De’Sean Quinn can imagine, in an alternate universe, running for Seattle City Council this year.
The 47-year-old would be telling voters about growing up in South Seattle, graduating from Garfield High School and working on campaigns for black leaders like Norm Rice and Richard McIver.
Instead, Quinn is a veteran City Council member in suburban Tukwila whose career has bridged the changing geography of local politics. More than a decade ago, he joined relatives and neighbors moving south for cheaper housing, more spacious living and community ties.
“It would have been great to have been a politician in Seattle,” Quinn said. “But to see the wholesale displacement … I chose Tukwila for its diversity. It felt like home.”
Many people of color, immigrants and young working people who before might have lived in Seattle now live south, either by choice or due to gentrification.
That reality is reshaping electorates across the region, leading to anxiety about representation in Seattle and to opportunities for new candidates in South King County cities. Looming is the likelihood suburbs could also become unaffordable.
Lost voices, complex campaigns
Seattle could emerge from November’s election without a black council member for the first time since 1967, when open-housing champion Sam Smith won a seat. Council President Bruce Harrell is departing City Hall and says constituents have raised the issue with him.
Two black candidates advanced past their primaries, and their contests will be decided by many considerations in addition to demographics. But both Mark Solomon in District 2 and Shaun Scott in District 4 were runners-up in August, and lived experience can matter when policies are hammered out.
For decades, some people of color have been leaving Seattle for the suburbs, while immigrants and refugees have been settling in south King County. The trend has continued recently.
Seattle was 65.3% white in 2017, down slightly from 67.1% in 2010. Tukwila, SeaTac, Kent and Burien were 43.8% white in 2017, down significantly from 52.2%. White people recently became the largest racial group in diverse South Seattle.
Rice said replicating his own climb to become mayor in the 1990s would be tougher now.
“To build a constituency, you had to be part of a neighborhood,” the Mount Baker resident said, arguing unions have gained more clout. “Today, you’re going to have a hard time … A young African American couple at the median income probably won’t live in Seattle.”
Solomon, 59, lives on Beacon Hill in the house his grandparents built, while Scott, 34, is a Roosevelt renter.
Washington’s income-tax ban leads cities like Seattle to rely on property taxes and development, creating a “formula for gentrification,” said Tony To, with the nonprofit HomeSight.
When To bought in Madrona about 30 years ago, most neighbors were African American. Not anymore.
“We’re losing that voice,” he said. “It’ll become an issue when the whole council and everybody is white.”
Still in Madrona is voter Barbara Peete, a retired postal worker who said she does wonder about representation for her shrinking community, though she doubts a single politician can reverse the trend.
“It’s a concern because gentrification has pushed so many people out,” she said. “I believe there should be diversity on the council.”
By moving to district-based representation in 2015 and introducing democracy vouchers in 2017, the city may have slowed the political effects of displacement, creating a majority-minority district and boosting grassroots candidates, said Crystal Fincher, a political consultant. The existing council is majority people of color, having grown more diverse in recent years.
“Seattle is still Seattle,” with a liberal electorate, Fincher said.
Furthermore, the District 2 and District 4 matchups are characterized as much or more by attitudes toward taxing large businesses as by demographic considerations.
Solomon is a crime-prevention coordinator endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and by Rice. His opponent, Tammy Morales, 50, is a community organizer who wants to take on corporate titans and “democratize wealth.”
Scott is a writer and Democratic Socialists of America organizer. His opponent is Alex Pedersen, 50, who has courted neighborhood groups.
Many campaign conversations are about housing costs rather than political representation, Fincher said.
“Anybody who tells me you have to be black to argue for black people, they’re a problem,” said Ron Sims, the pioneering former King County executive.
Aretha Basu does see trouble, however, because young activists like her are being priced out. “Everyone I grew up with” in the Central District, “they don’t live in the city anymore,” said the aide to Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.
“This is our city, but organizing is hard when you have to commute in,” she said. “When it’s going to take me 45 minutes to get home, am I going to this meeting?”
That may undermine progressive strides, Basu said, citing domestic-worker protections adopted last year.
“There was a whole community campaign by the workers. Them living close enough to … testify was important,” she said.
New wave versus old guard
In diverse South King County, contests in several cities this year pit new-wave against old-guard candidates.
There are splits between Seattle transplants and longtimers, and there are arguments about growing problems such as homelessness.
People have been arriving in and bouncing around Seattle as Amazon has boomed and rents have soared, with 23% as of 2017 having moved in the previous year, according to census data. But Tukwila, SeaTac, Kent and Burien are also churning, with nearly 19% of residents in that category.
Some matchups this year are between candidates who “speak to South King County cities as they were 10 or 20 years ago versus today,” said Fincher, based in Kent.
In Burien, progressive Sofia Aragon is running against an opponent who previously served on the council when it was more conservative. A nonprofit leader and former nurse-union lobbyist, Aragon was born in the Philippines and grew up in South Seattle.
In Kent, software developer and Sikh community leader Hira Singh Bhullar is challenging Les Thomas, a onetime Republican state lawmaker, and first-time candidate Awale Farah is poised to win an open seat.
Though Farah has lived in Kent since 2003, the Somali immigrant hopes to help the city serve newcomers, including more people of color, he said.
“People are moving to the suburb cities and the suburb cities aren’t equipped to handle it,” Farah said, mentioning public safety and community-police relations as important.
Tensions are bubbling in SeaTac, a majority-minority city where rookie council candidates hope to unseat a more conservative, mostly white group.
“We need governments that look like their residents,” new candidate Damiana Merryweather said. She’s white, on a slate with three people of color.
SeaTac has been on a “roller-coaster ride,” starting with the city’s groundbreaking $15 minimum wage and continuing with a backlash election in 2015, she said.
The daughter of Ethiopian refugees, Senayet Negusse said she was inspired to run for the SeaTac council after rising costs made her parents and their small business leave Columbia City. Developments are now set to replace dozens of immigrant businesses in SeaTac.
“From my primary, it was clear that people of color, people who live in apartment units and trailer parks … turned out,” said Negusse, who topped her August contest.
Nasty rhetoric has been directed at immigrants by some in SeaTac, but other residents are merely anxious about change, an optimistic Merryweather said.
“It’s exciting to know there’s an opportunity,” the Seattle transplant said.
Winning isn’t easy, Tukwila’s Quinn stressed. Voters once in Seattle enclaves like the Central District are more spread out in south King County.
Seattle debates can poison suburban conversations, he added, with new ideas linked to polarizing personalities like socialist Kshama Sawant. Seattle campaigns vacuum away resources.
“It takes money and strategy and quality consultants,” said Quinn, who’s worked on parks, rental-housing and public-safety issues in Tukwila.
Around the corner
Jimmy Matta is perhaps the most prominent new politician in South King County. Elected in 2017, the son of farmworkers from Guatemala is Burien’s first Latinx mayor, and his pride and joy is the annual B-Town Fiesta community celebration.
“Everybody dancing and eating together,” he said.
Yet Matta worries about Burien becoming like Seattle. “It’s what I lose sleep over,” he said. “Gentrification is around the corner.”
That reality may motivate South King County voters. Quinn cringes when he sees young students displaced to Pierce County.
Had Quinn never moved south, he might be preoccupied with Seattle politics this year. But that’s his alternative universe.
“Being a regional leader is what’s important now,” he said. “We absolutely have to look outside Seattle.”
Seattle Times data columnist Gene Balk contributed.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described how Seattle’s white population changed between 2010 and 2017, as a percentage of the city’s total population.