More than 50 people have taken steps to run for Seattle City Council this year, including a doctor and a scientist, a marijuana seller and a popcorn seller, a police officer, a prosecutor and a public defender, a line cook, a massage therapist, a software developer, an aerospace engineer and a former spy.
There are more candidates than usual because many have smelled change in the air at City Hall, where all seven of the council’s district seats are up for grabs and only three incumbents are running again.
Seattle elections tend to be won by mainstream or progressive Democrats with support from the city’s powerful business and labor groups, and that could happen again in 2019.
“But these candidates are bringing a greater diversity of life experience,” said Christian Sinderman, a political consultant with clients in multiple races.
In a city increasingly known for luxury towers and people living in tents and vehicles, some would-be council members are pledging to clean up the streets while others are promising to demand social and economic justice.
Security guard Grace Stroklund paid close attention last week as Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce executive director Egan Orion launched his campaign next to the building she patrols. Stroklund was homeless not long ago, struggles with rent and deals with mentally ill people in her job.
Orion is among many candidates challenging incumbent Kshama Sawant in District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District and Madison Park.
“I want to hear what everyone has to say about homelessness,” Stroklund said. “Getting everyone on the same page matters most to me.”
Candidates also are zooming in on issues in certain neighborhoods, betting those will matter most in the council’s second-ever round of district elections.
They’re all trying, in one way or another, to connect with voters who think City Hall may be out of touch.
“They need to relate to the issues that people are dealing with,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, mentioning child-care costs. “They need to relate to people’s lives.”
The field could still grow or shrink before the May filing deadline.
The most candidates on a primary ballot in the last 50 years was 47 in 2015, when Seattle moved to district elections and all nine council seats were contested, according to King County records. The second-most was 29 in 1997, when five seats were contested.
Only two candidates in each district will advance past the Aug. 6 primary.
City’s biggest problems
Frustration with unauthorized camping, drugs and crime, combined with bad blood over the council’s short-lived head tax on large businesses to raise money for housing and homeless services, could help decide some races.
Speak Out Seattle, which has opposed looser camping rules, drug-consumption sites and the head tax, won’t make endorsements, co-chair Elisabeth James said. But the group has been hosting early candidate forums.
“We don’t want to just throw money at something without an actual plan,” James said, noting the city hasn’t yet pinpointed how many individual households exited homelessness last year.
In a December landline and cellphone poll of likely voters commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, 52% said the council had failed to make meaningful progress on key issues and 70% said more effective spending was needed, according to the group. In a Seattle Times poll of registered voters, also in December, 68% said they didn’t trust City Hall to solve homelessness.
“They have contempt for us. They do not listen to us,” said Christi Muoneke, who attended a candidate forum last week in her Lakewood neighborhood.
“Voters want to see more results coming out of the council,” Chamber chief of staff Markham McIntyre said.
Several candidates are campaigning on that theme in District 6, which covers Ballard and Fremont. Incumbent Mike O’Brien decided to bow out, having been shouted down about street conditions at a town-hall meeting last year.
Would-be council members who can convince voters they’ll deliver accountability with progressive values may do best, because lefty ire over inequality and anxiety for people without shelter also could drive turnout.
Candidates such as family doctor Jay Fathi in District 6 are attempting that balancing act, while others are pushing harder.
Some voters were outraged last year when Seattle repealed the head tax, under pressure partly from Amazon, a trillion-dollar company. They say shelter and housing strategies, such as permanent-supportive housing, are working but must be scaled up.
“People are looking for candidates to stick up for them,” said Devin Silvernail, a Sawant backer whose nonprofit holds renter workshops and organizes businesses to assist homeless people.
In Ballard and elsewhere, the get-tough crowd is more loud than mighty, he said. More than 60 of respondents to the Chamber poll described their own politics as liberal or very liberal, and most respondents to the Times poll on homelessness favored long-term solutions over hard-line strategies.
The number of families housed through the area’s homeless-response system increased by 63 percent between 2014 and 2017, and the city and county have agreed to a consolidated effort, prominent business and nonprofit advocates noted in an open letter last week.
Candidates are seeking to untangle issues like homelessness, addiction and mental illness without criminalizing poverty.
“I honestly think there’s momentum around caring and I see energized young people, as well,” Silvernail said.
Candidates should remind voters the city would save money on street services by housing more people, said Violet Lavatai, who leads the Tenants Union of Washington State.
And they should represent the droves of Seattle residents who are worried about housing costs, she said.
“Change is what we’re talking about,” Lavatai said. “We want to see council members be bold. We want them to push the envelope.”
The debate may burn hot in District 2, which includes the Chinatown International District and Southeast Seattle. Incumbent Bruce Harrell isn’t running.
Business owner Ari Hoffman has garnered attention by bashing City Hall as soft on crime, appearing on Fox News recently to discuss KOMO-TV’s controversial “Seattle is Dying” special and waste dumped in cemeteries.
Silvernail and Lavatai are supporting Tammy Morales, a community organizer who hopes to “shift power to the people” by investing more in homeless services, housing and eviction-court lawyers.
Zeroing in on district issues
In some instances, big-picture politics could take a back seat. Katherine Fountain Mackinnon, a public-affairs consultant active in her Bryant neighborhood, said the open-seat District 4 race could hinge on opinions about a particular thoroughfare.
A plan to add bike lanes along 35th Avenue Northeast, recently scuttled by Mayor Jenny Durkan, has divided residents, she said. Councilmember Rob Johnson, who championed bike lanes, stepped down last week.
“It’s already bled into the conversation,” Mackinnon said. “Whether the candidates agree or disagree with the mayor.”
Bike-lane boosters may see Seattle Neighborhood Greenways leader Cathy Tuttle as their champion, while foes may look to Alex Pedersen, a longtime Johnson critic. District 4 encompasses Eastlake, Wallingford, the University District and Northeast Seattle.
Similar issues could shape the District 5 contest, said Daigoro Toyama, Pinehurst Community Council president.
Councilmember Debora Juarez has “worked hard” to secure certain projects in District 5, such as a light-rail station at Northeast 130th Street. The incumbent has been “less responsive” to complaints in North Seattle about issues such as speeding cars and needles discarded in parks, said Toyama, who has endorsed challenger John Lombard, an environmental-policy consultant.
“People do care most about their immediate neighborhood,” he said. “Those issues are probably going to win out.”
Questions about the aging Magnolia Bridge could color the conversation in District 7, a seat being vacated by Sally Bagshaw, while West Seattle light-rail options could matter in District 1, where Lisa Herbold is the incumbent. Many candidates are collecting taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers as they canvass door to door.
“District elections have changed the game,” said McInytre, arguing the city wasn’t yet accustomed to the system in 2015.
Despite their differences, he and Lavatai agree smart candidates will tap voter angst by vowing to listen better. She summed up the mood this way: “We talk to these council members, but are they really hearing us?”
District races at a glance
(For information on all the would-be council members, use our candidate tracker.)
District 1 (West Seattle, South Park): The council as an institution isn’t very popular, but incumbent Lisa Herbold has strong district ties and her strongest challenger could be lawyer Phillip Tavel, who failed to advance past 2015’s primary election.
District 2 (Chinatown International District, Southeast Seattle): In this open-seat contest, community organizer Tammy Morales has lefty endorsements, law-enforcement advocate Ari Hoffman has found traction on conservative radio and TV shows and crime-prevention coordinator Mark Solomon knows the neighborhoods well.
District 3 (Capitol Hill, Central District, Madison Park): Candidates hoping to unseat incumbent Kshama Sawant include pro-density pot merchant Logan Bowers, public defender Ami Nguyen and Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce head Egan Orion.
District 4 (Eastlake, Wallingford, University District, Northeast Seattle): Former council aide Alex Pedersen should appeal to older homeowners and democratic socialist Shaun Scott to younger renters, while scientist Emily Myers will count on union support and safe-streets advocate Cathy Tuttle on activist cred in this open-seat melee.
District 5 (North Seattle): Longtime neighborhood-group volunteer John Lombard appears most likely to advance past the primary alongside incumbent Debora Juarez, who will point to projects delivered in her district.
District 6 (Ballard, Fremont, Phinney Ridge, Green Lake): Former Councilmember Heidi Wills might be the best-known of 12 candidates vying for an open seat, but doctor Jay Fathi will run a slick campaign, council aide Dan Strauss has insider knowledge and Jon Lisbin has been vocal on growth.
District 7 (Magnolia, Queen Anne, South Lake Union, downtown): Assistant city attorney Andrew Lewis, real-estate project manager Michael George and former police leader Jim Pugel look like the top contenders in this wealthy district with an open seat.