First, Amazon dropped a money bomb on the Seattle City Council elections. Then, voters dropped their own bomb with Tuesday night’s election results.
Though business-backed Egan Orion was leading Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant, several other candidates supported by Amazon were trailing in the initial results, based on about 50% of expected ballots.
Meanwhile, Seattle looks likely to wrap up these elections without a black council member for the first time since 1967, at least two incumbents appear almost sure to survive despite low approval ratings for the council in recent polls, the unique character of the city’s geographic districts may be emerging and Sawant has a chance to catch Orion as more ballots are counted.
Few additional votes were tallied Wednesday and the results didn’t change much. Sawant made little headway. Larger counts are expected Thursday and Friday, however.
Amazon’s spending didn’t carry the day
Seattle’s elections made national headlines last month when Amazon dropped more than $1 million into the city’s seven races, contributing to a political-action committee (PAC) managed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Voters wondered whether the cash would buy enough television, online and mail advertisements to push the chamber’s preferred candidates over the top, or whether a backlash against corporate spending would end up hurting those candidates.
In almost every race, a chamber-endorsed candidate was matched up against a candidate backed by social-justice activists and service-worker unions, with the business group spending to boost Phil Tavel against incumbent Lisa Herbold in District 1, Mark Solomon against Tammy Morales in District 2, Orion against Sawant in District 3, Alex Pedersen against Shaun Scott in District 4, Heidi Wills against Dan Strauss in District 6 and Jim Pugel against Andrew Lewis in District 7.
The exception was in District 5, where incumbent Debora Juarez netted support from both sides in her race against Ann Davison Sattler.
In the early results, three of the chamber-backed candidates with more progressive rivals were leading (Orion, Pedersen and Pugel) and three were trailing (Tavel, Solomon and Wills). Juarez also was ahead.
Because more liberal candidates tend to gain ground as more votes are tallied and Pugel had just over 50% in the initial results, Lewis is likely to take District 7.
That means chamber picks are likely to win no more than two clashes with Seattle’s left wing, and Sawant is still hoping to come from 8 percentage points behind Orion.
The early results mean Seattle should have “a very progressive council,” said citywide Councilmember M. Lorena González, who wasn’t up for election this year.
The chamber appears to have wasted money on Tavel, Solomon and Wills, said González, who backed Herbold, Morales and Strauss.
Voters also rejected the tack taken by People for Seattle, a PAC mostly bankrolled by business executives that ran negative ads against candidates like Herbold, she said.
“Voters saw through the smoke and mirrors,” González said Wednesday.
Mixed results aside, an Amazon executive said the company expects the next council to be easier to work with.
“Although there are votes still be counted, we’re pleased with the direction of the Seattle City Council election,” said Drew Herdener, vice president of communications. “We’re looking forward to working with the new City Council, which we believe will be considerably more open to constructive dialogue and making the decisions that need to be made in order for Seattle to be a world-class city to live and do business.”
City Hall could lack black council member
With Solomon and Scott both trailing by wide margins in the early results, Seattle is likely to have no black council member next year. District 2 Councilmember Bruce Harrell decided not to seek reelection and will be leaving City Hall soon.
The last time the city didn’t have a black council member for any substantial length of time (there was a break of less than two months after John Manning stepped down in 1996), was in the 1960s, before open-housing champion Sam Smith won his seat.
Whether the current situation is connected to changing politics, demographics or neither is up for debate.
For decades, some people of color have been leaving Seattle for the suburbs, either by choice or due to gentrification. The Central District’s historically black population has plummeted, and white people recently became the largest racial group in diverse South Seattle.
On the other hand, Seattle as a whole was 65.3% white in 2017, down slightly from 67.1% in 2010.
In another twist, Juarez and Pugel were the only baby boomers leading in the early results, and Pugel may end up losing to Lewis, who is only 29.
At least two incumbents will return
This year’s elections were always going to bring about change, because four incumbents decided not to run again, and some City Hall critics hoped to achieve a clean sweep, buoyed by various polls that have shown the council to be unpopular.
Sawant was the only candidate in the city this year to have served on the council before 2015.
Yet Herbold’s 51% lead in the early results is likely to grow, and Juarez is holding a commanding 57% advantage, so next year’s council should have some continuity.
The council’s at-large representatives, Teresa Mosqueda and González, will also remain at City Hall for now.
Contrasts between districts emerge
These were only the second elections under Seattle’s new council districts system, and the early results may point to contrasts between the areas.
The city used districts in 2015, but those races included incumbents who had been serving citywide, and voters didn’t yet know how the system would work in practice.
District 2, which includes the Chinatown International District, Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley, is poised to select Morales, a left-wing candidate likely to clash with Mayor Jenny Durkan.
The community organizer didn’t quite make the cut when she ran in 2015, losing by a slim margin to Harrell. But her campaign priorities clearly spoke to South End voters this time around, with Morales arguing Seattle should raise taxes on large businesses and wealthy individuals and stop sweeping unauthorized homeless encampments.
In District 4, which includes Wallingford, the University District and more suburban Northeast Seattle neighborhoods like View Ridge, a different story is developing.
Voters there look almost certain to elect Pedersen, a onetime council aide who said he would moderate the council’s activist progressives and who joined some residents and business owners recently in opposing bike lanes on 35th Avenue Northeast.
A PAC created by the project’s opponents partly to support Pedersen’s council bid declared victory Wednesday, touting the candidate’s 58% in the early results.
Sawant isn’t giving up yet
Sawant was down 8.4 percentage points in Tuesday’s results with 45.6%, but even Orion was taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Kshama has a distinct advantage with those late voters,” the small-business advocate and LGBTQ community booster told supporters Tuesday night.
In District 3’s crowded August primary, Sawant saw her initial 32.8% share climb to 36.7%. In 2015’s November elections, her share grew from about 52% to 56%. And in 2013’s November elections, Sawant’s share increased from 46.1% to 50.7%.
In other words, the incumbent could be within striking distance. She didn’t make up much ground Wednesday, edging up to 45.8%, though only only a few thousand more District 3 votes were counted.
Unseating Sawant and stopping Scott, a democratic socialist, could leave the chamber and other council critics with some vindication. But a Sawant comeback would deal them a crushing blow and lend Seattle’s left wing a super majority.