Colleen Echohawk says Seattle needs a “new generation of leadership.” Jessyn Farrell says the city needs a “#freshstart.” Bruce Harrell wants to “change the way we do things.” Andrew Grant Houston’s tagline is “no more empty promises.”
There’s no incumbent in the 2021 race for Seattle mayor, because Jenny Durkan isn’t seeking reelection. But ahead of the Aug. 3 primary election, almost all the contenders for the job are wooing voters dissatisfied with conditions in the city and how it’s been run by Durkan and the City Council.
Even Casey Sixkiller, who served as a deputy mayor under Durkan until recently, described himself as an “outsider” when he launched his campaign. Durkan has won praise for her efforts on subsidized community college and COVID-19 vaccinations while drawing criticism her handling of homelessness and protests.
“Elections come down to two things — change or more of the same,” said Michael Charles, a Seattle political consultant not involved in the mayoral race. “The change narrative is strong this year.”
The only contender not claiming some sort of outsider status is Seattle’s current City Council president, M. Lorena González. She’s striking a different tone, telling voters she would continue to “#DreamBigWorkHard” as mayor.
“Every candidate in this race is going to talk about their ideas. But it takes experience and relationships to actually turn those concepts into meaningful action,” González said in a statement.
Select results from campaign polls appear to support the feeling that voters mulling the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s racial justice protests and an uptick in shootings are fed up with the status quo, though there hasn’t been any independent, public polling and backlash predictions have been overblown before.
Less clear is who can successfully claim the change mantle. Several candidates vowing to shake things up have been insiders at some point — Harrell was council president less than two years ago and Farrell is a former state lawmaker.
It’s also unclear how voter unease will play out in the crowded, nonpartisan race, because residents are angry for diverse reasons. Some argue City Hall is wasting money on homeless services and undermining the police, while others note leaders are adding too little affordable housing and tolerating police misconduct.
“It’s really a matter of perception,” said Crystal Fincher, another consultant not involved in the race.
In a poll of likely November 2021 voters commissioned by business leaders a few months ago, 53% said Seattle was on the wrong track and 36% said the city was on the right track, according to a memo released by the Compassion Seattle campaign for a charter amendment related to homelessness. In a poll of likely August 2021 voters commissioned by Farrell’s campaign last month, 43% said wrong track and 19% said right track, according to a memo.
Fincher is skeptical about drawing conclusions. Voters may be desperate for decisive action, she said, blaming stagnation at City Hall on Durkan in particular. But Durkan and the council have clashed on various issues, “so to say the city has a [singular] direction isn’t accurate,” Fincher said.
There was a similar atmosphere during Seattle’s 2019 district races, when four council members (including Harrell) bailed amid talk that voters were unhappy. But all three incumbents who ran were victorious, and other winners included newcomers with similar politics, bucking a $2 million effort by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to reshape the council.
“We know that a lot of voters are frustrated … But it’s harder to cobble together a clear answer [on what to do]” that appeals to the majority, said Ben Anderstone, also a consultant not involved in the mayoral race.
“That’s why you see some candidates trying to appeal widely to the ‘wrong track’ sentiment without alienating half the people who feel that way,” he added, predicting contenders will sharpen their stances in the coming weeks.
The race may ultimately split between chamber-friendly and “community-based” candidates, as in many previous contests, Fincher said. Newspaper endorsements can also play a key role.
Some contenders can’t be blamed directly for City Hall missteps. Echohawk, Farrell and Art Langlie have never worked for the city. Houston and Lance Randall have worked for the city in nonleadership roles.
Echohawk and Farrell mostly align with Seattle’s political mainstream but say they would bring new energy to problems like the city’s housing crunch.
Echohawk served on Seattle’s Community Police Commission and worked closely with City Hall, as executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, to secure funding for services and housing.
But the 45-year-old has never run for office before and, as a Native woman, “was born an outsider,” she said, mentioning Durkan initiatives that she opposed, like 2018’s police-union contract.
“I have been at those tables … to make sure the voice of the Native homeless community is there,” she said, asserting she’s best prepared to tackle homelessness.
Farrell, 47, has been involved in politics for years. She led a transit lobbying organization, represented Northeast Seattle in the state Legislature and ran for mayor in 2017, placing fourth.
She hopes her work in Olympia, where she helped win billions of dollars for transportation projects, will look better to voters than what’s occured at City Hall.
Almost six years after Seattle declared a homelessness emergency, “We haven’t made significant headway,” Farrell spokesperson Will Casey said, calling her “someone who’s taken on big challenges before.”
Houston may be the most authentic change agent, considering he’s 32, an architect, moved to Seattle in 2016, wants to reallocate police spending and believes eight apartments should be allowed on every residential lot.
“What makes me different is that I’ve been organizing … with other activists to push for these changes,” he said.
“Frustrating and amusing” is how Houston described start-over messaging by candidates who already “have been involved in decision-making.”
Randall and Langlie would steer Seattle in the opposite direction. They both oppose tax increases for large corporations and property owners.
Randall, 55, is no stranger to government, having worked for a congressperson and a mayor in Georgia. He worked on economic development under three Seattle mayors and later for a South Seattle nonprofit.
Langlie, a construction executive and Salvation Army board member, has a different connection to politics. The 54-year-old’s grandfather, also named Arthur Langlie, was a Washington governor.
Voter unrest over increasing housing costs, homelessness and gentrification over the past decade could work against Harrell, 62, who served on the council from 2008 to 2019, and against González, 44, who was elected in 2015.
Seattle candidates with complicated voting records tend to struggle in mayoral races. More than a dozen council members have registered unsuccessful bids in the past 50 years (including Harrell in 2013), with Norm Rice the lone winner in 1989, said Dean Nielsen, a consultant involved with a pro-Harrell political action committee.
“When you’re in government you have to choose, and when you make choices, there are winners and losers,” Nielsen said.
Case in point: Harrell and González each voted to pass a business “head tax” in 2018, then voted to repeal it, irking opponents and proponents alike. They also each voted for the 2018 police contract many reformers objected to. Harrell didn’t publicly call for Ed Murray to resign as mayor in 2017 amid sexual abuse allegations, while González did.
Still, Harrell and González are decent bets to advance past the the top-two primary. They’ll benefit from name recognition, their experience will reassure some voters and they can highlight votes for popular policies, like Seattle’s $15 minimum wage. Businesspeople started the pro-Harrell PAC, and labor unions are likely to support a pro-González PAC.
Seattle’s economy boomed under their watch and their personal stories could resonate. Harrell was raised by city workers in the redlined Central District, and González was raised by migrant workers in Yakima Valley. Farrell’s recent poll showed Harrell leading with 23% and González second with 11%, while a March poll by González showed them neck and neck.
González said she’s proud of her “progressive record,” which includes “unlocking federal government dollars to move unhoused people into underutilized hotel rooms … protecting hotel workers from sexual assault and passing hazard pay for grocery store workers” and other steps.
Seattle’s other citywide council member, Teresa Mosqueda, whose politics are relatively similar, has attracted no well-funded challengers this year.
Monisha Harrell, a consultant working on her uncle’s campaign, scoffed at the notion that any of the contenders are real outsiders.
Sixkiller has worked for King County Executive Dow Constantine and as a Washington, D.C., lobbyist (his clients were mostly tribes but he also did work for corporations, including a military/security contractor, a pharmaceutical company and a private prisons company; he says he sought funding for jails on reservations).
Farrell works for a think tank bankrolled by wealthy Democratic donor Nick Hanauer. Echohawk sat on Durkan’s transition team in 2017 and Houston just spent six months with Mosqueda as a policy adviser, Monisha Harrell pointed out.
“Every single one of these people has a finger in the middle of something,” she said.
That includes Bruce Harrell, who briefly served as interim mayor in 2017. His 2021 pitch is that the council he led was more deliberate and corporate-friendly than today’s. Harrell also is touting policies he championed, like banning criminal-background questions from job applications.
Nielsen and Monisha Harrell both compared Bruce Harrell to President Joe Biden — a known quantity whom Democrats chose try to beat Donald Trump in 2020. “The X in this case isn’t Trump, it’s the problems that keep getting worse in Seattle,” Nielsen said.
Fincher said she thinks candidates with optimistic plans and “big, bold messages,” rather than establishment credentials, will carry the day.
Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.