The Seattle City Council’s move to voting by geographic district is yielding a large, diverse crop of candidates, and everyone is trying to figure out how the new system is going to change local politics.
Seattle’s move to district voting for seven of nine City Council seats this year is encouraging a greater number of people to seek office — and the new crop of candidates is more diverse than in years past, political observers say.
That’s because campaigning in a single district is easier than running citywide and because the new districts — each with about 90,000 people — have unique demographic profiles, the experts say.
“The money you need to raise is much lower,” said Liz Berry, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. “There are fewer people who you need to talk to. When you’re running citywide, doorbelling is a crazy thing to do. But running in a district, you can try to go door to door and win voters one by one.”
Three current council members have decided to leave City Hall next year rather than seek re-election. “That also means more opportunity for new people,” Berry said.
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In 2013, when there were four council seats in play, 10 candidates made the primary ballot. In 2011, when there were five seats up for grabs, there were 13 candidates.
With all nine seats available this year, there are 36 campaigns registered with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. More hopefuls are waiting in the wings; the deadline to file with King County Elections is May 15.
Seattle voters endorsed the change to district elections by approving a 2013 ballot measure.
“It’s exciting to have young people, people of color and women running for office,” Berry said. “We predicted this would happen, to some degree. But we didn’t know how many people would actually jump in — the extent has really blown us away.”
The candidates so far include 14 women, several people under 40 and a number of renters. The current council has four women but no members under 40 and no renters.
District elections are typically understood as a way to increase diversity in government.
Last month, a federal judge ordered Yakima’s City Council to switch to a district system drawn up by the American Civil Liberties Union with the aim of boosting Hispanic voices.
Seattle voters have never elected a Hispanic council member. But three of the new districts — the 1st, which includes West Seattle, Delridge and South Park; the 2nd, which blankets Southeast Seattle; and the 5th, which encompasses the city’s northernmost neighborhoods — have attracted Hispanic candidates.
The 1st District is 10 percent Hispanic, the 2nd District is 9 percent and the 5th District is 7 percent. The city, as a whole, is 7 percent Hispanic.
Skeptics have wondered whether Seattle’s new system packs minority voters into a single district while ceding too much influence to homeowners determined to stop the city from becoming more dense.
Joaquin Uy, a Filipino Community of Seattle board member, says some voters know why the 2nd District covers so much ground, from Yesler Terrace to Rainier Beach. With a population that’s 53 percent black and Asian, it’s the city’s only minority-majority district, and half its residents speak a language other than English at home.
“When you see how bifurcated the North End is and how the South End is lumped together, some people believe there should be two districts predominated by people of color,” said Uy. “The perception is that the South End gets the short end of the stick.”
People campaigning for citywide seats usually touch base with the city’s African-American community because they need all the votes they can get, says Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who’s running in the 2nd District this year and is of Japanese-American and African-American descent.
Future council members from districts with few African-American voters may be less inclined to work on behalf of that community, Harrell fears. The 2nd District is 20 percent African-American; only one other district is above the city average of 7 percent.
Demographer Richard Morrill, the University of Washington professor emeritus who drew the map, considered different boundaries. But he worried they would dilute the voting power of Seattle’s minority groups. “I argued it would be better to have one relatively safe minority district rather than two uncertain ones,” he said.
Many of the new districts are quite demographically mixed.
In the 3rd District, which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, Montlake and Madison Park, “you have a dense core with urbanist and Apodment voters” who are mostly younger renters, says Jason Bennett, a political consultant working with first-time candidate Rod Hearne, the former executive director of Equal Rights Washington.
“Then you have your large-house homeowners, who are more wealthy,” he added, referring to people living in neighborhoods like Broadmoor, a gated community.
The challenge for Hearne, whose opponents include socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant, will be winning over voters from both groups, Bennett says.
“The district needs somebody who understands the issues around density because of all the growth happening along Broadway,” he said. “The district also needs somebody to put down the megaphone and help fill potholes.”
Density as an issue
Morrill admits that a personal motivation in helping with the map “was to slow down densification.” He believes displacement and gentrification result from high-density development, and he hopes district voters will elect candidates who agree.
That scenario scares David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council. Freiboth thinks the city must allow more high-density housing as it grows.
“I’m concerned neighborhood issues will trump the things we need to do citywide to make this place more livable and affordable,” the union leader said. “Resistance to density (will push) housing prices up and lower-income people out of town.”
The density question isn’t how most candidates are defining themselves right now. Many are instead talking about transportation, public safety and homeless services.
That will change later this year, Freiboth says. “We’re not far enough along for people to need to address it,” he said. “They’re going to stay away from it except in generalizations until they have no choice. But it’s going to be a major focus.”
The move to districts already is having an impact; last year, council members like Mike O’Brien supported stricter regulations on micro-apartment construction than they otherwise would have, Freiboth believes.
O’Brien is running in the 6th District, which includes Fremont, Phinney Ridge and Ballard. The 6th District contains a greater percentage of households with incomes of $100,000 and a greater percentage of homeowners than any other district.
Robert Cruickshank, senior campaign manager at Democracy for America and a former adviser to then-Mayor Mike McGinn, is less anxious about the setup than Freiboth.
“Yes, NIMBY people helped get this on the ballot. But experience shows they won’t be winners under the new system,” he said, agreeing with Berry districts are making for a more diverse group of candidates. “The real debate is going to be about where the city is distributing resources, including infrastructure to support growth. The discussion is going to be about equity in urban infrastructure.”
Harrell thinks the new system will nudge members to push more aggressively for projects in individual neighborhoods, particularly during budget negotiations.
“I think an effect will be allowing someone to be a stronger advocate to bring investments into specific communities,” he said.
A stronger mayor?
The shift may increase Mayor Ed Murray’s clout because council members wrapped up with local matters will leave some big-picture issues to the executive, Harrell said.
“How much energy will we as lawmakers have to jump in with both feet on citywide concerns?” the council member said. “There are only so many hours in the day.”
Murray chuckled last month when asked about his role evolving.
“Some people tell me that, you know, that with the districts and new council members it makes the mayor more powerful. Maybe, I don’t know,” he said.
Bicycle-lane projects have been a political flashpoint in recent Seattle elections, and some of the new council districts boast more cyclists than others.
In the 4th District, which includes the University of Washington, Ravenna and Laurelhurst, 6 percent of commuters bike. The citywide average is just 3 percent.
Rob Johnson, one of three people challenging Councilmember Jean Godden in the 4th District, heads the Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for biking, walking and transit.
But Cruickshank doubts bike lanes will play a major role in this year’s elections.
“Most people want to see these improvements,” he said. “There could be flare-ups, but with this being a contentious issue for so long, I think there’s some fatigue with it.”