In a sense, Abdiwahab Cumar is a typical Puget Sound voter. He’s worried about housing-cost increases, partly because he pays a huge chunk of his monthly income on rent. In another sense, however, the paraeducator was a special voter in the Nov. 2 election, because he cast one of the region’s 4,772 most consequential ballots.

By supporting challengers in three races for SeaTac City Council, Cumar and his neighbors helped reshape who leads the small but politically important suburb they call home.

The candidates Cumar voted for each unseated their incumbent opponents, delivering the seven-member council a new, progressive majority and ensuring that SeaTac residents, two-thirds of whom are people of color, will be represented mostly by people of color.

Mohamed Egal, one of the three winners, described the elections as a choice between exclusive and inclusive visions, and a referendum on “the old SeaTac — those who claim they own this city and don’t want to share it.”

“We want them,” said Egal, a social worker and court interpreter. “But we also want a place for the people who get up in the morning and take someone for $20 from the airport to Seattle. The Uber drivers, the taxi drivers.”

Egal, Jake Simpson and Iris Guzmán won their races as three progressive candidates in Seattle were defeated, attracting notice in the big city and calling attention to efforts by political groups to make change throughout South King County.

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Yet in the electoral landscape in SeaTac, the issues involved were hyperlocal, not least because multiple actions by the council in recent years have caused consternation among the city’s many residents with East African roots, and because residents of various backgrounds are struggling to make ends meet.

Simpson, Egal and Guzmán are optimistic their pledges to bolster social services like after-school programs will help, despite warnings by their opponents to exercise budgetary caution.

“People are fleeing from SeaTac” as housing costs rise, Cumar said, speaking with Simpson and Egal on an embroidered-style sofa in his apartment near the airport and the mosque where he met the candidates last summer.

The backstory

Hugging Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on three sides, SeaTac has 31,000 residents and 15,000 registered voters. Just 32% took part in the Nov. 2 elections, but the suburb has long been a political battlefield.

In 2013, labor activists made SeaTac and the airport a national proving ground in their push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, running a ballot measure with appeal for the city’s many service workers.

The initiative passed by 77 votes, bringing a $15 minimum wage to SeaTac before Seattle, Chicago and New York. But as the minimum wage battle moved on, debates in SeaTac kept swirling, with multiple incumbents losing their seats in 2015 in what they described as a corporate-conservative backlash to the wage change and a new utility tax.

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“When a little city” is used for an experiment and then abandoned, “the ramifications are great,” said state Rep. Mia Gregerson, one of the council losers in the 2015 wave. “We got caught in the middle.”

Councilmember Peter Kwon, who was first elected in 2015 and who calls himself politically nonpartisan, says the reboot saved the city. SeaTac was running a deficit at the time; by the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, wrecking a budget dependent on hotel stays, the city had built up healthy reserves and was able to weather a sharp reduction in tax revenue, Kwon said.

Along the way, noted Councilmember Clyde “Fuzz” Hill, the incumbent defeated by Egal, the city built sidewalks, renovated soccer fields, and contracted with nonprofits to provide English classes and job training — without increasing property taxes.

Across King County, “No city today is in a better financial situation and has not cut any public services,” Kwon said, calling SeaTac “a model city.”

Whatever strides the existing council may point to, however, have been overshadowed for many residents by a series of controversies.

A city manager resigned after an investigation revealed that he wanted to create a “tactical map” of SeaTac’s Muslim residents. A judge found that the city had years earlier engaged in a secret land grab, with a mayor intent on driving Somali refugees out of his neighborhood. Another mayor stepped down amid allegations he had, in his own law practice, swindled a vulnerable client. The current mayor, Erin Sitterley, caught flak for appearing to support then-President Donald Trump on social media. (In SeaTac, a council member serves as mayor and a city manager runs operations.)

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Sitterley declined to be interviewed. Councilmember Pam Fernald, the incumbent defeated by Guzmán, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Tensions also erupted when the city sold property to a housing developer, displacing dozens of Somali and other immigrant businesses from a shopping complex there. Frustrations flared when the city banned parking on a street next to apartments where many ride-hail drivers live, and when a mobile home park with mostly Hispanic residents shut down.

The demolition of the SeaTac Center shopping complex left a special sting. Kwon blames the angst on misunderstandings and notes that some of the businesses ultimately reopened at newer venues with help from the city. But many SeaTac residents say council members mishandled the matter, downplaying concerns that the development would destroy a community hub where weddings were held.

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A ferry passes the Seattle skyline during sunset on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.  218504

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For Sahra Abdulle, whose store in SeaTac Center was involved in a dispute with the city and was displaced, the takeaway was: “If you talk, they don’t care. If you tell your problems, they don’t care.”

Such incidents caused heartache in SeaTac but also stirred activism, as some residents teamed up with the Working Families Party. WFP is a national group with a progressive bent and a Washington state chapter that’s carved out a niche in South King County since 2017.

WFP waded into the SeaTac Center matter after helping Tukwila business owners whose shops, on the same stretch of International Boulevard near a light-rail station, were shut down to make way for that city’s new police station. There were protests, letters and meetings, recalled Tawfik Maudah, whose car sales company was displaced by the Tukwila project. The aim was to support residents during and between elections.

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“They said, ‘We’ll show you how to organize,’ and people responded,” said Maudah, now a WFP leader.

That worked started to pay off in 2019, when four new candidates — including Egal — ran for council seats. Takele Gobena and Senayet Negusse, both Ethiopian American, won their races.

Even then, the progressives were outnumbered. Proposals by Gobena to create committees related to diversity and youth stalled, and the council majority allocated a substantial amount of COVID-19 relief funds to laptops for city workers rather than rental assistance, he says. Kwon says Gobena’s proposals stalled due to inadequate information and argues the city was already providing enough assistance

Simpson, also a union organizer, and Guzmán, a Highline Public Schools social worker, decided to run this year partly because they agreed the city’s pandemic relief was lacking. Egal joined them, in his second bid.

Door-knocking

The three candidates are nothing alike. Egal is a 55-year-old Somali immigrant with grandchildren. Simpson is a 31-year-old white guy from Covington who organized hotel workers in SeaTac before moving to the city. Guzmán is a 43-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants from Los Angeles. Their politics span the Democratic Party spectrum.

But they chose to campaign together, holding strategy sessions among tea-sipping patrons at Abdulle’s Tabarak Minimarket in an International Boulevard strip mall. Across the street, where SeaTac Center previously stood, new apartments shrouded in green construction netting are rising.

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“We’re people who, if there’s an opportunity to serve the community, we’re going to do that,” said Guzmán, who helped create a food pantry at Tyee High School to help fill what she described as a void in the city.

This was no David versus Goliath story. Egal, Simpson and Guzmán were endorsed by Democratic Party groups and politicians like U.S. Rep. Adam Smith. Supporters like WFP and OneAmerica, the immigrant rights organization, dispatched volunteer canvassers. The challengers each raised over $30,000, much more than their opponents, partly from labor unions

“This wasn’t a contest, it was a massacre,” said Stan Tombs, a council appointee who lost to Simpson.

Egal, Simpson and Guzmán say their campaigns were tough, nonetheless, because the incumbents, criticized as conservative by the challengers and recommended by the King County Republican Party, had support from old-guard homeowners, like those around Angle Lake.

“Our opponents tried to view us as ‘outsiders.’ That’s coded language. It’s racist. It’s xenophobic,” Guzmán said. “I’ve lived here for over 14 years.”

More than endorsements and money, the challengers attribute their success to something else: knocking on hundreds of doors their opponents didn’t. They repeatedly visited the houses and rental complexes that crowd International Boulevard, climbing up and down exterior stairwells to speak not only with reliable voters but with residents who skip most elections (they had access to a Democratic Party database with that information). Long-haul truckers. Airport wheelchair assistants. Baggage handlers.

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Egal, Simpson and Guzmán each secured more than 60% in many of the voting precincts with apartment and condo complexes and also won some single-family neighborhoods.

They also spent time in Bow Lake Mobile Home Park, a mazelike community by the airport with several hundred residents. That’s where Simpson met Shirley Gile, 75, who calls her lake-view trailer “my little spot of heaven.” The candidate showing up meant a lot to Gile, partly because the incumbents never bothered, she said.

“I liked what Jake had to say. But to be honest with you … I’m not a political person,” Gile said. “People here aren’t deciding who’s left or right. They’re voting by face-to-face communication for people who obviously care.”

Because SeaTac is a small city, the challengers were able to meet a healthy percentage of voters in person, and because fewer than 5,000 voters took part in the Nov. 2 elections, every conversation was crucial, Simpson said.

Tombs says the progressive slate’s tactics were improper, claiming they used dubious promises to persuade voters ignorant of how government works. Neither the candidates nor their supporters have attended enough council meetings to understand how the city works, he contends.

“You go there and browbeat them (people who don’t always vote), and they never seek a second opinion,” he said. “This is not democracy. … This is how despots get elected. These are Third World tactics.”

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The challengers say that’s wrong and offensive. Rather than pressure voters for support, they led with questions like, “What’s going on in your life?” and “What do you want to know?” That approach seemed to resonate, and the resulting conversations altered Simpson’s own mindset, causing him to think more about issues like streetlights and mold in apartments, he said.

When the campaign began, Simpson said, his attitude verged on “we have to do socialism in SeaTac or something.” Now he hopes to “meet people where they’re at and try to make their conditions better immediately.”

What’s next

There are multiple ways to interpret the SeaTac results.

For the WFP, they demonstrate how sustained organizing can empower community members and win at the ballot box, which could have a “ripple effect” across South King County.

“These are people who a lot of campaigns, both Democrat and Republican, don’t talk to. … People who are rarely asked to comment or vote,” said Margaret Cary with the WFP chapter. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I know they’re going to be more involved now, with developing the city’s agenda.”

Tombs is wondering whether to quit the city, citing the elections and crime.

“I see no reason to stay,” he said. “The citizens don’t want me in their government … They’ve decided to go in another direction.”

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For many residents with Somali backgrounds, the results in SeaTac and elsewhere are worth celebrating. Dozens of community members gathered at a Federal Way catering hall on Nov. 12 to party with Egal and three other newly elected leaders: Hamdi Mohamed (Port of Seattle), Mohamed Abdi (Tukwila City Council) and Awale Farah (Kent School Board).

Most SeaTac voters will evaluate the election results based on what happens next, as the progressives take charge on issues like housing.

Kwon describes the project under construction on the SeaTac Center site as a smart move because most of the roughly 600 new apartments will have rents capped for tenants making at or under 60% of the area’s median income.

Egal, Simpson and Guzmán are skeptical, and not only because of the displacement that occurred. The median income in SeaTac is much lower than in the Seattle area overall, they point out.

Their job is to deliver for all residents, including Cumar, who urged his neighbors to vote for the challengers. Fluent in Somali and Amharic, thanks to years spent in Ethiopia after fleeing war in Somalia, his voice helped.

During a recent visit, Egal and Simpson were exuberant, bursting with ideas for community policing and youth-led budgeting. Cumar listened quietly, then sent the new politicians off with a gentle reminder.

“We need you to come when it’s not an election year,” he said. “We’re expecting some change.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.