Seattle Club, Echohawk is running as a kinder, gentler version of a left-leaning candidate, less likely to brand opponents as extremists and more likely to hear out all sides. She has not held public office, and so must prove her ability to handle the job of mayor. She will need to find positions and wedge issues to pry off votes from the front-runners. So far, her stances have been vague and pleasing, but her authentic, outsider nature might wear the best among the candidates.

Casey Sixkiller (4). Currently deputy mayor, Sixkiller grew up in Seattle (the son of a famous Husky quarterback), worked as a lobbyist in D.C., and has come back home to work first for County Executive Dow Constantine and this year for Mayor Durkan, where he gets good marks for political negotiating. He hasn’t jumped into the race yet and would run as a pragmatic politician who is a fresh face but with practical experience. Some of the Durkan achievements, particularly in taming the coronavirus and moderating the city council, might translate into assets. But Sixkiller has no real constituency, business has mostly migrated to the Harrell camp, and Sixkiller’s lobbying clients will be a liability. He’s another candidate who will have to depend on front runners fading.

Art Langlie (3). The grandson of a former mayor and three-term governor, Langlie is a businessman who will evoke old Seattle ways of pulling together to accomplish big tasks. He is delaying entering the race until mid-April and will run as a version of Mayor Norm Rice — a congenial, business-friendly, open-minded team-builder. Langlie has never run for office. His business specialty is turning around troubled companies, but he’s getting in the race after the business community has settled on Harrell. A danger to Harrell is both Langlie and Sixkiller might pull away moderate votes.

Lance Randall (2). He was the first candidate to enter the lists and has strong connections with fellow Black voters and small business. Randall has a courtly, Southern manner, but he will have a tough time proving he’s up to running a large, polarized, entrenched city hall.

Andrew Grant Houston (2). An architect who has surprised by raising a fair amount of campaign donations, Houston will run as a version of Cary Moon (who finished second in the 2017 mayoral primary). He’s Black, Latinx, Queer, and stakes out some extreme positions: defund the police by 50 percent, rent control. It’s hard to see how Houston would win a general election, but not impossible for him to edge out a second place in the primary.

Other Factors

City Council Impacts. There is one close race, that between Nikkita Oliver and Brianna Thomas for the citywide seat that Gonzalez will vacate. Oliver will set the pace for leftist positions, and so might serve as a foil or a goad for mayor candidates. Thomas, a rising African American star, knows her way around city hall, having served as Gonzalez’s chief of staff and is respected for her political smarts. As goes this race — which with Oliver would cement the Sawant dominance on the council — so voters might favor a moderate counter-balancing in the mayor’s office.

Ballot Measures. One might be the Sawant recall election (just approved), confined to Sawant’s central-Seattle district, but one that would mobilize lots of Sawant voters and thereby help leftist mayoral candidates. The other is a charter amendment that would force city hall to fund and plan for mitigating homelessness and restoring parks from encampments. The amendment is likely to pass, and it will be a wedge issue for mayoral candidates forced to favor or oppose (or waffle on) the issue. It will turn out voters who are tired of limited progress in addressing homelessness, likely favoring Harrell and possibly Sixkiller and Langlie.

Independent Expenditures. Seattle politics is increasingly nationalized, and the Jayapal endorsement of Gonzalez might signal that the Bernie Sanders base of supporters could chip in, hoping to turn Seattle into a solid leftist bastion. Harrell will have a lot of business donations, likely shielded from disclosure, and might get national Black and Asian support. Farrell’s ties to green issues and transit might also tap national funders, as well as Nick Hanauer’s big wallet.

The Stranger Endorsement. This endorsement, which counts more for primaries than general elections, might find a candidate (Cary Moon was the favored one in 2017) that the entire paper boosts. The Stranger tends to go for long shots such as Houston, but more likely it will choose among Farrell, Echohawk, and Gonzalez.

The 18 Percent Factor. In a crowded and bunched field, the likely second-place winner may need only 18 percent. If that candidate has a small base, as Cary Moon did, the leading candidate will be better able to consolidate voters into a governing coalition. If not, more stalemate in a divided Seattle and a close final election.

Pendulum or Bastion? This is a potentially clarifying election. On the one hand, it could signal the start of a swinging pendulum back to more consensus-based, less-performance-radicalism politics. That would be the signal if Harrell or Sixkiller win or do quite well. The pendulum outcome might drive feet-in-both-camps candidates such as Echohawk and Farrell to move away from serve-the-base politics. Or the race could serve to consolidate the Left Bastion, giving to the mayor’s office, as with Gonzalez, a real ally with the ever-lefter city council. Much will depend on how the main front runners do and what messages resonate with voters (including the two ballot issues). The race may lack in front-rank candidates, but it is nonetheless a pivotal election. 

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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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder if The Stranger endorsement will carry as much weight as it has in the past, now that it is only online and has a skeleton staff. I rarely find much of interest in it any more.

  2. A couple of comments:

    The open seat Council race is really a three way race between Oliver, Thomas and Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson. If biz consolidates behind Sara, Thomas could well get squeezed out in the middle, particularly if she continues to run squarely in the left activist lane with Oliver, who brings lots of grassroots energy to the race. Anyway, ignoring Nelson’s candidacy or dismissing her chances at this early date is a mistake.

    I don’t know how any donations intended to support Harrell would or could be “shielded from disclosure.” Our campaign transparency laws are pretty strict.

  3. Two updates: I neglected to mention a third strong candidate in the city council race for Gonzalez’s open citywide seat: businesswoman Sara Nelson, running as a more moderate candidate. I also have learned that mayoral candidate Casey Sixkiller is still pondering whether to get in, given the long odds and likely pressure from the Harrell camp not to siphon off business-friendly votes.

  4. Thanks for including Sara Nelson as a contender for Pos. 9, but what about a viable candidate stepping up to challenge ‘defund the poice’, ‘selfie at CHOP’, labor lobbyist Theresa Mosqueda?

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