Voters have revamped the Seattle City Council, Mayor Jenny Durkan has completed more than half her term, and an unpredictable new phase in local politics is about to begin, though the growing pains that the city has been struggling with remain the same.
Four new council members will help determine what happens next with City Hall’s attempts to ease homelessness, unclog the streets and hold cops accountable, as will three incumbents who repelled challengers in November’s district elections. Political spending, tree protections and Uber-driver wages are among the issues on tap.
The returning council members — including Kshama Sawant, who has vowed to once again champion a tax on companies such as Amazon — may act more aggressively now that their seats are secure. But citywide Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González are also certain to grab headlines as they and Durkan eye potential 2021 campaigns. The mayor will likely register for reelection soon.
With the council reconvening Monday, here are six things to watch in 2020.
1. Who’s under pressure
The council became a public punching bag in recent years, as constituents upset over problems ranging from homeless camping and property crime to gentrification directed much of their ire at the city’s longest-serving politicians.
Though Durkan stumbled at times as she settled in as mayor, wavering on her police chief pick and a controversial per-employee tax, she helped secure approval for education and library levies without much drama, and an attempt by business leaders to remake the council overshadowed other machinations.
Now Durkan could come under additional pressure, however. She’s a midterm mayor, and the city’s departments report to her, after all, not the council. City Hall’s reset “has the potential to put a brighter spotlight on what the mayor is or isn’t doing,” González said.
Who takes the lead at City Hall could depend on how the council shapes up.
2. New council dynamic
Some clues will emerge Monday, when council members will choose a leader and new committee structure, likely according to a plan unveiled last week. González is poised to become president and could score points right away, because the council may vote later this month on her proposal to restrict political-action committee donations. She plans to spend some of early 2020 on maternity leave, with colleagues taking turns as president pro-tem.
González and Sawant have clashed previously, but the citywide representative endorsed her socialist colleague at the last minute in October. More cooperation could kick the council’s left-wing policy machine into high gear.
Newcomer Alex Pedersen is most likely to throw a wrench in those plans, having told voters he would check his activist colleagues. But nuts and bolts will keep him busy because he has been tapped to oversee Seattle’s transportation and tech departments and its utilities, which together account for more than half the city’s budget.
Pedersen will wield significant power, as will Mosqueda, returnee Lisa Herbold and newcomer Dan Strauss. Their committees will watchdog key departments. Mosqueda will handle finance and housing, Herbold public safety and human services, and Strauss land use and neighborhoods.
They’ll balance those responsibilities with constituent relations, having promised to engage with district voters, Strauss noted. “Something to watch is which council members are responsive,” he said.
3. What’s on tap
Sawant will hope to notch a quick victory with her proposed ban on wintertime evictions. And her quest to tax Amazon will make headlines in 2020, with newcomer Tammy Morales a likely ally, though Mosqueda may play lead negotiator as the council weighs alternatives to 2018’s short-lived head tax.
“I think there’s a strong likelihood there will be a progressive business tax in 2020,” Durkan said, adding, “but we have to look at a range of options and whether it gets done in Seattle,” regionwide or at the state level.
Pedersen and Strauss have pledged to advance legislation meant to stop large trees on private lots from being cut down. Meanwhile, Mosqueda has been laying groundwork for apartments in more neighborhoods and advocates will press to mandate employer-paid transit passes.
Durkan has promised to ensure $16 per hour for Uber and Lyft drivers starting next summer and will soon unveil strategies to create middle-income housing. Unions are trying to spread Seattle-style workplace regulations across the state, having already succeeded here, though they may in 2020 push City Hall to ban cashless stores and seek rights for various gig workers.
Meanwhile, the mayor must decide how to try to replace voter-approved taxes that boost Seattle bus service and that are set to expire. The embattled First Avenue streetcar project could again come under scrutiny: Pedersen isn’t a supporter.
4. Business voice
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce bombed in the November elections, endorsing only two winners, so corporate leaders may have less juice at City Hall than usual.
But another group, like the Greater Seattle Business Association, could step into the void. The Capitol Hill-based LGBTQ organization endorsed neither Sawant nor challenger Egan Orion in November. But beloved mom-and-pop shops have been closing at an alarming clip, and with the Chamber’s brand damaged, the smaller GSBA could gain clout.
The group will lobby for more small-business assistance, plus commercial rent regulation and “legacy” business protections, said executive director Louise Chernin, who donated as an individual to Orion’s campaign.
“Social justice advocates and small business owners can be partners,” she said.
5. The right recipe?
This City Hall may have the right recipe to get work done, political observers contend, citing these ingredients: a mayor with experience, a council with a clear majority, a hard-charging council president and younger council members with new ideas. The U.S. presidential race could absorb some public angst.
Seattle needs more shelter, housing and transit, so the city also needs more revenue, said Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer at SEIU 775, predicting, “I think the mayor and council leaders will work together to solve our problems.”
Sean Goode, who heads the nonprofit Choose 180, said he thinks this City Hall could help crack the school-to-prison pipeline because support is building for restorative-justice programs.
6. 2021 effect
Though Durkan and the previous council marched in lock-step on some issues, such as the mayor’s tax on Uber rides, there have been skirmishes, too. When Durkan issued a rare veto during a power struggle over soda-tax revenues last year, the council overrode her.
“We’re not going to be pushed around … and I do think the election results have strengthened that dynamic,” González said.
More cruising at altitude in 2020 may suit the mayor, who must work to dole out levy dollars, stand up a new homelessness authority and collect the new Uber tax.
“You’ll probably see fewer signature policies and more making sure that we do well with what we’ve already accomplished,” Durkan said. “There’s hasn’t been much daylight between us and the council.”
Yet she may be sucked into another Amazon tax debate this year, and tension between reformers and Seattle’s police union over accountability measures could erupt, complicating her attempt to wrap up a federal consent decree.
“Mayor Durkan’s strengths have been working with the state and the county, and now she has a choice to make,” said Dayna Lurie, a consultant who previously served with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. “Is she going to keep working on the big-picture stuff or try to hammer things out with the council?”
Before long, there’s a chance the 2021 mayoral race could strain the relationship between Seattle’s executive and legislative branches.
“Politics are constantly evolving in this city,” González said. “At this point, I haven’t made any decisions about what I’m going to do next.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the GSBA supported Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s general-election challenger in 2019. The organization doesn’t make endorsements and endorsed neither candidate.