Many of us missed the early signs of the unlikely rise of Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, the former public defender who now has to be viewed as the favorite to be Seattle’s next city attorney.
But trying to figure out how and why things happen in politics is what I do, so I set out to learn what we missed. What we found was a story of a gamble, a new-school campaign strategy, timely good press, the impact of The Stranger, and the profound changes brought about by Seattle’s democracy voucher system.
Elections have consequences, and changes in how we pay for and conduct politics likewise have consequences. In this case, the consequence is the likely election of a former public defender as the chief prosecutor of one of America’s great cities, replacing three-term incumbent Pete Holmes, who was already under fire for being soft on crime. And not just any public defender, but one who wants to put the office out of the business of prosecuting most misdemeanor crimes.¹ An abolitionist, which is a fine old word now repurposed in a new and interesting way.
Three months ago, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy had no money, no name recognition, and little chance to win the primary.
We’ll get back to Thomas-Kennedy, now widely known as NTK, shortly. First, a few words about public defenders, a subject your correspondent knows something about by virtue of being related to one and friends with several others: They’re typically intense and uncompromising people, constantly confronted as they are with the myriad human miseries surrounding the criminal justice system and the many injustices it wreaks.
For an example of this, take a look at this piece in The New Yorker about the righteous vendetta that Nick Filloy, a Solano County public defender and my cousin, is waging against the notorious Vallejo Police Department in California. A telling fact about Nick is that he is is still an avid amateur boxer in his early 40s, which means he gets hit in the face to relax.²
Public defenders are also notoriously starchy about going along with a process they view as designed to grind up their clients as if they were so much societal scrap meat. Good luck trying to persuade some of them to waive that procedural hearing or stipulate that evidence offered by the prosecutor is accurate, even when the outlook for acquittal is bleak.
“I’ll wave the American flag and stipulate my client’s not guilty,” one of our public defender friends, an enormous man fond of picking up prodigiously heavy objects, once said between sets at the gym. “Otherwise, kiss my ass.”
But here’s the thing: This worldview has not, historically, been broadly shared. In most places, prosecutors are popular because they put criminals in jail. Some are enormously popular for sending people to the executioner.³ For many voters, putting the prosecutor’s office out of the prosecution business raises the specter of a quick slide into a lawless, violent dystopia. Hence, prosecutors don’t usually⁴ get booted out of office in favor of public defenders. But Seattle’s not most places, and that’s part of this story.
Holmes was already well down the abolitionist path. His office long ago quit prosecuting many offenses tied to homelessness. His critics, including the Seattle police union, frequently argue that the city’s fast-growing homeless encampments represent the leading edge of that very dystopia. It’s a bitter irony for Holmes to get whacked from the left. Four years ago, he was the one harvesting democracy vouchers to defend his record as one of the country’s more progressive prosecutors against a well-financed challenge from the right. This year’s campaign he finished the primary in the red, and his appeal for donations to retire the debt was suitably caustic.
“We knew the risk of being “squeezed out” in a low information election where newspaper endorsements drive voter awareness — especially with Seattle’s spending limits and the inability of a campaign like ours to compete with those who buy ink by the barrel, and publish pixels by the billions.”
Three months ago, politics-watchers figured Holmes’s reelection race would play out like this: Ann Davison’s challenge to Holmes from the right, buoyed by an endorsement from The Seattle Times, would generate a lot of heat and noise, but would ultimately fall short when Holmes or some surrogate took the simple step of reminding Seattle’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate that Davison, an attorney who has run unsuccessfully for Seattle city council and lieutenant governor, is a Republican. She would top out at maybe 40 percent of the vote in November, and that would be that.
Nobody was watching Thomas-Kennedy, at least for a while. Her initial filing with the Public Disclosure Commission was particularly underwhelming. She had raised zero money in May while incurring more than $6,000 in debt. Examination of the detail of that debt, in hindsight, is revealing. Prism West, the firm we wrote about for their prowess in raising democracy-voucher money for mayoral also-ran Andrew Grant Houston, was letting NTK run a tab for early startup costs. This was essentially a gamble on their part that she would be able to raise enough money to at least pay off those costs.
But around that same time, the campaign got one of the best things an unknown candidate can get: Some really good press. The Stranger ran a piece on May 24 with the headline “Nicole Thomas-Kennedy Vows Not to Prosecute Almost All Misdemeanors.“
In the article by Rich Smith, The Stranger’s associate editor and main political writer, Thomas-Kennedy lays out the case for abolition, arguing, essentially, that the negative consequences of prosecuting, fining, and imprisoning low-level offenders are almost always too high. Go read it; it’s worth your time. It’s also a particularly good example of the ever-leftward movement of The Stranger’s editorial voice, which is, if you look at the scoreboard, pretty well aligned with the left end of the city’s electorate, especially for primary elections.
“The prosecutor’s ethical duty is to seek justice, but there’s no justice in prosecuting people for crimes of survival and poverty, or in making the lives of people in desperate situations worse,” Thomas-Kennedy told Smith.
That news story did three things: It instantly elevated Thomas-Kennedy’s profile with the voters she needed most, progressives who read The Stranger and follow its endorsements when they vote. It also raised the very real prospect that she would win the paper’s endorsement, a vital stamp of approval for candidates on the left. To describe its endorsement of Holmes back in 2017 as reluctant doesn’t really do it justice:
We hate both these motherfuckers. The SECB [the paper’s election-control board] would rather hook up with a Trump-voting horsefucker in Constantinople than sit at a conference table with either of these two. Incumbent Pete Holmes is a spineless bore…But Holmes’s opponent is worse.⁵
And finally, it gave the campaign a vital piece of third-party validation to use on the next order of business — raising money through the city’s democracy voucher system, which gives every Seattle voter four $25 vouchers that can be assigned to municipal candidates.
The first voucher for Thomas-Kennedy was submitted to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission on May 24, the day The Stranger piece appeared. Between then and July 13, the campaign collected nearly 4,000 vouchers worth nearly $80,000. But it takes a while for Ethics and Elections to confirm the vouchers are properly assigned and actually cough up the money, so if you looked at the campaign’s July 13 disclosure for that period, it still looked like they didn’t have any money unless you looked very closely. Buried in the debt section was more than $20,000 owed to Prism for canvassing. Fundraisers frequently work for a cut of the action, so that was a sign that the campaign was raising money if anyone had bothered to look.⁶
Then, on July 14, The Stranger formally endorsed Thomas-Kennedy, further boosting her bid, and pouring more gasoline on the voucher-harvesting fire. As of Aug. 12, her campaign had submitted more than 8,000 vouchers worth more than $200,000.
As we’ve noted before, vouchers are real money for candidates, but for voters, they’re a kind of pseudo-money that can’t be spent on rent, food, or beer/whiskey/weed. Would all those people have reached into their actual wallets to pay for her campaign? We’ll never know because she didn’t have to ask them.
“The vouchers made my campaign viable; I do not have wealthy friends,” Thomas-Kennedy told me. “So I’m pretty dang grateful for the vouchers, and I hope it shows folks who, like me, don’t have wealthy friends or connections that a run is doable.” But as Houston’s bid for mayor teaches us, harvesting a bunch of democracy vouchers doesn’t make you a viable candidate. Houston’s campaign spent more than $400,000 paying Prism to gather vouchers and employing an unusually large campaign staff. Even so, Houston got fewer than 5,500 votes.
Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign, meanwhile, was actually trying to get her elected. Along with paying Prism roughly $50,000 for a continuing voucher-harvesting operation, the campaign’s most recent disclosure shows north of $80,000 in spending on things that generally bring in actual votes: mailers, online advertising, and video production. She got more than 70,000 votes to finish roughly 7,000 votes ahead of Davison and 10,000 votes ahead of Holmes.
That voucher money continues to flow in, and as we look ahead to November, Thomas-Kennedy has to be considered the favorite. While the desire for change at the city attorney’s office may be spread across the political spectrum, Davison is still a Republican running in Seattle and can’t count on inheriting more than half of Holmes’ voters. So this bold use of the city’s publically financed campaign system may well result in Seattle traveling further into the undiscovered country of abolition than many folks are prepared for.
It’s not clear that voters weren’t just tired of Holmes, or just tired of the status quo in general. But what is clear is that candidates and campaigns in the city are learning to play on a significantly altered field, with revised rules that can favor an unknown candidate with a hustling team and a hot message. Anyone who expects to compete had best suit up.
This story first appeared in the author’s Substack website, The Washington Observer.
1. The city attorney only prosecutes misdemeanors. The county prosecutor handles more serious crimes.
2. Nick would argue that he tries to avoid blows to the face, but we’ve seen video and we’re not buyin’ it.
3. As a young reporter, your correspondent covered Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy, who sent 54 people to death row over 21 years in office. To call his re-election results lopsided would be a vast understatement. After he left office many of his convictions were called into question because of prosecutor-friendly corruption in the state crime lab.
4. There are, of course, exceptions, notably the current district attorney in Philadelphia, who is the subject of this PBS docuseries.
5. The Stranger’s endorsements are a group effort, so we don’t know exactly who wrote that stinging paragraph. Many of the writers who were there in 2017 have left for less exploitative work elsewhere.
6. Your correspondent was deep in an Idaho river canyon on July 13, gleefully off the grid; running whitewater; drinking with some of his oldest friends; and, most importantly, willfully ignoring all this.