No matter what Seattle voters think about Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s tweets espousing “rabid hatred” for police, or Ann Davison’s embrace of the Republican Party, one of the two will be soon sworn in as city attorney.
The winner of the Nov. 2 general election will take charge of an office with 200 employees and a $35 million budget.
That includes not just the much-debated criminal division — which handles misdemeanor prosecutions for offenses including DUI, shoplifting and assault — but also the larger civil division, which gives legal advice to city agencies and defends laws passed by the City Council.
So what would they do with that authority?
Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender and first-time candidate, is an avowed abolitionist who says she’d work to reduce — and eventually eliminate — misdemeanor prosecutions, arguing they are wasteful and often amount to criminalizing poverty.
On the civil-law side, Thomas-Kennedy is vowing to defend progressive tax laws, sue fossil fuel companies and work to overturn the state’s ban on affirmative action.
Davison, an attorney and arbitrator making her third consecutive run for office, has been more vague about her plans, but has generally advocated a more aggressive stance toward repeat criminal offenders and burgeoning homeless encampments.
She sees the role of the civil division in less activist terms, providing unbiased legal advice and working to reduce lawsuit liabilities.
The unusual matchup has brought national attention to what is normally a low-profile race for an officially nonpartisan position.
A victory by Thomas-Kennedy would mark a radical shift, even for one of the nation’s most liberal cities, rejecting reform of policing and jails in favor of outright abolition. And if Davison prevails, she’d become the first Republican to hold a Seattle elected office in decades. Either would be the first woman to serve as city attorney, dating back to 1875.
Much of the attention in the race has focused on the state of misdemeanor prosecutions under incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes, who was squeezed out in the August primary after getting pilloried by Davison for being too lenient, and by Thomas-Kennedy for being too harsh.
Political rhetoric aside, the city attorney office’s annual reports show Seattle has cut back sharply on misdemeanor prosecutions since Holmes took office in 2010. In his first year, the city filed 13,421 misdemeanor cases — 70% of those forwarded by police. That dropped to 7,305 cases by 2019, representing 56% of those sent by police.
Some of the reductions stem from Holmes’ policy decisions, including deciding early on to stop filing most charges against people for driving with suspended licenses, and dismissing all pending marijuana charges (he later led a statewide initiative effort to decriminalize the drug).
Thomas-Kennedy says the city is still prosecuting too many people. Since placing first in the primary, she has stuck to her abolitionist stance, while emphasizing she wouldn’t immediately halt all prosecutions.
“We are not at the point of abolition yet. I don’t know that we will get there in my lifetime,” she said, pointing to the need to first scale up alternatives to police and jails.
Thomas-Kennedy’s perspective is informed by her four years as a public defender in King County. She represented clients in 662 cases, according to the county department of public defense.
In the near term, Thomas-Kennedy has pledged to not prosecute prostitution, saying sex work is often “survival work.” She also says the city should not prosecute drug crimes and opposes forced addiction treatment, favoring services and treatment on demand for those who are ready.
In response to complaints of widespread shoplifting plaguing businesses downtown and in other neighborhoods, Thomas-Kennedy has proposed a compensation fund to pay victims back for merchandise stolen by people who cannot afford to pay restitution.
Thomas-Kennedy cites cases of people being prosecuted for stealing a sandwich, or swiping donated items from Goodwill stores. A KUOW investigation in 2019 found 318 people had been charged by Seattle prosecutors for stealing from Goodwill in the previous year, nearly a third of them homeless.
“We’re not going to prosecute our way out of poverty,” she says.
Thomas-Kennedy also points to continuing racial disparities in policing despite years of reform efforts. A study released in July found Black people are five times more likely to be stopped and questioned by Seattle police than white people, and seven times more likely to be subjected to use of force.
“It’s not just one bad apple. It’s a culture that’s based on a foundation of racism and that’s how it’s still operating today,” said Thomas-Kennedy.
Thomas-Kennedy has been backed by every Democratic Party organization in Seattle, as well as by City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda, and Council President and mayoral candidate M. Lorena González.
But the prospect of an abolitionist city attorney has alarmed others in Seattle’s business and political establishment. Two former Democratic governors, Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, have endorsed Davison, along with ex-Seattle Mayors Greg Nickels, Wes Uhlman and Charles Royer.
Many business owners also worry about disorder getting even worse if policing and prosecutions decline further. More than 150 signed a recent letter by the Downtown Seattle Association to local elected leaders, citing rampant theft and organized fencing operations costing retailers millions of dollars in lost goods and security costs. They’ve asked for added police staffing as well as new housing and shelter programs.
“Crime downtown is unbearable,” said Marques Warren, owner of Downtown Spirits, a liquor store on 7th Avenue near Denny Park, who signed the letter. “If misdemeanors were no longer prosecuted and it were a free for all, I would have to reevaluate whether I want to have a business in this city.”
Warren said his store has faced aggressive shoplifters, and recently a man who was asked to leave responded by throwing a chunk of concrete at an employee and tried to smash a window, before continuing down the street committing additional assaults and property damage.
Despite years of inveighing against Seattle leaders over homelessness and crime, Davison is harder to pin down on specifics of how she’d address those issues if elected city attorney.
Her campaign website includes a minimalist platform including statements such as “continue bail reform progress,” which she did not expand on in interviews. She resists giving examples of specific crimes she’d prosecute more, repeating that she’ll review the office’s tactics and focus on high-impact offenses.
“I’m not someone who is going to be categorical,” Davison said. “I certainly will talk about things in a different way and make sure that we are seeing a way forward for the city for everyone’s benefit, to have respect and civility. And that means our laws mean something to us.”
Davison describes the city attorney’s office as a critical but currently dysfunctional link for public safety downtown and in neighborhoods. She says she’d strive to change the “status quo” after 12 years of Holmes’ leadership and create “a safer, more compassionate city for all of us.”
Seattle’s inability to adequately address crime and homelessness “has a cascading effect about the livability for our city,” Davison said, pointing to her conversations with business owners and residents who are “really crying for help.”
Thirty retired judges have endorsed Davison in an open letter calling her “clearly the most qualified” candidate. C. Kimi Kondo, a retired Seattle Municipal Court judge who signed the letter, called Thomas-Kennedy “an avowed anarchist who will dismantle the criminal justice apparatus and make the city’s problems much worse.”
Davison has minimal experience in criminal prosecutions, pointing back only to an internship as a law student, and has handled a handful of civil cases in local courts. She moved to Seattle in 1995 to take a job with the front office of the SuperSonics. Ten years later, after graduating from law school, she worked for a local law firm and started her own law practice. She has worked as an arbitrator, settling private disputes among businesses.
Davison says the city attorney job does not involve personally appearing in court, rather it’s about setting high-level priorities and working to prevent lawsuits and minimize the city’s legal liabilities.
During her 2019 City Council campaign and her run last year for lieutenant governor Davison criticized some Seattle government initiatives, such as efforts to tax big businesses and ban evictions during winter months.
Davison said as city attorney she’d defend laws passed by the City Council, regardless of her own views. “My role would be to give legal strategies for them to make decisions and then follow what they’ve decided, right? That’s the whole setup.”
But Thomas-Kennedy supporters argue Davison’s comparably conservative views might mean she’d less zealously defend progressive city laws. More than 200 attorneys have signed a letter of support for Thomas-Kennedy, urging voters to pay more attention to the civil-law side of the city attorney’s office.
Summer Stinson, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a progressive Seattle think tank, is among the signers. She worries Davison would not as enthusiastically defend laws such as the recently approved “Jump Start” payroll tax on larger businesses.
Stinson pointed to a political action committee, called Seattle for Common Sense, which has funded negative mailers against Thomas-Kennedy. The PAC has raised $325,000, with top contributors including Vulcan Inc., Microsoft President Brad Smith and real estate executive John Goodman.
“I think a lot of it does come down to corporate taxation,” Stinson said.
Warren, the store owner, said he’s not happy with the choices in the election. He worries about Davison’s “heavy handed” approach as well as Thomas-Kennedy’s abolitionist platform.
“I think a reasonable city attorney who became more moderate in their views could get a lot done,” he said. “I have a lot of friends that are going to write in candidates.”