State of the Race: Final Pre-Primary Handicapping — Mayor, Council

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Time for a last handicapping of the Seattle mayor’s race, before the primary on August 3. This is a pretty hunchy ranking, as the electorate is very unsettled and the polling is sketchy. I expect to consume a pretty healthy plate of crow right after the voters speak. Numbers rank the candidates (1-10, with 10 being the best) in likelihood of surviving as one of two in the primary, first number, and winning the general election in November.


Leading the Pack

Bruce Harrell (9/7). Harrell’s campaign manager, Christian Sinderman, a pro with a strong track record, has helped position Harrell away from his two vulnerabilities: a veteran on the city council, and cozy with business. Instead, Harrell has been positioning himself as a Garfield and UW football star, tough on police (body cams), and plucking the mystic chords of Seattle history (especially the rising minority melodies). It’s helpful that he retired from the city council two years ago, giving him deniability and the ability to run against the council and the city hall status quo. None of the business-friendly candidates (Casey Sixkiller and Art Langlie) have been able to peel off moderate votes, so Harrell has found it easy to move to the vague center-left. Plenty of money, plenty of establishment endorsements.

As for the general election, Harrell might be coasting into trouble. The likely attack will be to wrap the business establishment around his neck and, as the GOP tried to do with Biden, to stress his absenteeism, age, wealth, and general (if witty) detachment on the council. One key factor is whether Harrell, a genial campaigner, can put his opponent back on her heels, wrapping the council miscues around the neck of Gonzalez. Or could he make hay on the inexperience and Mike-McGinn echoes around Colleen Echohawk’s surprise win. Jessyn Farrell would be a tougher challenge for Harrell, since she hasn’t been on the council and could keep Harrell on the defensive by unleashing an Elizabeth-Warren-like blizzard of policy papers.

Lorena Gonzalez (8/6). The current city council president has passed her first two key political tests — keeping labor united behind her so that Jessyn Farrell has not been able to peel off that support; and holding the ethnic coalition on her side, lest Echohawk carve it away. Gonzalez may have made one miscue in her decision to stiff the Downtown Seattle Association (by refusing to fill out their questionnaire), and not coasting to victory as a broad-tent progressive. She resembles Trump in this way: her passion and animosities and sudden veerings are right there to see. Her catchy stunt of mailing all those dried cherries (she grew up a farmworker), probably strikes some as more hokey than mayoral.

It may be that this early anti-business stance was driven by her hopes for an endorsement by The Stranger, which she duly got. Both Farrell and Echohawk also had to tack left in hopes of an election-altering endorsement by The Stranger, which may have prevented them from developing some momentum around their signature issues (transit for Farrell, homelessness for Echohawk). The fact that Farrell and Echohawk are equal strength also means that neither could break out to be a serious challenger to Gonzalez for second place.

In the general election next November, even though Gonzalez will ride the town’s post-George-Floyd radical tide, there are lots of council excesses that she will be blamed for (both voting for them and not exercising enough oversight). Her tough, ambitious, ego-driven style will also be an issue (both for good and bad) and may affect how much money and effort labor and other allies will expend. She is also not a sure-footed campaigner, while Harrell is an expert tap-dancer.

Back in the Pack

Colleen Echohawk (6/7). Polling would indicate that she is gaining ground, and she has been the most personally winning of the candidates. She has not shown much range in her issues or a speedy learning curve. You can look at her shifting on issues (she was for the Compassion Seattle amendment before she was against it) as her distance from the city hall syndrome or her inexperience. Seattle sometimes goes for more naive candidates such as Charley Chong, Dave (Smiley-Face) Stern, Liem Tuai, but doesn’t finally elect them.

That said, if Echohawk edges into the top two, she might be a difficult opponent for Harrell. She has experience in working with the homeless, while Harrell could be tagged as a “sweeps man.” (Big battle over that term, sweeps, which sweeps a lot of more humane policies into the same off-putting word.) There is the appeal of electing for the first time a Native American as Seattle’s mayor, and Echohawk could lay claim to being a mayor of all the city, including lefties and business, and she can out-genial the ex-linebacker. 

Jessyn Farrell (5/8). The former state representative and transit activist and Nick Hanauer think tanker is an excellent campaigner. Her answers are direct, substantive, and original. There is a dreaminess to her (free transit) that reminds some of Paul Schell. But she is among all the candidates the most “mayoral” — sure-footed, crisp, experienced with other pols, and able to pull together activist-protectivist coalitions. The mystery is why she waited so long to get herself known and to get early endorsements from key constituencies. Hubris? Subconscious desire NOT to win? Too many chips put on a Stranger endorsement?

Farrell would probably be the best positioned to defeat Harrell (old stuff) and Gonzalez (movement idealogue) in the November final. The sweet spot in mayor’s races has been acceptability to labor and business, and though business has a lot of past rebuffs by Farrell to forgive and a lot of hopes in a Harrell administration, Farrell has the best shot at reassembling this coalition, one that elected Mayors Nickels, Murray, and Durkan. She may not, as with super-wonk Sen. Warren, wear well in a campaign. She is, er, a white woman living in the north end and has no log cabin (or dried cherries) in her political past.

Casey Sixkiller (3/4). In many ways, he’s what the doctor ordered: someone who knows city hall from the inside (deputy mayor for operations), has enjoyed good mentors (Jim McDermott, Patty Murray, Dow Constantine), is adept at forging compromises; famous (Husky quarterback) Dad; young, smart, and rooted. Ah, but another very late start has stunted his campaign (that was smart?) He has D.C. lobbying for corporate clients to explain away, and the albatross of the now-unpopular Mayor Jenny Durkan. Not a great combination for defeating either Harrell or Gonzalez. 


Some other factors

It may be that the backlash voters (drawn to Ann Davison, who has run as a Republican for lieutenant governor) or the movement left voters (favoring Public Defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy) will shift the race for Seattle City Attorney (where Pete Holmes is shakily seeking a fourth term). If so, these voters may therefore not get very excited about the mayor’s race, leaving that race to the labor and big business PACs, who have the most at stake.

Along those lines, keep an eye on the quality progressive candidates popping up around the county. An example is Melissa Stuart, running for the Redmond City Council. Or check out the Progressive Voters’ Guide for the range and experience of these true-blue suburban candidates. If that progressive tide comes in, it might affect the Seattle races. Fed up with inaction by the political establishment, voters are splitting into more radical parties at the local level, distrusting the promises-promises moderates. It isn’t just Trump Republicans that have found these new battlegrounds.

Three more wild cards

The Sawant recall effort and Compassion Seattle’s ballot measure on homelessness. It looks like the recall will get on the ballot, and this will trigger a bitter, high-stakes, high-dollar war that might also draw off the ideological toxins from mere mayor’s races. The recall of Kshama Sawant, the socialist city councilmember, is confined to voters in her 3rd Central Seattle district, but it will draw all Seattle, especially the national and local media, into this stark civil war.

Then there is the city council race for the at-large position that Gonzalez is vacating to run for mayor. Nikkita Oliver, running well ahead, is almost certain to hold down a charismatic left slot. If she draws the moderate Sara Nelson, a voice for small business, that too could be another showdown contest. If Oliver draws Brianna Thomas, who has been Gonzalez’s chief of staff, then you have an internal contest of the movement left — left versus leff-left.

And it appears that Compassion Seattle’s charter amendment (mandating more housing, allowing more clearance) will make it to the November ballot, and its current polling has it well ahead. Some think the ballot issue debate will sink a soft-on-homelessness Gonzalez. This too may become a proxy war over that visceral Seattle issue about reining in (or humanely tolerating) encampments.

The political temperature is rising, even if the mayoral candidates lack star-quality. That promises a good fight that may not settle much, but just continue the standoff and stalemate into extra innings.

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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. David, I have enjoyed the 1000’s of columns and words you have written over the past 40 year+ years but find myself outraged by your comment regarding Jessyn Farrell and why she waited to get herself known as you put it. In fact Jessyn is an outstanding candidate and will be a great Mayor and as far as I know you are not a psychologist.

  2. Not to defend Lorena Gonzalez, but the mailing of dried cherries was not done by her campaign, but rather by an Independent Expenditure campaign (IE). This $450,000+ IE is funded entirely by two unions, UNITE-HERE and UFCW. The braintrust behind this IE hired an out-of-state consultant who bought 10 1/2 tons of dried cherries from a company that had contributed to a PAC fighting the very hotel worker legislation Lorena pushed. To make matters worse, the IE campaign did all the printing and mailing out of state, denying the work to Union printers and mail houses here in Seattle. If a candidate did that, local unions would be upset.

    IEs, by law, cannot coordinate with the candidate(s) they support. Yet they sure seem to do things that cause ridicule – or worse.

  3. Some readers sent good comments to me, so I’m passing them along. Probably best TV spot: Colleen Echohawk, looking Seattle voters firmly in the eye. Smart, quick positioning: Bruce Harrell calling for more cops in wake of the weekend shootings. Keep an eye on Independent Expenditures, where Harrell ($333,000 to date) and Gonzalez ($451,000) are far ahead. Sometimes these gushers come in very late and can swing undecideds — or they can backfire. Lastly, with 40 percent undecided, a key question is the nature of those undecideds. One analysis suggests they are older homeowners, which might suggest an erosion of Gonzalez’s vote.

    • Candidates, not just in the Mayor’s race, have been making the case for race. Some use other words, but it’s loud and clear for everyone to hear.

      Amidst a 2020 population of 776,555, the City is 66.5% white. Race stands out in the campaign for Seattle Mayor because there are so few white candidates running. The candidates bring their lived experiences to the conversation, and to the major issues on people’s minds. Policing, economic disparity, educational attainment, health and life expectancy, opportunity and housing are all very different for BIPOC than it is for white people. Recent events have (finally) highlighted these things to the level that it reaches even seasoned journalists.

  4. David,
    I don’t think you’ve given enough weight to the Sawant recall. If it makes the November ballot she’ll be out there raising hell with her noisy troops all across the city, not just in Dist 3. Sawant’s far left loyalists will increase the vote for Gonzalez in the mayor’s race, though probably not enough to defeat Harrell; but in the Council 9 race, Sawant’s ability to bring lefties to the polls probably ends any chance Sara Nelson might have to defeat Nikkita Oliver.

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