The two more expensive and competitive contests of the three Bellevue City Council races hinge on whether voters want incumbents who say they will preserve “the Bellevue Way,” or want a new face making decisions in the rapidly growing, largely affluent city.
In the Position 2 race, longtime incumbent Conrad Lee is running against challenger Dexter Borbe, who owns and operates Interim HealthCare, a home health care and nurse staffing agency. Lee was first elected to the Bellevue City Council in 1994 and chosen by City Council members to be deputy mayor in 2010 and mayor in 2012. Lee has raised $166,000, and Borbe has raised $52,466, as of Wednesday.
In the Position 4 race, one-term incumbent and Deputy Mayor Jared Nieuwenhuis is running against Ruth Lipscomb, a retired software engineer who was among the first 300 employees at Microsoft. The Position 4 race is the most expensive municipal contest outside Seattle, with a combined $295,000 in contributions. Nieuwenhuis has raised $165,725 and Lipscomb $130,347.
In a third race, for the Position 6 seat on the seven-member council, Mayor Lynne Robinson is running against Dr. Gina Johnson, a naturopathic physician who owns an integrative medical practice. Robinson has raised $57,809, and Johnson has raised $8,357.
Ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday or placed in a King County Elections drop box by 8 p.m. that day.
The state’s fifth-largest city faces an incoming wave of new Amazon construction and employees — the company plans to accommodate more than 20,000 workers by 2025 — amid ongoing concerns about affordable homes, homelessness and public safety throughout the area. Other issues include climate change initiatives, transportation and transit, and equity in the majority-minority city.
The high stakes are reflected in campaign contributions and outside spending. Lee, Nieuwenhuis and Lipscomb have raised more money than any city council candidate outside of Seattle, according to state campaign finance data.
Meanwhile, the Eastside Business Alliance has spent more than $168,000 in support of the three incumbents, with $153,000 in support of Nieuwenhuis and an additional $10,900 against Lipscomb.
Nieuwenhuis is the city’s deputy mayor — the City Council chooses a mayor and deputy mayor among themselves every two years — and the marketing director for Kalypso Media Group. Born in Canada to Dutch parents, he has lived in Bellevue for 20 years.
In his time on the council, he says he is especially proud of the work council members did to make up the $32 million shortfall in the city budget driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. The City Council in December 2020 approved the budget, which included transferring $6 million to the general fund from the capital investment program and eliminating open staff positions, among other measures.
“Now to see Bellevue recovering so quickly, it’s great to see, but certainly having to make some real critical decisions and work with staff so closely to balance the budget was really important work,” he said.
He also cited his efforts to streamline the permitting process for 5G wireless infrastructure, and calling out violations within the ARCH (A Regional Coalition for Housing) program.
Lipscomb worked at Microsoft from 1983 to 1994 and has lived in Bellevue for nearly 40 years. She said she decided to run for City Council because she thinks the city “hasn’t been bold enough in its actions and solutions,” especially surrounding affordable housing, climate change and public safety.
People are overburdened by housing costs, Lipscomb said, from workers unable to buy a house in Bellevue and settle down to older adults who feel stuck in their houses because they can’t afford to downsize. She would like to see the city adjust its zoning laws as a way to increase housing, such as allowing backyard cottages.
She referred to her work on several organizational boards, such as the Progress Alliance of Washington, Fuse Washington and League of Education Voters, and connections with state legislators and City Council members.
“I think I have the relationships necessary to build consensus around these issues,” she said. “I also feel I just have an aptitude for diving into data and really examining through problems and building consensus. I’ve been on so many nonprofit boards where consensus-building is key to getting things done.”
Nieuwenhuis’ campaign has pushed that Lipscomb wants to defund the police department, which Lipscomb said isn’t true. Nieuwenhuis pointed to comments she made at a council meeting in July 2020, when she asked that a portion of the police budget be moved to other budget areas “that more equitably support the well-being of our fellow citizens.”
In a virtual candidate forum, Lipscomb said “defund the police” is a slogan “intended to inflame and is not a policy proposal.”
She would like the city to have mental health first responders who can go out on 911 calls, which she believes would allow for better outcomes for people who are having mental health or addiction issues.
The Bellevue Police Officers Guild has endorsed Nieuwenhuis. His other endorsements include The Seattle Times editorial board (which operates separately and independently from the newsroom), Councilmember Conrad Lee and Mayor Lynne Robinson.
Lipscomb’s endorsements include Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and three Bellevue City Councilmembers: Janice Zahn, Jeremy Barksdale and John Stokes.
For nearly 28 years, Councilmember Conrad Lee has had a front-row seat to Bellevue’s evolution from a small, majority-white suburb to a bustling city where more than half of all residents are people of color and the median home value is more than $1 million. In addition to his almost three decades on council, he was also deputy mayor in 2010 and 2011 and mayor in 2012 and 2013.
In the August primary, he received 57% of the vote against the three other candidates, getting double the number of votes received by Dexter Borbe. By the time Borbe filed for candidacy, Lee had already raised the same amount Borbe has raised now.
Given Lee’s political connections, campaign funding and primary election performance, his win seems likely. Borbe, however, has received several significant endorsements, including three Bellevue council members and Mayor Lynne Robinson.
Lee was born in China and moved to Hong Kong when he was 10, then came to Seattle to attend Seattle Pacific College. He worked as an engineer for Boeing and Seattle Solid Waste Utility, and as a U.S. Small Business Administration regional administrator. He has lived in Bellevue since 1967.
“I am very proud of what I have done and am doing as part of Bellevue City Council and former mayor,” he said in an email. “Good things do not happen overnight and by accident and simply wishing. It takes action based on passion, commitment and abilities and experience and relationship developed over the years.”
His campaign has touted his experience on the council and continued focus on issues such as public safety and keeping taxes low, and his ability in a diverse city to bring different groups together. In its endorsement, the Eastside Business Alliance said Lee has been “breaking down barriers for years.”
Borbe was born in the Philippines to a Chinese family and worked in Manila and Singapore before moving to the U.S. He lived in the Seattle area from 2004 to 2006, then moved in Houston, though he said while living there he wanted to come back to Bellevue specifically. He and his family returned three years ago.
He acknowledged that Lee has done “good things in his career” but said it’s time for a new voice and energy on the council. The focus of his campaign is affordability, and how that affects both residents and the thousands of workers who come to the city each day. He would like to look at zoning decisions and envisions more mixed-use developments, such as Juanita Village in Kirkland, which provides housing with a proximity to retail and other amenities.
In a virtual forum hosted by the Eastside Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, Lee said that expensive housing is a “good problem to have,” because “we don’t want to go to a place where housing doesn’t cost anything, because that means people don’t want to go there.” But he has said Bellevue has done more for affordable housing in six months than other cities. In July, for example, he and fellow City Council members voted to spend $8 million to fund three affordable housing projects.
Borbe took issue with Lee’s statement about expensive housing being a “good problem to have.”
“I think the biggest difference is I am trying to look to the future and how livable and affordable Bellevue can be, and I think he is more concerned about maintaining the current situation,” Borbe said.
In addition to the Eastside Business Alliance, Lee’s endorsements include the Bellevue Police Officers Guild, Bellevue Councilmember Jennifer Robertson and Bellevue Firefighters.
Borbe’s endorsements include The Seattle Times editorial board, the Sierra Club and King County Democrats.
Dr. Gina Johnson is challenging Mayor Lynne Robinson for the Position 6 seat, which Robinson has held since 2014.
Robinson, a physical therapist, served as deputy mayor in 2018 and 2019, and was selected mayor in 2020. Her biggest priority, she said, is homelessness, and specifically housing the students in the Bellevue School District who are experiencing homelessness. In East King County, which includes Bellevue, 446 people were living unsheltered in a 2020 point-in-time count. In the 2020-21 school year, 240 Bellevue students were homeless at some point throughout the year, according to the state superintendent’s office.
“People on the outside may not recognize that Bellevue has a homeless problem, but we have women, men, families, children, adolescents, and we really need to step up and create solutions to not only help people who are homeless, but prevent people from experiencing future homelessness,” she said.
She said the city is doing its best, but needs to do more. She pointed to the city’s plans for the Eastside’s first permanent, year-round shelter for men, which will be ready in spring 2023 at the earliest. Other focuses include building on the city’s affordable housing efforts and addressing climate change through work like reevaluating the city’s tree codes.
Johnson was raised in the Pacific Northwest, worked as an acute care nurse in Seattle-area hospitals and is a naturopathic physician. In a Bellevue Downtown Association candidate forum, she said she is a “fresh, yet experienced voice for public safety and economic opportunity.”
She declined a Seattle Times interview. In an August interview with Ari Hoffman on KVI AM 570, Johnson said she was motivated to run after a protest in May 2020 turned violent and led Bellevue to declare a civil emergency.
She supports expanding funding for police and fire services, “responsible city spending” and reopening in-person city services and City Council meetings, according to her campaign website. She opposes tax and fee increases and “restrictive mandates, which hurt small businesses and working families.”
Robinson’s endorsements include The Seattle Times editorial board, Alliance for Gun Responsibility and Sierra Club.
Johnson’s endorsements include state Rep. Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup; former Bainbridge Island police chief Bill Cooper; and the American Coalition for Equality.