As viable Seattle politicians go, Albert Shen and Kshama Sawant could not be much more different.
Shen is a small-business owner pitching himself as a Mr. Fix-It for the city — a pragmatist with the skills to address traffic and roads. Sawant is a socialist soldier.
Shen says business groups deserve more of a voice in city policy decisions. Sawant says those groups already are the ones with the loudest voice.
But the two candidates have a common trait: Both would shake up the City Council.
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“If there is some commonality, they represent a desire for change. Both would bring a diversity in terms of policy perspectives and, actually, ethnically,” said Peter Steinbrueck, a former council president who ran unsuccessfully for mayor this year.
Shen, a Chinese American who is challenging first-term incumbent Mike O’Brien from the political right, and Sawant, an Indian American who is challenging fourth-term incumbent Richard Conlin from the political left, highlight an otherwise sleepy slate of council races.
Councilmembers Nick Licata and Sally Bagshaw are expected to coast to re-election against unfunded opponents.
Shen and Sawant each won about 35 percent of the vote in three-way primary races, indicating they have a shot at upsets.
But they still haven’t gotten much attention amid a heated mayoral race.
When a Seattle Times reporter called current council President Sally Clark, who is not up for election this year, to ask her about the council races, she all but gasped.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Somebody’s writing about that?”
Clark struggled to say how an upset victory by a challenger could change the council dynamic.
“You have the reality that in order to push something forward, you need five votes,” she said. “That’s the part that never changes.”
But the University of Washington’s J. Patrick Dobel said the emergence of such unusual challengers could be a sign of the evolving nature of the council.
Dobel, a professor in the Evans School of Public Affairs, said the council has become more independent and aggressive under Mayor Mike McGinn.
And, he said, the challengers — especially Sawant — are themselves seeking to be independent and aggressive.
“That makes this year’s elections really important,” Dobel said.
Shen began his challenge by making the race a referendum on Mayor McGinn, an old friend of O’Brien. Shen even sent out mailers with photos of O’Brien literally in McGinn’s pocket and on his finger as a puppet.
But since receiving just 34 percent to O’Brien’s 59 percent in the August primary (David Ishii took 7 percent), Shen has focused more on traditional issues.
The 46-year-old owner of a small civil-engineering firm, who has raised about $170,000 for his campaign, has emphasized public safety in the aftermath of high-profile incidents like last month’s fatal stabbing of a Shoreline Community College professor in Pioneer Square.
The first step to solving the problem, Shen said, is to reintroduce an ordinance to ban aggressive panhandling on city streets.
“Some people, I’m sorry, they need to be arrested. A line needs to be drawn,” Shen said. “Police need to have power legislatively to make arrests.”
An aggressive-panhandling ordinance passed the council but was vetoed by McGinn in 2010. The council failed to override the veto when O’Brien voted no.
O’Brien said in an interview that police already have tools to address street disorder when they need to.
“But we also know that there are a large number of people who are without shelter, a lot of them with mental-health challenges, and a lot of them with addiction problems and those challenges,” he said. “That’s not a crime.”
Shen also wants to build a new light-rail station at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Graham Street, and establish a program to give high-school graduates a year of free community-college tuition.
O’Brien, a 45-year-old former financial officer at a law firm who has raised about $135,000, has focused his campaign on first-term accomplishments — including championing bills to ban plastic bags and create an opt-out program for yellow-pages phone-book deliveries to save paper.
He also is a strong supporter of Proposition 1, which would create a public-financing system for future council elections and, O’Brien says, reduce the influence of money.
Shen opposes the idea, saying it would give incumbents an unfair advantage.
Both candidates said the debate on the campaign trail has been cordial.
“In another situation,” O’Brien said, “maybe a month from now, I could see that Albert and I would enjoy getting a beer together.”
It is hard to see Sawant and Conlin getting a beer together. The two have been trading increasingly personal attacks since the primary: In interviews, Sawant said Conlin “can’t be called upon for even a modicum of integrity,” and Conlin dismissed Sawant’s candidacy by saying that she “doesn’t know what she’s running for.”
Sawant, a 40-year-old Seattle Central Community College economics instructor who has raised about $50,000, accuses Conlin of being in the pocket of big business and a “leading member of the council’s conservative caucus” — an attack the longtime incumbent finds “absolutely hysterical.”
“There’s no such thing as a conservative caucus in the Seattle City Council,” he said.
Conlin, a 65-year-old who has raised more than $200,000, has in the past been seen as a mainstream liberal. This year, he’s been endorsed by the King County Democrats, King County Labor Council, Washington Conservation Voters and other groups.
Sawant took an unexpected 35 percent in the primary, leaving Conlin at less than 48 percent (Brian Carver took 17 percent).
Sawant has done it by mounting an energetic, populist and grass-roots campaign that won the
endorsement of The Stanger and scores of young voters.
In candidate forums, she consistently stays on message by pushing three platform points: a tax on millionaires, rent control and a $15 minimum wage for all workers in the city.
“I’m running as a proud independent, not affiliated with either of the two big-business parties,” she said, pointing to rising income inequality here and across the country. “I am the only candidate who will fight for the workers of Seattle.”
Conlin said the council is prevented by law from implementing a millionaire’s tax or rent control. He said he wants to raise people out of poverty through training programs and a sound city economic strategy.
He noted that when Sawant posted an online advertisement looking for campaign workers, she listed the pay at $10 an hour — a move the Sawant campaign says was an oversight.
Conlin has questioned why Sawant did not register to vote until last year; she explained that she became a citizen in 2010 and had to get into the habit of voting.
Sawant accused Conlin of engaging in negative attacks reminiscent of “Karl Rove-style politics.”
The two remaining races are not nearly as fiery.
Licata, a fourth-term incumbent most recently known for sponsoring Seattle’s paid sick-leave policy, is facing Edwin Fruit, the husband of unsuccessful mayoral hopeful Mary Martin.
Bagshaw, the council’s parks committee chairwoman, is facing Sam Bellomio, a well-known gadfly who recently was disciplined by the council for calling Councilmember Tim Burgess an inappropriate name.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal