With about a month to go for some key Seattle elections, here’s an early handicapping of the outcome. I use a percentage range (such as 70-30) in predicting the outcome in the general election Nov. 2. Keep in mind that some races still have a large number of undecideds. (The recent KOMO poll in mid-September had 27 percent undecided on the mayor’s race and a whopping 65 percent for the City Attorney race.) Now is the calm before the storm, with debates, media drops, and endorsements yet to come, so predictions are risky, though the narratives of the key races are more clear.
Bruce Harrell (55-45). Harrell, a former city council member, has managed to slip two traps. One was to be tagged for being on the widely disliked city council, even its president, until he chose not to run in 2019. The other was being defined as a tool of business and developer interests. Harrell has eluded (so far) that framing with skilled retail politicking, jumping into news cycles, staying vague and upbeat on key issues, and stressing his multi-racial biography and ethnic programs. (In reserve: his football prowess at Garfield and UDub.) He’ll have plenty of money, north of $2 million, thanks to independent expenditures and generous business donors; but so will his labor-backed opponent, particularly when independent expenditure dollars are mixed in. Harrell just got (later than usual) a key endorsement from the Firefighters, who really work for their candidates, unlike the Police Guild.
Harrell is working hard at the campaign, attempting to allay the aloof image he earned on the council. His big advantage is the murder-a-day headlines that keep putting crime and homelessness issues in front of voters, where Harrell promises vague “consequences” for those who refuse to move out of some encampments; Gonzalez firmly opposes “sweeps.” The mid-September Crosscut/Elway Poll had Harrell in the lead, 42-27. Since he’s relatively unknown, he is more vulnerable to rising or falling in the coming debates; by contrast Gonzalez has a sharp image as a leftist battler for the working class. One important unknown: will runner-up candidate Colleen Echohawk join Jessyn Farrell in endorsing Harrell?
In the recent Seattle Times debate (Sept. 29), Gonzalez was the greater master of detail, and she made clear that she is on the side of the working class, not business interests or downtown developers. She is not broadening her appeal or moving to the center for the general election, and instead gave Harrell some targets, if he wants to use them: she opposes all forcible removal of encampments, wants to rezone the entire city for multi-family units, favors the costly building of 37,000 units of new affordable housing, deplores Mayor Jenny Durkan (a long feud), and demonizes big business and the Compassion Seattle ballot measure as a stealth program for clearing out encampments. Harrell, eschewing the blame game, didn’t punch back and played the unity card.
Lorena Gonzalez (45-55). Her disadvantages are three. One is being the city council president at a time of budget battles and other dispiriting tiffs and given the public dislikes of the city council. The second is her continuing to hold down that demanding council job, which means less time than her opponent on the campaign trail (she also has a new year-and-a-half-old daughter). The Gonzalez campaign is focusing on targeted Twitter messages to younger voters, and rallying the radicalized Twitter vote, the Left, Labor, and POC voters. A third potential problem, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars labor unions are pouring into her race, is getting tagged as “owned” by labor. (In fairness, Seattle so loves labor that this line of attack will fizzle.)
The campaign made one bad gaffe when Gonzalez decided to snub the Downtown Seattle Association’s candidate questionnaire — virtue-signaling to her corporate-bashing workers base but raising concerns about Gonzalez’s judgement and her ability to represent the whole city in a time of economic recovery. Her advantage is that she would be a mayor with a solid ideological majority on the council, so more progress on key issues might be possible, even if a majority of voters will not be with her programs (yet). Her ability to work well with a contentious council is in doubt.
So far, the main attack lines haven’t appeared: her opposition to clearing encampments, zealotry, selfish ambition, being hard to work with, and her ideological impatience with those who disagree. Her base of support is 35-45 percent of the city’s voters, and she’s sticking with a mobilize-the-base approach. That base is mobilized (a little less so with Trump in exile), organized, and impassioned. One promising indicator: Gonzalez outperformed the polling in the primary.
City Council At-Large Seats
Sara Nelson (52-48). In some ways, Nelson’s campaign is a reminder of the days when she was a council staffer for Richard Conlin and wonky experts such as Sally Clark and Tim Burgess populated the council. Nelson is positioning herself as a pragmatic moderate (not a bridge builder between council factions), deeply knowledgeable, candid, and innovative about city issues. She can seem clumsy in dealing with obvious questions, but she is learning to be a better (and less long-winded) candidate. She’s not a natural fundraiser, but an independent PAC will keep her competitive. Nelson stresses her familiarity with small business (she and her husband run a Fremont brewery), but has not found a defining issue to get her better known. She has an advantage in running for a city-wide seat, being moderate and inclusive, while her opponent is tied to angry factions in Southeast Seattle.
Nikkita Oliver (48-52). Oliver is a charismatic campaigner, a passionate stump speaker (a natural for poetry slams), and has the Stranger-reading Left all sewn up. But do voters want to add another hard-left voice to the council majority (five in that bloc, two moderates, and two swing votes)? Oliver seems unwilling to broaden their appeal to other voters. Their main platform focuses on housing affordability, housing the houseless, rent-control, and defunding the police. A key question becomes (as for Gonzalez) how many under-35 voters will turn out, since many of these voters are skeptical of local politics and there’s no galvanizing ballot issue to prompt turnout of light voters.
Teresa Mosqueda (80-20). Mosqueda is the shoe-in incumbent, running on her record of helping to lift up workers and being the firm ally (and former employee) of labor unions. She has emerged as the less-shrill, non-Sawant leader of the Left faction on the city council, and she gives occasional signals of being pragmatic and being able to work well with other councilmembers. (For example, both Mosqueda and Gonzalez quickly backed off opposition to Durkan’s appointment of a controversial Black woman, Royal Alley Barnes, as the acting head of the Office of Arts and Culture, once the older Black community weighed in.) In a recent Elway Poll, Mosqueda led her unknown opponent by 33-17, with 40 percent undecided — not exactly a vote of confidence for an incumbent.
Ken Wilson (20-80). No one thought Mosqueda could be toppled, given her rock-solid labor support, so a gaggle of unknowns ran. The surprise winner of the second slot was an engineer named Ken Wilson, who barely had any financial support though he was able to beguile the Seattle Times‘ Danny Westneat. Wilson’s natural issue, given his engineering background, is the allowed-to-crumble West Seattle Bridge, where he proposed a quicker fix. Wilson would need a quicker fix to topple a powerful incumbent, and his unknown political profile is vulnerable to attacks from the left.
Seattle City Attorney
Ann Davison (45-55). Once upon a time, Republicans (Doug Jewett) and moderate conservatives (Mark Sidran) could get elected to this job, where law and order has some resonance and the city council liked to play good cop to the Attorney’s bad cop on “civility” issues. But now Seattle voters are 9-1 Democratic, so Davison, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for lieutenant governor, has a steep hill to climb. Even so, Davison’s opponent is a flat-out abolitionist for misdemeanors, and the crime issue has resurfaced, so Davison has a chance of winning. She recently got endorsed by Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, two former Democratic governors, which has to be a game-changer in Davison’s positioning. In the Elway poll, Davison leads NTK, 26-22 — still very close and fluid.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy (55-45). NTK, as she is called, is very up front about her advocacy for abolishing the prosecution of misdemeanors (a key function of the office), arguing that such prosecution is aimed at the poor and the disabled, while greedy landlords get off free. She also freely attacks the police and cheers on protesters. Thomas-Kennedy has limited legal experience as a Public Defender, and observers expect her to clean house and politicize the office, though massive resistance to such a change might force her to modify her approach in order to hang onto the office. Meanwhile, the race provides a clear plebiscite on the radical decarceration ideology that stirs (and sours) many voters. We may be about to trade in Kshama Sawant (subject to a recall) for another ideological bullhorn wielded by NTK.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, while soft-on-prosecution himself, made the mistake of running for a fourth term and getting squeezed out in the primary. The odd result was a stark-polarities contest. That raises another key question: where do the Holmes voters go? (I assume that most of them go to Thomas-Kennedy, the fellow Democrat and prosecutorial dove.) Fed-up voters will find one or more opportunities to register their impatience with Seattle’s leftward tilt, now that the Compassion Seattle ballot measure, which might have bled off some of the steam, is moot. The city attorney race may be the obvious choice for a loud Whoa!
King County Executive
Dow Constantine (70-30). With a challenger from the youthful and minority left, Constantine will have an easy time winning, since his real vulnerability would be out-county where Dow is thought to be “too-Seattle.” The other reason this is a non-race is that it’s really a warm-up for Constantine’s likely governor’s race in 2024. Constantine is firming up his King County base, his labor support, his campaign machinery, and major donors. He would probably run for statewide office as an effective manager (which he certainly is), pro-business, pro-labor, and pro-arts. (The usual formula for Democratic success in Washington is big-business, big-labor, and big-government.) His statewide weaknesses are how long he has been in office (he’s 59 and has held various elected offices since 1996), his old-school style of assembling interest groups and therefore cautious policy innovations, and his being ever more mired in the homelessness dilemma, which has migrated to the Seattle/King County regional homelessness authority.
Joe Nguyen (30-70). This is another future-race race. Nguyen, 38, is a rising star on the left and a Democratic state Senator from Burien. He will be vastly outspent and out-organized by Constantine, a master politician. Nguyen works as a program manager at Microsoft, so his appeal is also a test of the analytical, impatient, blunt, data-driven approach that might come to characterize our politics and push out the old guard. For now, running on the urgent, fix-things-now left flank of Constantine seems misguided for a county post or a statewide position, particularly if he loses badly. Nguyen is Vietnamese, which produces another test of how well Asian-American drive will translate into voter-appeal.