Sara Nelson, the newly and unanimously elected Seattle City Council President, wasted little time staking out her territory, just as she had moved early to line up her votes for council president. In her inaugural address on Tuesday and again in a Friday Seattle Times op-ed, she made plain that, with five new councilmembers and a sixth soon to be chosen, big changes are ahead. As she put it: “Not just in the council’s makeup but in the way we do business.”
Nelson joined the council two years ago as part of a more moderate wave that also elected City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell. (One needs to remember that a “Seattle moderate” would be considered left-of-center elsewhere.) In her first years, Nelson was often frustrated by the left-leaning council. The majority didn’t listen when she wanted more money allocated for public safety, as well as for mental health care and addiction treatment.
Nelson’s response to her defeat could perhaps be seen as coming straight from the JFK playbook: “don’t get mad, get even.” Nelson bided her time and helped recruit some moderate candidates. She endorsed the newcomers, helped them shape platforms and raise money. Now, as president Nelson gets to assign committee chairs and direct legislation to these committees. She’s also not shy about addressing the public and rallying support.
Those new councilmembers are now in the majority; they constitute a veto-proof coalition. That super majority is enough to rival the power of Mayor Bruce Harrell should there ever be disagreement on the city’s way forward.
During the campaign, Harrell stayed mostly above the fray, belatedly endorsing some who went on to win. His caution was understandable if he believed voters wouldn’t change direction. Endorsing an unsuccessful challenger over an incumbent could have cost him dearly.
Reports from insider sources say Harrell now is working to build relationships with the new councilmembers. Realization that Nelson has potential power hasn’t escaped the mayor’s notice. Already we’re seeing pictures of the mayor with the newbies, flashily celebrating their wins. Well, better late than never.
In her op-ed piece, Nelson wasn’t shy about fingering the previous council’s wrong turns. She alleged that, in the past few years, there had been “a sharp uptick in policy-setting council initiatives, many of which passed through committee review quickly with scant public input and came to vote with minimal debate.” She blamed the council policies for “businesses ceasing operations and leaving town, small housing providers pulling their below-market-rate rentals off the market, and a police department hobbled by dangerous low staffing levels.”
She vowed that under her leadership, “this council won’t externalize our policy-making authority,” catering to special interests. She declared that the council will be responsive to constituents who are demanding faster progress on homelessness and public safety and on getting the city’s fiscal house in order.
That’s easy to say, but squaring city finances will be a steep, almost impossible task for the newbies. The council will be tasked with somehow balancing a 2025-27 biennial budget despite a $220 million (and growing) per-year deficit. Nelson already has made the fiscal problem more problematic by pushing to spend more on things like police and the fentanyl crisis while discrediting any quick resort to new taxes. How to accomplish that miracle?
She insists (drum roll) “the real problem is spending.” She wants council to exercise its oversight role more rigorously. She expects the council “to define the specific outcomes expected from service providers and measure their performance regularly.” Her challenge: “We must have the political will to evaluate and change course if necessary.”
All of this rhetoric sounds like austerity ahead. It also rings of shadow backing from the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce — no surprise since some chamber members were prominent in election campaign expenditures.
Nevertheless, it’s too soon to fault Nelson for her aspirations for the new council. She rightly observed that the newbies are “an incredibly accomplished and professionally diverse set of new members joining our ranks.” Two of the newcomers – Cathy Moore and Maritza Rivera — have government backgrounds, and Nelson herself is no underachiever. She served for 10 years as an aide to Richard Conlin, who led the council in opposing then Mayor Mike McGinn on Viaduct replacement, before joining her husband in running the Fremont Brewery.
Nelson concluded her valedictory op-ed predicting the council will change the way it operates — coming to work in person for starters. She said Seattleites can expect to see “a major reset in tone and direction at City Hall.” She has defined her territory and now she will be patrolling the perimeter, trying to make good on her politically fraught promises.