With May 20 filing deadline past, voters can finally begin to glimpse what a mostly new Seattle City Council is going to look like. Only three of the seven incumbents are running this year, making certain that inexperienced newcomers – four or more — will arrive at City Hall in 2024.
Will this new council be an activist bunch, ready to downsize and rebrand the police department? Or is it going to work on tamer issues like paving streets, building sidewalks, and planting trees?
One veteran observer, Seattle Times’ columnist Danny Westneat, took a quick look at the 45 contenders (three incumbents and 42 challengers) and made a snap judgment. He says the new city council will be (in his words) “bland” and will revert to tradition and become “polite and boring.”
Westneat is right there’s no candidate running from Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative party — not since Matthew Mitnick in District 4 dropped out, tarred by reports about his toxic campaign. But, if there’s no second Sawant around to brand council colleagues as corporate bootlickers and vote against city budgets, that doesn’t necessarily mean the council’s going to become staid and vanilla.
A look at responses to the Seattle Times’ questionnaire of the 45 candidates shows Westneat’s prediction is possibly premature. To start with, when the Times asked the challengers why they are running, almost all were highly critical of the present City Council. Complaints ranged from charges of “inaction” and “lack of accountability” to complaints over “ineffective government” and “not getting things done.” These folks sound stirred up and ready to act.
Asked to rank issues facing Seattle, the would-be councilmembers showed some consistency. Fifteen of the 45 picked “public safety” as the city’s “number one” issue. Other candidates scored homelessness and/or housing-affordability first, but then ranked public safety next. One oddity: several of those concerned about public safety said no to an increase in the police budget and some answered that they “maybe” favor a decrease in cop budgets. It’s puzzling how shorting the police will result in more safety.
What’s more surprising is how candidates prioritize other city issues. The two concerns that ranked farthest down most lists are parks and cleaner streets. These core city services get ho-hum treatment. So much for the Westneatian notion the new council will plod away looking at un-sexy issues like filling potholes and keeping parks clean and accessible.
Reading other candidate round-ups – the one at the Stranger for instance – could leave voters unsure about the direction of the new council. Take District 5 (Lake City to Carkeek Park) where Council President Debora Juarez is not running for reelection; it’s one of the largest races with ten candidates.
Among the D-5 ten are outspoken candidates like Tye Reed, who managed Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s failed 2021 race for city attorney. (Thomas-Kennedy wanted to close jails and end prosecution of misdemeanors.) Now that it’s her turn as a candidate, Reed wants to redesign Aurora Avenue, turning it into a car-free zone. She says she’ll partner with the Transit Riders Union to pressure the mayor and SDOT director to go along. (Reed may not know Aurora doubles as State Route 99, giving the state some say-so.)
Reed is also promising to introduce a council ordinance to decriminalize sex work, as well as providing funds for sex workers’ housing, reproductive supplies, health care, and safety. She has some backing but she hasn’t got much campaign money. Banking the most in D-5 are neighborhood activist Nilu Jenks, former King County Judge Cathy Moore, and Maple Leaf realtor Shane Macomber.
Some other council races have fewer candidates and less volatile issues. But raising issues may matter less than how much money candidates are raising. Those like Reed who so far haven’t raised much are barely worth a mention and that’s the case for over half the challengers. Most recent filings show the six top money raisers are D-7’s Andrew Lewis, $93,000; D-1’s Rob Saka, $71,000; D-2’s Tonya Woo, $93,000; D-3’s Joy Hollingsworth, $93,000; D-4’s Ken Wilson, $76,000, and D-6’s Pete Hanning, $81,000.
What this means for the shape of the coming council is that it’s apt to be an assertive group, interested in beefing up public safety, looking favorably on a department for non-police emergencies, and doing the difficult work on homelessness and affordability. What the new council will do with the city budget will depend, as it always does, on the economy and whether there will be enough revenue for new councilmembers to keep their campaign promises.
In my view, 2024 will be a building year for the Emerald City, adjusting to pandemic scars and changing times, revitalizing downtown. It also could be a fractious year with tugs of war over where to invest scarce resources. Fortunately, when contenders were asked what led them to run for office, most said they were motivated by “a love of the city.” That love affair may have rocky moments. After all, the new council is going to be in the hands of rookies, still finding their way to the washroom. The ride ahead doesn’t look boring nor even overly polite.