In Seattle’s primary elections, the mayoral race will be the most important and attention-grabbing contest. But the race for Position 9 on the City Council may prove the clearest indicator of what voters want at City Hall (those willing to turn out in the middle of summer, at least).
Whereas the mayoral job has attracted a crowd of contenders with overlapping messages and experiences, the three leading Position 9 candidates are running relatively distinct campaigns.
There’s Nikkita Oliver, a lawyer, organizer and educator who wants to divest from the police, reinvest the money in community care and bring people power to City Hall. There’s Brianna Thomas, chief of staff to council President M. Lorena González, who wants to reform the police and broker pacts to keep the council moving. And there’s Sara Nelson, Fremont Brewing co-owner, who wants to preserve police funding and “course correct” a current council she describes as not pragmatic. Four other candidates lag behind in fundraising.
Position 9 is one of only two citywide seats on the nine-member council, and the nonpartisan 2021 race is an open contest because González, who clashed with Mayor Jenny Durkan at times during last year’s COVID-19 crisis, Black Lives Matter demonstrations and budget talks, is running for mayor.
“Whoever gets this [council] job is going to have to do some work reconnecting the city after a period of high tension, from Hillman City to Maple Leaf,” Thomas said.
The Position 9 candidates hold nuanced views on issues ranging from homelessness to zoning, and they’re trying to build coalition-style support, so there still are details for voters to sift through ahead of the Aug. 3 primary. But Oliver, Thomas and Nelson already are laying claim to key constituencies, like labor unions, Democratic Party groups and business donors.
Volunteers with Oliver’s campaign began knocking on doors months ago, the candidate pointed out. Oliver’s pronouns are they/them. “We’ve not had a canvass below 30 volunteers, and multiple times we’ve had 100 volunteers,” they said.
The council’s seven district seats aren’t up for grabs until 2023 and incumbent Teresa Mosqueda, backed by organized labor, could retain her Position 8 seat this year. None of her 10 challengers are raising much money; one is designer and activist Kate Martin, who ran unsuccessfully for the Seattle School Board in 2011, mayor in 2013 and council in 2019, taking small percentages in her City Hall bids.
That makes the Position 9 race a marquee matchup, with major implications for the council’s political dynamic. The council passes laws and adopts budgets, while the mayor runs the city’s operations and spends the dollars. Durkan isn’t seeking reelection.
“If you think things are going well in Seattle right now, I might not be the right candidate for you,” Nelson said.
Candidates’ backgrounds vary
Oliver has never worked at City Hall but is the best known Position 9 candidate. That’s partly because they ran for mayor in 2017, placing third in the primary, and because they’ve taken part in public activism, like opposition to King County’s new youth jail and advocacy that persuaded the mayor and council to shift dollars from policing to other strategies last year.
The 35-year-old South Seattle resident recently taught a course on abolition at Seattle University and heads Creative Justice, a nonprofit that offers arts-based alternatives to incarceration for young people. Oliver’s campaign is taking part in mutual-aid events, like vaccination clinics, the candidate said.
“All my work has been through grassroots-movement organizing,” Oliver said. “I think that’s unique … There should be more than one way to get to public office.”
Thomas has worked with González since 2015, with a break to help set up Seattle’s new Office of Inspector General, a police watchdog. She managed campaigns for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac and for “democracy vouchers,” which allow Seattle residents to donate taxpayer bucks to participating candidates. She placed fourth in a 2015 council primary, seeking the seat Lisa Herbold now holds.
The 39-year-old West Seattle resident mostly has worked behind the scenes, negotiating with stakeholders to help the council pass policies like secure scheduling for service workers and a gun-storage mandate. She understands better now than in 2015 what a job on the council demands, she said.
“I’ve learned how this actually works,” Thomas said. “What compromise looks like in legislation, versus compromising your values.”
Nelson also has worked at City Hall, as a policy adviser to then-Councilmember Richard Conlin through 2013, with a break from 2008 to 2010 to start Fremont Brewing with her husband. But after a number of years away, she says she would shake up the scene, touting the employee benefits and sustainable practices at her company.
“We have to have someone on the council who actually has started and grown a business in Seattle … sometimes well-intentioned policies can have negative impacts,” like renter laws that drive small landlords to sell, said the 55-year-old Green Lake resident who placed third in a 2017 council race that Mosqueda won.
Nelson says she’s courting voters who agree, as Seattle recovers from COVID-19, that “lofty ideological statements aren’t going to cut it anymore.”
Oliver says much of the Police Department’s funding should be moved to basic needs programs, and prevention and intervention programs. They oppose sweeps of homeless encampments and oppose the Compassion Seattle campaign for a charter amendment that would mandate more shelters without adding funding and that critics say would enshrine encampment removals in the charter.
The council’s new tax on high salaries at big businesses should be twice as large, Oliver says, with more tiny homes and affordable housing needed. Oliver also wants the council to consider new tools, such as an estate tax and a vacant-property tax, and is interested in permanent rent control for commercial tenants.
“I don’t think affordable housing is radical or idealistic. Every study we’ve done in this region says that’s the answer. I don’t think progressive taxation is radical or idealistic,” Oliver said, adding, “We know [encampment] sweeps don’t work.”
Thomas also opposes Compassion Seattle and agrees that corporations should contribute more in taxes, though she wants to put the onus on business leaders to figure that out because, “I’m not sure there’s a magic tool” not already tried that would jibe with state law, she said.
She would direct her energy at other issues, like bolstering the city’s Office of Economic Development with a sort of “business doula” to help entrepreneurs. Many Black-owned businesses have gone under during the pandemic, she noted.
Thomas says she disagreed with her boss last year when González backed demands to defund the police by 50%. Their conversations were “very tense,” she said. “I’m in camp reform, not camp abolish the police,” she added. “50% sounded good in the moment, when we were all in pain … But 50% based on what?”
While Thomas isn’t opposed to community alternatives, she notes she hasn’t given up on a police accountability law the council passed in 2017. She says a better police-union contract could make the law a game changer; the union’s last contract, approved by the council in 2018 over community group objections, mooted key provisions in the law.
Nelson believes social workers could respond to some calls, rather than police. But she opposes reductions to police funding and blames the council for driving away Chief Carmen Best last year. She says she would focus infrastructure, like community center repairs and bridge maintenance. She opposed the council’s payroll tax, which City Hall is partly using this year to avoid cuts to services.
Nelson supports Compassion Seattle. She says the city should collect better data on people living outside before spending more money on homelessness, suggesting people without shelter perhaps could be hired to conduct surveys.
“We need more information on who our unsheltered neighbors are, what led them to homelessness and what precise services they need,” she said.
Nelson suspects that more behavioral health and addiction services are needed and says the city should spend more money on those. She would try to reprioritize dollars for that, rather than seek new revenue, but isn’t sure where she would cut. Nelson also has proposed a “baby bonds” program, where children in low-income households would get $1,000 at birth and each year.
All three contenders say Seattle’s zoning should permit more density, with Oliver and Thomas saying they want to allow multifamily housing like duplexes and triplexes on all residential blocks, hopefully by 2024, and with Nelson saying City Hall should seriously consider making changes soon. Oliver stresses the need for child care, transit and groceries along with the density, plus protections against gentrification. Nelson stresses the need for resident input.
Candidates and their supporters
As of Friday, Oliver’s campaign had reported about $186,000 raised from 2,976 donors and Thomas had reported about $92,000 from 1,536 donors, with vouchers accounting for more than half of the money for both candidates. Nelson had reported about $143,000 from 672 donors. She’s not participating in the vouchers program.
Oliver is endorsed by Morales, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, unions for public-school teachers,supermarket workers and transit workers and Seattle’s Democratic Socialists chapter, among others.
Seattle is catching up to ideas that Oliver advanced in 2017, especially around public safety, with last year’s civil rights uprising opening eyes, said Shaun Scott, Oliver’s campaign coordinator. “Nikkita has been consistent on this message,” Scott said.
Thomas is endorsed by González, Herbold, Councilmember Dan Strauss, the Teamsters, multiple Democratic Party groups, state Sen. Joe Nguyen and state Rep. David Hackney, among others.
Derek Richards, who recently chaired the King County Young Democrats, said Thomas shouldn’t be considered a status quo candidate. “If you’re constantly getting wins and moving in the right direction, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Nelson is endorsed by former City Councilmember Heidi Wills, former state Rep. Gael Tarleton, the union for Seattle firefighters and the Seattle Building Trades Council, among others.
Nelson is criticizing the city’s response to the homelessness crisis, and donors are responding to that, despite the challenges of stumping in a pandemic, consultant Ben Anderstone said. The Nelson campaign recently held a pizza-cooking event over Zoom with supporters and restaurateur Ethan Stowell, Anderstone noted.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sara Nelson left City Hall in 2009 to start Fremont Brewing. She worked for then-Councilmember Richard Conlin through 2013, with a break from 2008 to 2010 to start the company. The earlier version also referred to Joe Nguyen as a state representative. Nguyen is a state senator.