Many of the competitive Seattle City Council races this year can be viewed as encounters between two types of liberals with different approaches and priorities.
Seattle politics are monochrome, but many City Council races this year can be seen as clashes between two different shades of blue.
Council President Tim Burgess, who presides over the council’s more cautious caucus, is defending his citywide seat against a challenge from passionate progressive Jon Grant, the former executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative Party and an insistent voice on the council’s activist wing, is seeking re-election against Pamela Banks, who’s promised to “solve more problems with a telephone than a megaphone.”
Two other competitive races in the Nov. 3 general election — in District 1 and District 4 — can be seen in much the same way.
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“These Seattle City Council races are about different versions of progressives,” said Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Fuse Washington, a liberal advocacy group that doesn’t waste much energy in Seattle because the city is so overwhelmingly blue.
“You have a more moderate version and then you have a more fiery version. You see that running through a lot of these races — not all of them, but most.”
Some candidates in the officially nonpartisan City Council races are uncomfortable being lumped in with one camp or the other.
Shannon Braddock, chief of staff to Metropolitan King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, expressed anxiety over the summer when an independent expenditure committee bankrolled by corporate interests backed her District 1 primary bid.
Candidates who attract business dollars risk being viewed as more conservative. That’s the way former 34th District Democrats chairman Ivan Weiss sees it.
“There are no Republicans left in Seattle, but big money has gone where it can go,” said Weiss, who’s supporting Braddock’s opponent, Lisa Herbold. “Big money buys Democrats now. We have Democrats split into a money party and a people party.”
Braddock said her experience in county government and volunteer work in District 1, which covers West Seattle, Delridge and South Park, is what should set her apart.
“You can’t completely control the narrative, which can be frustrating,” she said.
Herbold has the reverse problem. The aide to retiring City Councilmember Nick Licata released a message recently slamming a phone poll that linked her to Sawant.
“These calls accuse me of campaigning to bring a ‘socialist agenda’ to West Seattle and South Park,” Herbold wrote, unhappy with her portrayal as a political radical.
Braddock said her campaign neither commissioned the poll nor approved it. But the attacks on Herbold will continue. The Rental Housing Association of Washington has gone after her because she’s more open to Seattle possibly enacting rent control.
“This year’s … elections are a crucial point for Seattle and your future as a rental-property owner,” the group’s external-affairs director wrote in an email to members last month about Braddock. “Several candidates, including Lisa Herbold, are known to strongly favor tenants and increasing regulations against rental-property owners.”
Council councilmember McDermott wrote voters recently about Braddock’s “race against an opponent who’s more interested in advancing an ideological agenda than addressing the issues.”
The District 1 candidates disagree on other counts; Braddock is comfortable with Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to boost housing affordability, while Herbold worries it won’t halt displacement quickly enough. But they share a desire to not be pigeonholed.
Candidates can be pigeonholed based on whom they receive support from as much as what they believe, said King County Young Democrats chairman Ian Jacobson.
“You have your grass-roots people and then you have your candidates backed by more moneyed interests, even though they may not be spectacularly pro-business,” Jacobson said. “You have groups deciding, ‘This is the person we can tolerate best.’ ”
Braddock is one such candidate. The independent expenditure committee backing her is largely funded by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s political organization.
In District 3, Banks is that candidate. Much of the roughly $300,000 raised by her campaign has come from the restaurant, retail and real-estate industries. Sawant’s $325,000-plus haul has been powered by contributors connected with labor unions.
Jan Teague, president of the Washington Retail Association, said her group is under no illusion any Seattle politician will run an explicitly business-friendly campaign. But certain council hopefuls have been less responsive than others, she said. Five, including Sawant, ignored her group’s candidate questionnaire, Teague said.
“We just ask that leaders be willing to hear what retailers think, and some candidates have been open to that,” she said. “People like Sawant won’t even talk to us.”
The two women of color running to represent District 3 — which includes the Central District, Montlake and Capitol Hill — butt heads most prominently on housing issues.
Sawant wants to repeal a state law so the city can enact rent control and has called for maximum fees on developers to help build and preserve affordable housing. Banks opposes rent control and is less bullish on developer fees.
Because Sawant was a leader in the successful campaign for a higher minimum wage here, some interpret the race as a referendum on the movement for better pay.
“In another race we might really like Pamela, but in this one the contrast is so clear and there are larger implications from a messaging perspective,” said Ostrom, of Fuse Washington.
Even where candidates representing the two strains of Seattle politics agree, as Sawant and Banks do in various areas, policymaking priorities can set them apart.
“I’m talking about solutions for this district and city. The things she’s known for are national, socialist policies people are trying to enact across the country,” Banks said.
The District 3 candidates both argue the city should increase funding for Career Bridge, a program connecting men of color with jobs. But Banks, who raised a son in the Central District, has said she would pay closer attention to crime and public safety — working with the police. Sawant has been vocal on reforming the police department.
“These coalitions have different agendas,” said Jacobson, of the Young Dems. “What are you going to address right away? Rent control and workers’ rights or other stuff?”
The District 4 race is a case in point. Rob Johnson, a transportation wonk with campaign contributions from the same business groups as Braddock and Banks, has outraised his opponent, Mike Maddux, a paralegal and Democratic Party activist.
The two 30-somethings vying to represent Northeast Seattle and Eastlake get along well and share many stances. But Johnson describes himself as a collaborative champion of density, while Maddux emphasizes social justice.
Like Braddock, Johnson supports Murray’s housing-affordability agenda. Like Herbold, Maddux would like to see the plan ask more from developers sooner.
“The races come down to priorities,” Maddux reiterated. “Everybody wants good stuff, but what will your primary focuses be? Mine are affordability and revenue reform.”
Maddux noted his endorsement by the Transit Riders Union, alongside Herbold, Sawant and Grant, saying they were “some of us who are considered to be more on the left.”
Johnson objected, citing endorsements by many environmental groups and unions.
“This race isn’t about who’s more progressive — we both are,” he said. “The focus has been on where our experience is and how we would each implement policies.”
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But Grant made it through a crowded primary with 30.8 percent of the vote by railing against inequality while promising to be bolder than Burgess. He argues, for example, the city should immediately provide financial assistance to homeowners with underwater mortgages and use bonding authority to pay for low-income housing.
“This has been the fault line in Seattle politics for several years and these are the candidates who did well in the primary,” said political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, noting that the candidates who ran on other platforms underwhelmed.
“You have the populist progressives who are about standing firm in your beliefs. Then you have the compromiser progressives who believe in consensus and bringing people together,” added Kaushik, who’s served as spokesman for the pro-Braddock independent-expenditure committee and one for Johnson
Some politics-watchers warn against viewing the general election as blue versus deeper blue. Ryan Bayne, a lobbyist for businesses, said Seattle’s most liberal politicians begin to sound conservative when they oppose density in the name of preventing displacement.
“To the extent they exist, these differences are more about style than substance,” he said, citing the 2013 mayoral race between Murray and then-Mayor Mike McGinn.
“Ed and Mike were very similar on policies. One was more collaborative and the other more ideological. Some candidates are a hammer and everything is a nail.”
Braddock, Banks, Johnson and Burgess have each secured endorsements from some labor unions, so no race is a clear-cut struggle between bosses and workers.
“Our members made calls on who would be the best individuals. We didn’t look at slates,” said Tom Geiger, communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which has endorsed Herbold, Sawant, Johnson and Grant.
The president of the League of Women Voters, Amanda Clark, said her group concentrates on problems rather than combative politics — because most people in Seattle care most about commuting safely to a good job from an affordable home.
But politics matter — because a shift in the balance of power between Sawant and Burgess could change how the council does business and what it spends time on.
The showdown isn’t a zero-sum game, though. Voters in District 3, for example, will have the option of voting for both Sawant and Burgess, Ostrom noted. “That’s the interesting thing about this election,” he said. “Voters may decide Seattle needs a mix.”