Back in January, fresh off leading the failed campaign for a statewide carbon tax, Abigail Doerr asked King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles for a meeting. Doerr, 30, was thinking of running for office and was looking for advice from a woman who’s held elected office for more than a quarter-century.
She also wanted to feel out whether Kohl-Welles, 76, was going to run for another term.
Kohl-Welles, who co-leads a political action committee dedicated to electing progressive women to the state Legislature, thought Doerr was promising and offered her the chance to job shadow her and suggested she get a job as a legislative assistant.
Doerr found the advice patronizing. A month or so later, she launched her campaign for Metropolitan King County Council District 4, representing northwest Seattle — the seat held by Kohl-Welles.
Doerr’s move has set up an intergenerational contest that’s less about policy differences — they agree on much — than about their approaches to getting things done.
It’s a nonpartisan race, but both women are progressive Democrats. Doerr stresses energy and fresh ideas, and tells voters that when Kohl-Welles first entered public office Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was No. 1 on the charts. Kohl-Welles stresses experience and collaboration and says Doerr doesn’t understand how to work with the diverse swath of urban, suburban and rural stakeholders that the council represents.
Doerr, a transit advocate and campaign professional, said she started her campaign not because of the meeting with Kohl-Welles, but because of what she sees as a lack of ambition from the County Council. She argues that county government has been too timid in addressing the region’s transportation and housing woes, calling the council an “underutilized office.”
“A lot of the problems that people are frustrated with the City Council about, the County Council has a huge involvement in and I don’t think that they’re doing everything they can to be active regional players,” Doerr said. “We need people who are really representing this district and making sure that we’re getting all we can out of this local government.”
Kohl-Welles, who served in the state Legislature for 23 years before being elected to the County Council in 2015, said she was just trying to be helpful to Doerr and found her actions duplicitous.
She says she knows how to build the coalitions necessary to be effective in a regional government, and notes that she has the endorsement of County Executive Dow Constantine and all eight of her colleagues on the council.
“It’s not the city of Seattle,” Kohl-Welles said. “You have to be able to compromise or you’re not going to get anything done, and I know how to do that. And I don’t think someone starts out very well in doing that, by, in effect, bad-mouthing the other council members before she’s even been there.”
A focus on transit and the environment
Doerr, who in addition to the failed carbon-tax measure also led the successful 2016 campaign for Sound Transit 3 and worked as an aide to Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, has largely centered her campaign on transit and the environment.
Her transportation plan reads as an ode to the virtues of public transit, peppered with ambitious, expensive ideas to improve and expand the region’s system.
“Transit has played an essential role in my career — and in my life,” Doerr writes.
She managed the campaign for the 2014 Seattle Transportation Benefit District, which hiked car-tab fees and sales taxes to increase bus service in the city. That measure is set to expire at the end of next year, and the question of what to do next illustrates the differences between the two candidates.
The easiest solution, Doerr says, would be to run a countywide ballot measure replacing the city taxes with identical, countywide charges. That would not only bring in more revenue, but would also enable Metro Transit to use the funding on any bus routes. Right now, because it comes from city taxes, Metro can use that funding only on buses that mostly serve Seattle.
But other options, she said, include a possible payroll tax or business-and-occupation tax to boost Metro funding and bus service. Doerr says the council has not been proactive in deciding what to do.
“There’s a slew of options, and I think that waiting until the year before has put us in a bind,” she said.
Kohl-Welles said a 2020 countywide ballot measure is a possibility but that the County Council has been addressing the issue, behind the scenes. She noted that the 2014 Seattle tax passed only after a countywide ballot measure failed earlier the same year and that it’s important not to rush something to the ballot that might not pass.
“She’s aghast that we haven’t done anything yet and this will be on us in 2020,” Kohl-Welles said of Doerr. “The council is approaching this very differently. They want to get a real buy-in from the suburban cities. You have to have a buy-in.”
Doerr wants to end fare enforcement on Metro buses, saying it disproportionately targets low-income people and people of color. And she says the county needs to look for alternative funding sources to make up for whatever portion is lost of the more than $176 million in fares Metro collects annually.
“Metro staff spend way too much time and energy trying to figure out how to scrape the most out of the fare box,” she said.
Kohl-Welles supports de-emphasizing fare enforcement, but not doing away with it. She noted the county has already eliminated criminal penalties for fare evasion.
Doerr prefers a tunnel for light rail to Ballard, instead of a less costly bridge, while Kohl-Welles could go either way. Both say it’s more important to decide quickly than cling to either option.
The pace of progress
Kohl-Welles, a former adjunct professor of sociology and women’s studies at the University of Washington, notes that she’s lived in her council district for 34 years. Doerr, she pointed out, moved from Pioneer Square (outside the district) to Belltown (inside the district) just before announcing her campaign.
Kohl-Welles chairs the county Board of Health and touts her work on the county’s budget, which increased funding for shelter space and affordable housing projects.
She’s generally supportive of the region’s push to consolidate Seattle and King County’s efforts on homelessness into one regional authority, but says she has some concerns about getting buy-in from all jurisdictions and wants to move slowly.
“I have been meeting for months with my regional counterparts, I’m meeting with all of our council members individually,” she said. “Again, I keep repeating, we’re a regional government and you have to work collaboratively and I know how to do that.”
Doerr also supports the regional authority, which hopes to streamline the local homeless-services system, currently spread across six city, county and federal agencies. But she wants to move faster.
“Progress has been slow,” she said. “This is something we should have done ages ago.”