Mass Exodus: Why Seattle’s City Council Members Are Rushing To The Exits


Seattle is going through an exodus phase — Amazon, downtown workers, parents of school-age children, mobile residents. Add to that list the Seattle City Council, where four (Lisa Herbold, Debora Juarez, Alex Pedersen, Kshama Sawant) of the nine members are opting out of re-election this year, and Teresa Mosqueda (an at-large member not facing election until 2025) is migrating to the less-pressure county council. Talk about a broom!

What gives? One simple explanation is that some of these candidates would not get re-elected. Herbold, D-1 (West Seattle) has apparently run out of her district’s support, and one poll, I am told, found her approval/disapproval gap at 26 points. Sawant has been battered by a recall election and faces two strong candidates. Both Juarez and Pedersen poll well, but each would face strong challengers from their left and urbanist flanks. Dan Strauss, D-6 (Ballard) is a young (37) first-termer who has not yet announced his plans and will face a tough race. Andrew Lewis, D-7 (Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Downtown), is also a first-termer (age 34) and will seek re-election. Lewis will have a lot of ‘splaining to do about the city’s downward course. Tammy Morales, D-2 (Southeast Seattle), will likely cruise to a second term.

In the case of Mosqueda — the new leader, as Sawant and Lorena Gonzalez depart the Strong Left faction — it’s widely thought that she was eyeing a race for the 9th Congressional District seat, where Adam Smith is the incumbent. The county council seat occupied by Joe McDermott will be an open seat as McDermott is not seeking re-election. That Congressional race might still happen though Mosqueda’s new county council seat lies westward of the 8th congressional district.

The county council pays a bit better than the city ($135,525 versus $129,686), but it offers a modest workload and assured re-election. And if Mosqueda is serious about running for a higher state or federal office, as her labor backers hope, it makes sense for her to shed the Seattle City Council baggage.

The winners in the city hall exodus will be Sara Nelson, leader of the Soft Left caucus, and Mayor Bruce Harrell, who can, if he rouses himself, push through an agenda without effective council opposition. The problem would be an inexperienced and chaotic council that can’t find the cohesion to stay the course in a retrenchment agenda.

Seattle before 1967 had a sleepy, unambitious council, electing local pharmacists and small-business folk who kept taxes and regulations and new programs low. The Legislature shifted budget authority from the musty council to the mayor, which prompted Wes Uhlman to get elected in 1969. Also in 1967, Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) elected the first reform councilmembers (Tim Hill and Phyllis Lamphere), along with Sam Smith, and by 1973 CHECC candidates and agendas had transformed and modernized the council.

There ensued a string of effective, multi-term mayors (Uhlman, Charles Royer, Norm Rice) who worked well with the council and a “Liberal Establishment” of lawyers, developers, and business leaders. Since that time, four of the last five mayors (Paul Schell, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, and Jenny Durkan) only lasted one term, and the council radicalized and lost public confidence. 

The roster of effective city council members over that span is impressive: Phyllis Lamphere, John Miller, Tim Hill, Bruce Chapman, Randy Revelle, Paul Kraabel, Jim Street, Sam Smith, Norm Rice, Jane Noland, Jan Drago, Jeanette Williams, Sue Donaldson, Jan Drago, Richard Conlin, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, Richard McIver. They were recruited and supported by strong civic organizations, including the Municipal League, Allied Arts, and the League of Women Voters — all now defunct or diminished.

Whether the city can grow or mature a new crop of civic leaders is an open question. It will certainly help to have Sawant out of the council, as she and her chamber-packing shouters have loomed over the shoulders of councilmembers — much as Donald Trump stampeded the Republican Party. Mayor Harrell has re-established diplomatic and transactional relations with the council. Possibly the exoduses may shock the system into better performance.

That will take more than the current election, where I expect many promising candidates will join the rush to the civic exits.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Andrew Lewis has, I think, learned his lessons after jumping too quickly into the Left fringe. Because of this, I will vote to re-elect him. Morales seems the member (other than Sawant) who should least “cruise to re-election.” I’m sure missing Nick Licata and Richard Conlin and other progressives who also knew how to work with people and compromise to move the city forward. Harrell has been a breath of fresh air, and I’m seeing some results in terms of cleaning the city up from garbage, vandalism and graffiti (a euphemism for vandalism). I’ve been a long-time leftist but in Seattle the far left has lost common sense.

  2. Interesting piece, David, and a possible answer to the mystery over so much exodus. I would, however, quibble over your list of impressive councilmembers. While Jan Drago gets double mention, you overlooked such effective councilmembers as Peter Steinbrueck, who worked on behalf of the environment, Tom Rasmussen, who championed Human Resources, and Nick Licata, who successfully co-chaired the drive for paid sick leave. (Modesty should prevent me from admitting I was the other co-chair.) Incidentally the League of Women Voters, although serving a school for women leaders, has never endorsed candidates.

    • Worthy additions to the list of council notables, Jean, and good point about the League, though it did propel some fine women candidates.

  3. Tammy Morales has no lock on the 2nd District. She is merely Sawant with a filter, but with the same lack of response to her constituents. We merely need a good candidate to step up. People are ready to fund that candidate and get to work.

  4. “… the Municipal League, Allied Arts, and the League of Women Voters — all now defunct or diminished.”

    What’s up with that? Pardon my ignorance, but this sounds kind of significant. How were those organizations funded and staffed? Did they just hang it up because no one is interested any more in competence in city hall?

  5. The 2020s are Seattle’s Decade of Abandonment.

    -The councilmembers want out because the city has downhill momentum.
    -Tech companies are abandoning employees AND office space.
    -Other tenants are leaving office buildings empty.
    -Parents are pulling children out of Seattle schools.
    -Employed people are leaving because they can WFH in better places.
    -There have been two years of net-outmigration.
    -Something like 500 businesses closed downtown, and far fewer opened.

    • These council members presided over the defund the police movement, and we all know how successful that was. “In my mind, the choice is clear,” sniffed Tammy Morales in 2020, as she joined other council members in voting to yank money away from policing and into “social programs.” As if you didn’t already know it, let me remind you that Seattle is experiencing an unprecedented upsurge in violent crime. Coincidence? I think not. The current City Council body nearly wrecked this city, and now they’re leaving us to clean up their mess.

      • With all due respect, those “abandoning” trends were not caused by city council budgeting choices. Moreover, different city council members will not be able to reverse those trends. Seattle’s downtown became far less relevant — to businesses, public agencies, and this region’s residents. You know how New England mill towns largely were abandoned when new technologies were adapted, right? Same thing here — all the office towers are mostly obsolete, and those were what used to make Seattle an economic hotspot.

        • I don’t mean to back-and-forth this endlessly, but while it’s true that the causes of downtown’s current crisis are complex — the exodus of Seattle police officers (we’re down 550 officers) can be traced directly to actions of the City Council. Not all council members were fervently anti-police, it’s true … but they didn’t rein in Sawant and Morales. According to an 2021 AP story:
          “SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle Police Department has said that more than 200 officers left their jobs since last year, citing an anti-police climate in Seattle, City Council policies and disagreements with department leadership.”

          If a Seattle City Council candidate is not prepared to bring solutions for tents and drug dealers sprouting over the city like mushrooms, a solution that doesn’t involve huge tax hikes, if you’re going to wilt under fierce questioning, please don’t run for office.

  6. Couple of things to add. First, not only did we miss forgetting Martha Choe but also Cheryl Chow who was significant in many ways, including backing the effort to save the Seattle Public Library from downgrading, not to mention her other heroic efforts while on the school board.
    Another correction is the dismissing of the League of Women Voters as defunct or diminished. It is true the League isn’t the powerhouse it was at one time when there were few other spheres of influence. But it is still functioning with new young leaders.

  7. As a member of the League of Women Voters, Jefferson County, I can tell you, unequivocally, the the Washington State LWV, and the King County League is not only alive and well, but doing stunningly strong work. This organization, like most, is only as strong as the people who participate, so I invite you to look up the Washington State League website, to see what a powerhouse organization actually does, and join up with this non-partisan league.

    • Thank you Gwen! The League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County is alive and well and does not support or endorse candidates or political parties.

    • Yes, Hildt was an admirable councilmember. Another aspect missing from the council is a trusted leader who can give sound advice on how others are thinking. Paul Kraabel was the best at this. No current occupants of this role.

  8. Would be very wrong not to cite Margaret Pageler for her wise environmental and preservationist work while on the Council.We have been fortunate in having savvy councilmembers working on our behalf.


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