Of all candidates running for local office in Washington, Bellevue City Council incumbent Conrad Lee has raised more money than any contender outside Seattle.
His more than $100,000 in funding, 27 years of experience, and political connections dwarf those of his three challengers, who are all first-time candidates. But the challengers have all stressed that they believe it’s time for a change on the council in a rapidly changing city.
Lee, Dexter Borbe, Johan Christensen and Christie Sanam Lo are running for the Bellevue City Council Position 2 seat in the Aug. 3 primary election. All Bellevue City Council positions are at large, meaning that they are open to all Bellevue voters to represent the city. The top two winners will move on to the November general election.
Two other Bellevue City Council races have only two candidates each and so will automatically head to the November election.
Council members will be tasked with addressing housing affordability in a city where the median home value is more than $1 million, and also rising rates of homelessness as part of a regional homelessness effort. A 100-bed shelter for men, the only permanent, year-round men’s shelter on the Eastside, is expected to open in Bellevue in spring 2023, at the earliest. Lee voted against the site, which is in the city’s Eastgate neighborhood.
One of the most recent significant changes to Bellevue is the arrival of Amazon, which plans to accommodate more than 20,000 employees by 2025. Three of four candidates have some connection to the company — Lee received campaign funding from Amazon, Sanam Lo is an Amazon project manager and Borbe used to work there.
When Lee, 82, was first voted to the City Council, he recalled, he became the first person of color to sit on the council in a city of mostly white residents. Now, more than half of Bellevue residents are people of color, and 39% were, like Lee, born outside the U.S. That representation matters, he said.
“It’s very important, and it’s getting to be more important than it used to be,” he said. “The country is more divided, more polarized, and I have proven to bridge that gap to bring people together.”
He is the longest-serving council member, and has been deputy mayor and mayor.
Lee said he is proud of how the city weathered the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The general fund fared better in 2020 than initially expected through a combination of federal funding, hiring delays and reduced costs because facilities were closed, according to the city of Bellevue.
His endorsements include Bellevue Firefighters, the Eastside Business Alliance and Bellevue Councilmember Jennifer Robertson.
Other sitting council members are split. Jeremy Barksdale and John Stokes, who has served with Lee for almost a decade, endorsed Borbe. Stokes said Borbe “is the type of person we need at this point in Bellevue.”
Borbe, who owns and operates a home health care and nurse staffing agency, has raised $18,500, mostly from personal contacts’ individual contributions. He lived in the Seattle area from 2004 to 2006 before moving to Houston. He and his family “always dreamed of coming back to Bellevue,” and returned three years ago.
The city is growing rapidly, Borbe said, and that impacts who can afford to live there. Borbe, who is 46, wants younger people to be able to buy a home, and older residents not to be pushed out of homes they have lived in for decades because they are cost burdened. He would like to revisit zoning rules and look at where mixed-use areas, such as Juanita Village in Kirkland, could be built.
“I think it’s time for imaginative leadership in the City Council,” Borbe said. “Part of my background is in strategy and management, and I can bring that to the city of Bellevue, and how we would like to make sure everyone in Bellevue is accommodated. Not only people who are above median income, but also people are struggling.”
Sanam, 38, an Amazon project manager, said she was inspired to run for office amid the 2020 racial justice protests and the pandemic. She would like to focus on voter disenfranchisement, an issue she doesn’t think is talked about enough.
She would like to advocate for residents who may feel that their voice doesn’t matter, she said.
She hasn’t received any formal funding, but has been active on social media about her campaign. Funding and campaigning, she added, can be a double-edged sword.
“If I put my name on signs, it’s polluting the environment, if I have handouts, it’s bad for the environment,” she said. “I think there have to be some brilliant politicians who don’t have the funds to go to a boot camp or hire a campaign manager. If I can’t figure out how to do all of it myself, I think there is a systemic issue.”
Christensen, 24, grew up in Bellevue and returned after graduate school. He decided to run, he said, because “my city is disappearing before my eyes,” noting how low-income families are being pushed out by rising housing costs.
Though rent control is illegal in Washington state, Christensen said he would like to start a conversation in support of rent control “if and when” it becomes legal. He said he would also like to add a local income tax and reduce property taxes, and look at new ways to address affordable housing.