In the primary campaign for Seattle city attorney, three-term incumbent Pete Holmes is facing two challengers: former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and attorney and arbitrator Ann Davison.
Davison has run for public office before — Seattle City Council in 2019 and lieutenant governor in 2020 — and, like this year, raised public safety and homelessness as key points of her campaigns. Thomas-Kennedy, meanwhile, is running as an abolitionist, saying she would seek to get rid of most misdemeanor prosecutions, which she says only further destabilize those who are often poor, mentally ill or homeless.
All three candidates generally agree, in theory, on the need to prioritize relationships with community organizations, build mental health and disability resources, hold large corporations accountable and focus on needs in communities of color. But they voice differences on prosecutorial practices.
The city attorney’s office has about 200 employees and two main divisions — criminal and civil. On the criminal side, the office prosecutes traffic infractions and misdemeanors, including cases of DUI, vandalism, theft and domestic violence. In Seattle, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office handles felonies.
The civil division represents the city in lawsuits and typically handles governmental affairs, land use, environmental protection, labor and contracts. The office is defending the city in public records lawsuits over missing text messages from city officials including Mayor Jenny Durkan, and last week filed a counterclaim against The Seattle Times over the newspaper’s efforts to obtain the records.
Thomas-Kennedy obtained the bulk of her legal experience at the King County Department of Public Defense, where she worked for about four years — first in civil commitments at hospitals, where she handled petitions for court-ordered mental-health treatment, and later in Seattle Municipal Court, King County District Court and King County Superior Court.
Thomas-Kennedy left the public defender’s office to start her own law firm last summer. She still takes on public-defense cases on a contract basis, including eviction defense for Snohomish County Legal Services and the Housing Justice Project in Seattle.
Because former public defenders don’t usually seek out prosecutor jobs, Thomas-Kennedy said she’s struggled with the idea of putting people in jail.
“But at the same time, I didn’t want to be a total purist in the sense that I’m more concerned about my conscience and ideology than I am with how many people I can help,” she said. The potential “to rectify some things” is so huge that it outweighs the idea of prosecuting people, she said.
She said she would not seek to prosecute most misdemeanors, particularly “crimes of poverty” — including those who have stolen food or items from thrift stores.
“There’s nothing about prosecuting a hungry person that’s going to make them less hungry. There’s nothing about prosecuting someone with a mental illness that’s going to make them less mentally ill,” she said. “That’s not an effective way of dealing with those things.”
Police officers could still arrest people for those crimes, she said, but she’d lean away from filing charges in those cases. There would be some exceptions, including domestic-violence cases or repeat DUIs, she said.
On the civil side, she said she wants to redirect attention toward issues such as environmental accountability and wage theft.
Originally from Iowa, Thomas-Kennedy moved to Seattle in 1996 and later enrolled in Seattle Central College to pursue her GED. After earning her associate degree there, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and received her law degree from Seattle University.
Thomas-Kennedy has been endorsed by the Transit Riders Union and the Emerald Youth Organizing Collective.
The other challenger, Davison, has been an attorney in Seattle since 2005, several years after she moved from Washington, D.C. She started her own practice here before joining firm Aiken, St. Louis & Siljeg in downtown a few years later, where she primarily handled civil and business cases. In recent years, she’s acted as an arbitrator for various Seattle panels and forums.
Because she’s run for public office before, Davison said she’s been “intimately involved with the issues that are at the forefront of our city.” In each of her previous races, Davison said, she focused on improving “people’s sense of safety” in Seattle.
“This one seat is where we can actually see that pivotal change,” Davison said. “By fixing that one critical link in public safety we can start to see the improvement in the livability of the city for everyone.”
If elected, she said she would tackle police reform, racial equity and homelessness, and is advocating for “smarter prosecutions.” For example, she said the office has underprosecuted people “who have shown us they’re going to continue to engage in criminal activity,” but overprosecuted when it comes to people of color.
Davison, like Thomas-Kennedy, said she also wants to look at why people commit crimes and work harder at connecting them with needed resources, though she said she disagrees with her opponent’s desire to get rid of most misdemeanors.
Davison once worked for the Seattle SuperSonics in basketball operations, and received her bachelor’s degree from Baylor University and her law degree from Willamette University. Before coming to Seattle, she clerked at the Marion County District Attorney’s Office in Salem, Oregon.
She’s supported by former Washington Gov. Dan Evans, who served from 1965-77, retired King County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Bayley and retired Seattle Municipal Judge Ed McKenna, among others.
Both Davison and Thomas-Kennedy say Holmes, who’s been in office for 12 years, hasn’t done enough to enact change and keep Seattleites safe. They say the city needs a fresh start.
Holmes, however, stands by his work, saying his most recent term has, in some ways, been “the greatest term of all three.”
In an interview, Holmes said he’s been impressed with his staff’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic. One example, he said, is that this year his office’s civil division created a seminar, approved by the state Bar Association, on slavery reparations. Washington lawyers can take the course as they go through their recertification process.
On the criminal side, his staff this past year proposed creating an internal review board to allow prosecutors to consult with colleagues on cases where something “doesn’t feel right,” Holmes said. The goal of the peer-review board, which is still in the planning process, is to ensure prosecutorial discretion for cases that require more consideration, he said.
Holmes also said he’s proud of his work in past terms, including sponsoring the initiative that led to the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana in Washington in 2012, embedding attorneys in the Seattle Police Department as part of continuing reforms under the federal consent decree and capping misdemeanor jail time at 364 days (instead of 365 days) so as not to trigger immigration consequences.
He said the city attorney plays a crucial role.
“Misdemeanors matter,” Holmes said. “They’re higher volume, they impact more people. … It’s also where you have the biggest opportunity to change behavior and get at the underlying causes before they become felonies.”
Because the city will soon have a new mayor and new police chief, Holmes argues there’s a need for stability in this position and that his opponents’ legal and political experience is lacking.
“At this point in Seattle’s history, it’s probably more important than ever that we have consistent, proven, steady leadership in this job,” he said.
“I certainly can’t hide from my 12-year record, but the fact that I’ve simply been there 12 years alone is absolutely not the reason to just change,” Holmes said.
If reelected, Holmes said he expects to retire after his fourth term.
Holmes has received endorsements from Attorney General Bob Ferguson, King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and several Seattle City Council members.
As of July 13, the most recent fundraising numbers available through the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission, Davison had raised $7,014 in campaign contributions and Thomas-Kennedy had raised $16,102. Thomas-Kennedy said on Monday she’s raised about $100,000 in verified democracy vouchers and Davison also said Monday that she’s raised more. Holmes has raised $92,691, according to the commission.
Ballots in the nonpartisan race for a four-year term must be returned by Aug. 3. The top two vote-getters in the August primary advance to the November general election.