Two of three incumbent Seattle City Council members were positioned to win reelection to their district seats in Tuesday night results, but socialist Kshama Sawant was trailing in her race against a business-backed challenger.
Lisa Herbold was ahead with 51% against Phillip Tavel and Debora Juarez was up with 57% against Ann Davison Sattler, while Sawant was behind with 46% against Egan Orion.
Many more ballots will be counted in coming days and more progressive candidates tend to gain ground as additional votes are tallied, so Sawant may be able to close the gap in her contest.
Supporters in the Central District initially met the results with muted tones, then cheered as Sawant promised to battle on. Sawant came back from more than 7 percentage points behind to unseat Richard Conlin in 2013.
“We are going to have to continue to fight to make sure every vote of disenfranchised people gets to count,” Sawant said.
With a celebratory whiskey in his hand at a party on Capitol Hill, Orion said he was “90% confident” he would prevail. But speaking to a roaring crowd, he added a warning. “Kshama has a distinct advantage with those late voters,” the small-business booster and LGBTQ community leader said.
In Seattle’s four other council contests, Tammy Morales, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss and Jim Pugel were ahead in the early results. Morales and Pedersen were up by larger distances, while Strauss and Pugel led by smaller margins.
The ultimate outcome of this year’s clash between Seattle’s left wing and its corporate titans is not yet certain, because candidates supported by service-worker unions and social-justice advocates are poised to win several races, while their pro-business opponents could prevail in others.
But a union-backed group was declaring victory, arguing the results showed voters choosing to bolster the council’s “progressive majority.”
“Seattle voters are delivering an unmistakable message to giant corporations near and far: our democracy is not for sale to the highest bidder,” said Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington.
In contrast, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce was taking a wait-and-see approach Tuesday night.
“Tonight’s initial returns are not definitive enough to call these close races. We know from our polling that voters want more solutions and less ideology from their council members,” Chamber President Marilyn Strickland said in a statement.
The elections could prove pivotal for a city still deciding how best to grow and who should pay for the consequences. A historic economic boom powered by Amazon’s transformation from bookseller to tech and retail behemoth has shaken Seattle in recent years, helping many people here prosper while leaving others behind.
Spending by Amazon made national headlines last month, with the company joining labor unions and other businesses in using political-action committees (PACs) to drop an unprecedented nearly $4 million into Seattle’s council races.
In the early returns, Herbold led Tavel in District 1, Morales led Mark Solomon with 56% in District 2, Orion led Sawant in District 3, Pedersen led Shaun Scott with 58% in District 4, Juarez led Sattler in District 5, Strauss led Heidi Wills with 52% in District 6 and Pugel led Andrew Lewis with just over 50% in District 7.
Additional votes will be tallied, with the Tuesday night results based on about 50% of expected ballots. Herbold, Morales, Sawant, Scott, Juarez, Strauss and Lewis are most likely to surge in the coming days.
Lewis said he hoped to overcome Pugel’s slim Tuesday lead. “It’s a close race,” he added. “Fingers crossed.”
There were always going be at least four new faces because all seven of the council’s district seats were up for election and four incumbents opted not to run again.
The story of the 2019 elections began last year, when the council passed a controversial per-employee tax on high-grossing businesses for homeless housing and services and then repealed the measure under pressure from large companies such as Amazon and from some voters who doubted the money would be spent wisely.
The council’s approval ratings plummeted as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce declared war on the members who had championed the so-called head tax, determined to use momentum from the repeal to remake City Hall.
Month after month, the Chamber and critical voters hammered the council’s reputation, slamming the incumbents for allowing widespread homelessness to persist in prosperous Seattle despite repeated budget bumps.
Progressive activists shoved the blame back, linking the humanitarian crisis on the streets to rents and home prices driven sky high by the city’s business success and challenging corporate leaders to help repair an upside-down tax system.
Incumbents Bruce Harrell in District 2, Rob Johnson in District 4, Mike O’Brien in District 6 and Sally Bagshaw in District 7 chose to bow out, while Herbold, Sawant and Juarez decided to seek reelection.
More than 50 candidates crowded onto the primary-election ballots in August. For a moment, some liberals worried that unease over homeless camping and street disorder,would push voters to elect tough-on-crime conservatives.
That didn’t happen. Instead, seven candidates endorsed by The Stranger newspaper advanced alongside seven endorsed by The Seattle Times editorial board, setting up classic clashes between the city’s usual, more-liberal and more-centrist blocs.
Everywhere other than in District 5, the candidates endorsed by The Times were also backed by the Chamber, and the candidates endorsed by The Stranger were also supported by service-worker unions and progressive activists.
The rival candidates sought to draw distinctions with policy positions, debating where to build bike lanes, whether to toll downtown streets, how to improve community-police relations and what to do about Seattle’s homelessness crisis.
The left-wing candidates pointed to the city’s nation-leading $15-per-hour minimum wage and secure scheduling laws, vowing to keep pushing those sort of progressive policies, while their opponents promised voters to bring an overly activist council “back to basics.”
They wooed hyperlocal constituencies, as the city voted by geographic district for only the second time since moving seven of nine council seats to that setup.
But around the time ballots were mailed out, independent PACs began bombarding voters with ads in the mail, online and on television, wedging the candidates into progressive and pro-business slates and swamping all other narratives.
With the ability to raise and spend unlimited sums so long as they didn’t coordinate directly with candidate campaigns, the deep-pocketed PACs smashed spending records and stirred concerns about Seattle’s democracy.
Business interests outspent labor groups and the Chamber’s PAC shelled out the most money, thanks in large part to a $1 million-plus contribution in October from Amazon that drew criticism from Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others.
But labor groups also spewed cash, with the national Unite Here hotel-workers union spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in Seattle and dedicating every cent to boost Lewis in District 7, where most of the city’s hotels are located.
Times reporters Lewis Kamb, Evan Bush, Neal Morton, Scott Greenstone, Hannah Furfaro and Justin Mayo contributed to this story.