With seven Seattle City Council seats up for grabs this year, and four seats where the incumbent is not seeking reelection, candidates face the formidable challenge of winning recognition during a summer season when voters have historically tuned out politics.
The advent of an August primary has ratcheted up the role of early fundraising. “Which candidates have (or will have) the money for voter contact in July, when primary voters will begin to focus, will likely be key in the outcome,” in words of Paul Elliott, a veteran Seattle activist who tracks donations.
The latest tracking delivers a surprise. Challengers have raised more money than two council incumbents, Tammy Morales in District 2 and Dan Strauss in District 6, who are seeking reelection. The figures bespeak the unpopularity of a council that has often appeared overmatched.
A third incumbent, Andrew Lewis, leads all comers and has raised the most money of any council candidate. Lewis, whose district includes downtown Seattle, will need every dollar. He cast the decisive vote against letting the Seattle City Attorney prosecute drug possession and public use as a gross misdemeanor.
In District 2, challenger Tanya Woo, a business owner and organizer of resistance to an expanded homeless shelter in the International District, has raised $93,729 as of May 31 with a balance of $73,519 in cash on hand. Incumbent Morales trails with $72,995 and $35,885 in the bank as she seeks to hold onto the council’s one majority-minority district. Morales has been chief cheerleader for the council’s new, pricey $970-million housing levy.
In District 6, Pete Hanning, executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce – and former longtime owner of the Red Door – has taken in $80,925 and had $58,767 banked as of the end of May. Strauss trailed with $72,965 and $50,783 as of the end of May, as he seeks to hold onto the council district in northwest Seattle.
In District 7, Incumbent Lewis has collected $93,771 and had $79,472 as of the end of May. The figure may underestimate his potential backing. Three locals of Unite Here – the culinary workers union – backed his 2019 campaign to the tune of more than $700,000 in “independent” expenditures. Challenger Olga Sagan, owner of Piroshky Peroshky – a vocal critic of violence and open drug dealing downtown – had raised $21,779 as of May 31. But Sagan has been in the race less than a month.
Ten candidates have filed in District 3, Central Area-Capitol Hill seat being vacated by socialist incumbent Kshama Sawant. The advantage belongs to two high-profile contenders. Business owner and community advocate Joy Hollingsworth, of a prominent African American family, has raised $93,040 with $58,667 in cash on hand. Trailing, but within range, is Transportation Choices executive director (and First Hill activist) Alex Hudson, who has taken in $65,622 but trailed with only $29,340 in cash on hand.
In District 4, stretching from Wallingford to Windermere, candidates Kenneth Wilson and Ron Davis are frontrunners in fundraising. Wilson has raised $76,380 with $50,088 cash-on-hand as of May 31. He is a civil engineer who ran a surprisingly strong citywide race against incumbent Teresa Mosqueda in 2021. Ron Davis, a high tech entrepreneur – and activist in groups ranging from Futurewise to the Roosevelt Neighborhood Assn. – had raised $69,885 with $42,347 in the bank.
In District 5, the far north end of the Emerald City, Seattle City Council President Debora Juarez opted not to seek a third term. In the race to replace her, schools and gun safety advocate Nilu Jenks has taken in $49,472 with $26,016 in cash on hand. Trailing, at $21,741, is Cathy Moore, a former King County Superior Court judge and ex-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission.
Similarly, in District 1, incumbent Lisa Herbold is calling it quits after two terms. Herbold was previously a longtime council staffer whose ties to The Stranger earned her the nickname “Lisa who leaks.” The top fundraiser to succeed her is Rob Saka, an attorney with Perkins Coe who has served on the city’s Police Search Committee and the King County Council redistricting Committee. He has raised $88,505 with $57,251 cash-on-hand as of June 1.
A distant second in the West Seattle-South Park district is Maren Costa, a former Amazon technical worker, in her words “illegally fired” in 2020 after organizing Amazon Workers for Climate Justice. She reported raising $42,018 with $26,493 in cash on hand.
The redoubtable Paul Elliott, a longtime volunteer treasurer in city races, has also totaled slightly more up-to-date figures covering the city’s Democracy Voucher program, through June 7. Not all voucher income was included in the end-of-May reports.
As of June 7, 2023, $34,125 had been distributed to Costa and $$62,950 to Saka in District 1. Woo ($76,625) and Morales ($64,750) have both relied on vouchers in District 2. Likewise for District 4 contenders Davis ($73,250) and Wilson ($63,175). By contrast, Jenks ($40,625) is far ahead of District 5 competitors on the voucher front.
Hanning ($62,175) has almost matched incumbent Strauss ($64,675) in District 6. Lewis has accepted $43,000 in District 7, while his competitors have yet to report voucher income. The same holds true for Jenks’ competitors in District 5. By contrast, six candidates in District 3 have received voucher money, led by Hollingsworth ($64,640) and Hudson ($39,825).
The turnover at City Hall will have consequences, given the current council’s unpopularity and left-leaning ideological bent. A recent poll, done for the Downtown Seattle Assn., asked 500 likely voters to grade the City Council. Two-thirds of those surveyed gave the Council a D or F.
The potential role of independent expenditures is not yet apparent. Recent elections have witnessed key players burning up money and getting burned. Amazon spent $1.4 million to influence council races in 2019, only to experience a backlash against candidates it was supporting. Sawant managed to squeak through, turning a race that initially seemed a referendum on Sawant into one that was a referendum on Amazon. In 2021, labor unions poured resources into the mayoral campaign of Lorena Gonzalez, only to see her decisively defeated by Bruce Harrell.
It makes for an interesting summer campaign, if voters tune in.