Lisa Herbold racked up the most support of any Seattle City Council candidate in the primary election. But the incumbent has grown concerned this week after Amazon dropped an additional $1 million into a group backing her opponent.
Herbold, who has worked in city government for decades, is being challenged by Phillip Tavel, an attorney without political experience who didn’t make it past the primary when they both ran in 2015. Now a year after the per-employee “head tax” on high-grossing corporations, which Herbold supported before reluctantly repealing, business-backed groups have spent about $300,000 against her.
The two longtime West Seattle residents don’t see eye-to-eye on issues like homelessness and spending but agree on more than it might seem. Both support expanding the police department and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, building a light-rail tunnel to the district and even, to some extent, on taxing big businesses.
Yet their policy stances have been mostly pushed to the sidelines in a race that has become increasingly combative as the Nov. 5 election approaches. As Herbold fights attacks painting her as hostile to business, Tavel has had to answer for a dozen quickly shuttered and sometimes delinquent companies in his past, which he denies being involved in except as a “silent partner.”
In the past week, Tavel paid off $2,525 in overdue traffic fines after some became public, both candidates’ lengthy lists of driving infractions have circulated and Herbold has incredulously fought off rumors that she doesn’t live in her Highland Park home. Tavel has been questioned about his business record, after repeatedly referring to it as a strength.
“I think the biggest point is just the fact that I’ve been a business owner and nobody on council … understands what it means to not pay yourself and to pay your employees to keep a business afloat,” he said in an interview last week.
At a debate later that day, Herbold brought up Tavel’s businesses that had dissolved since 2001. Dissolutions for failure to file an annual report or renewal fee aren’t unusual (and Herbold had one herself). But Tavel put his name on ventures led by troubled business partners, some of which failed to pay taxes on time or resulted in legal disputes.
“It’s some combination of bad luck and trusting friends who may not have made the best business decisions,” Tavel said.
Critics have also lobbed the candidates’ federal tax liens as evidence of fiscal irresponsibility, often without context. A $26,400 lien against one of Tavel’s dissolved businesses was for unpaid taxes from before he bought the company from a friend, according to records. And Herbold’s husband said a $32,600 lien issued against him and Herbold last month was his responsibility, as a result of an interrupted payment plan due to the government shutdown, and should be resolved soon.
Tavel sees his many different jobs — attorney, video-game designer, public defender for a year who later filled in for other public defenders, physics teacher, trivia-night host and even bouncer — as proof he can tackle a range of issues. That contrasts with Herbold’s background as an aide to former City Council member Nick Licata for nearly two decades and a community organizer. While Herbold rattles off policies and funding sources when discussing an issue, Tavel speaks more about the big ideas.
“I decided to run because I see a city that is heading in the wrong direction. I see a city with failed leadership,” he said at last week’s debate. “We need change.”
Tavel has called for scrutinizing spending, particularly on homelessness, and said he believes the council “squandered the generosity” of residents. He said he’d be willing to tax big businesses if it’s needed but would try to work with them first.
Herbold said she’s not planning to introduce another head tax, although she’d like to see more progressive taxation. She is committed to doubling spending on housing and homelessness in line with an independent analysis conducted last year.
A group of about 100 small-business owners in Tavel’s district have continued to stand by him, as has the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political-action committee (PAC), Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE). Herbold sees it as a sham.
“I feel like it’s becoming a charade that the chamber’s independent expenditure (committee) is promoting my opponent as a business candidate,” Herbold said, explaining why she attacked him on his failed businesses. “It’s like they don’t know or don’t care.”
District 1 is nowhere near the City Council’s most expensive race, but PACs had already spent about $183,300 on Tavel when CASE reported an additional $110,000 for pro-Tavel ads Wednesday. Herbold has received significantly less backing from PACs and before Thursday, more money had been spent against her than for her.
The situation was similar in 2015, when PACs spent more than $200,000 on her challenger and just one spent about $20,000 backing her.
“But the money we’re facing now is overwhelming … ” she wrote in an email to supporters after the Amazon announcement. “I’m worried about what’s to come from today’s bombshell.”
Herbold believes she appeals to voters for her responsiveness and desire to balance growth while minimizing disruptions for constituents, whether that means pushing for a light-rail tunnel instead of a cheaper aboveground option, pacing development to prevent displacement or being the sole vote against a bill allowing parking-free development.
Herbold dominated in the primary in large swaths of the district, including Delridge, South Park, North Admiral and Roxhill. She also narrowly beat Tavel in his Arbor Heights neighborhood.
Supporters don’t always agree with her, but no one questions Herbold’s work ethic and dedication, said Coté Soerens, owner of Resistencia Coffee in South Park. “Whenever neighbors have any problems with the city, anything really, we just call Lisa.”
Small-business owners who are part of the District 1 Neighbors for Small Business PAC think Tavel better understands their challenges and like that he’s not a career politician.
“Small businesses have been long threatened by the increased cost of doing business in the City of Seattle,” Abby Fisher, president of White Center Glass, said in a statement. “We need a voice.”
Tavel hopes he’s been able to win over voters, particularly the 17% who voted for a third candidate in the primary. On front porches in the Genesee neighborhood last weekend, some nodded when he remarked that “the city they see is not the city they remember.”
One resident said he would vote for “anyone but” Herbold. Others said they became interested in Tavel out of disappointment with specific votes Herbold cast or because some businesses in the nearby West Seattle Junction liked him.
Tavel is betting on the voters having shifted since he ran in 2015. He’s set aside legal work, which he said he’s done independently since leaving a law firm in the spring, to focus on his campaign. He’s also become his own biggest donor, with more than $8,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
“I don’t have a ton of money,” he said. “I’ve pretty much spent it all on this.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.