The candidates in Seattle City Council Position 8 are tackling police reform, testing out Seattle’s first-in-the-nation “democracy vouchers,” giving life to a battle between labor and business and wrestling over the future of the American left.
This year’s race for Seattle City Council Position 8 was shaping up to be the city’s most watched, dissected and energetic primary-election contest.
With Councilmember Tim Burgess announcing in December that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term, a number of viable candidates had quickly jumped in, knowing the race to succeed the influential moderate could alter Seattle’s political trajectory for years.
But in recent months, the struggle over Burgess’ citywide seat has been overshadowed by a mayoral race with more drama than a soap opera.
Campaign donations for Seattle City Council Position 8
Hisam Goueli $29,649
Jon Grant $146,064
Mac McGregor $6,295
Teresa Mosqueda $134,407
Sara Nelson $62,487
Rudy Pantoja $100
Sheley Secrest $12,581
Charlene Strong $40,450
Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, as of June 30
Incumbent Ed Murray dropped out in May while denying claims he sexually abused teenagers in the 1980s. Then he threatened to re-enter with a write-in campaign. Meanwhile, a former mayor, former U.S. attorney and two state lawmakers jumped in.
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Still, the Position 8 race has hummed along, with candidates accumulating more than $500,000 in contributions. And the contest’s multiple story lines may reveal more about this political moment in the city than those in the mayor’s race.
The candidates are tackling police reform, testing out Seattle’s first-in-the-nation “democracy vouchers,” giving life to a battle between labor and business and wrestling over the future of the American left.
“You have a business candidate. You have a working-class candidate … You have a candidate running on an anti-establishment platform,” said Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council. “This race has become even more important because you don’t know who the next mayor will be.”
The democracy vouchers — which voters can convert to real money by assigning them to their preferred candidates — aren’t available to mayoral candidates this year. But they’re changing the Position 8 race.
As of June 29, a pair of council candidates had redeemed more than 7,600 of the $25 vouchers (voters get four vouchers each) for more than $190,000, according to the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission, which oversees the program.
Former Tenants Union of Washington State leader Jon Grant (no relation to Nicole) had redeemed 5,178 vouchers for more than $129,000, and Teresa Mosqueda, a Washington State Labor Council leader, had redeemed 2,449 for more than $61,000.
Additional Position 8 candidates are collecting vouchers while hoping to qualify for the program.
Grant’s fundraising shows the vouchers’ effect. When he ran for council in 2015, losing to Burgess in the general election, he raised less than $75,000.
Now vouchers are powering his campaign. Grant, 34, began collecting them door to door soon after they were mailed to voters in January.
By his own count, the candidate has raised 93 percent of his haul from more than 2,600 people contributing vouchers.
The money has allowed Grant to hire six campaign workers, who along with 300 volunteers, he argues, have helped him build the best ground game in the race.
“We’re hitting every district,” he said, arguing the voucher contributions show that his candidacy has grass-roots support. “We’re attempting to knock on 40,000 doors.”
Funded by $30 million in property taxes over 10 years that voters approved in 2015, the vouchers are supposed to result in more people contributing to campaigns.
And there are signs the experiment is working, according to René LeBeau, the city’s program coordinator. In 2015, just over 3,000 people contributed to Position 8 candidates. This year, more than 5,300 have — and the primary is still weeks away.
“Elections are hard to compare,” LeBeau said. “But around 2,100 are voucher participants, so the effect has been an increase in individuals contributing.”
Who are the Position 8 front-runners — those most likely to finish in the top two on Aug. 1 and advance to the November general election?
That depends on whom you talk to, as there have been no public polls in the race.
Sheley Secrest, an NAACP leader who declared her candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is in the mix. According to Burgess, the leaders are Mosqueda and Fremont Brewery co-owner Sara Nelson, who worked for years at City Hall with then-Councilmember Richard Conlin.
Mosqueda is endorsed by every Democratic Party group in the city and dozens of elected officials, such as U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. The 36-year-old health-policy expert helped write and pass an initiative last year raising the state’s minimum wage.
Nelson, 51, lacks party support but is endorsed by the Washington Conservation Voters (the organization has also endorsed Mosqueda). Her connection with a popular beer company could play well with voters.
Furthermore, Mosqueda and Nelson have distinct bases that could propel them out of the top-two primary into a pitched battle in the November general election. The former is unequivocally the pick of organized labor, with endorsements by countless unions, while the latter is unabashedly pro-business.
Nelson says council members should include more input from business owners and landlords as they develop worker and renter protections, and she opposes Seattle reinstating a per-employee “head tax,” which unions advocated for last year.
She says a new rule requiring landlords to accept tenants in the order they apply may unintentionally help better-off renters. And she says workplace rules should be streamlined, noting Seattle has no single standard for what counts as a small business.
“When did business become bad? There needs to be a better relationship between City Hall and the private sector,” she said.
Labor and business sometimes get along, teaming up to support Murray in 2013, for example. But they’re backing rivals for Position 8, with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political arm and other business groups endorsing Nelson.
Burgess, who isn’t endorsing a candidate before the primary, downplayed the divide. “We love labeling in Seattle politics, as a shortcut,” he said. “Both of them have the capacity to be well-rounded council members.”
Money will speak volumes, however. Unions may bolster Mosqueda using one or more independent-spending committees, while businesses are expected to spend on Nelson; a committee called People for Sara Nelson launched June 22.
Burgess worries that outside spending could escalate. Voters in 2015 lowered the cap on contributions directly to candidates from $700 to $500. Because cash in politics is “like water running downhill,” extra dollars may instead flow into independent committees, Burgess said.
Socialists and Democrats
Another rift in the race stretches back to the presidential campaign. The Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America had only 40 members a year ago, but enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders has helped grow the chapter to 500-plus people.
“That accounts for us becoming more of a presence,” said chair Andrej Markovčič. “We have an active base and we’re passionate about the issues we’re fighting for.”
And this summer, the Democratic Socialists — and the Socialist Alternative Party, of which Councilmember Kshama Sawant is a leader — are fighting for Jon Grant.
“Jon has become a member of our organization,” Markovčič said. “And the positions he’s taking are in line with what our members want to see.”
Seattle’s socialist movement has mostly made common cause with organized labor since Sawant defeated Conlin in 2013. But the Position 8 race is an exception.
When Socialist Alternative endorsed Grant last month, Nicole Grant ripped the party for picking a “poser” man over Mosqueda, a Latina “working-class power femme.”
She described Mosqueda as a candidate who can move the Democratic Party forward — a young woman of color fighting President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Sawant replied with an Op-Ed in The Stranger, slamming “the vast majority of union leaders” for denying Sanders their support in his campaign against Hillary Clinton.
The candidates agree on many issues and worked together on the minimum-wage campaign for which Mosqueda was political director last year.
Even Nicole Grant acknowledges the war of words probably matters more to “serious political junkies” than to average voters. And Seattle races are technically nonpartisan. But there also are real differences between the candidates.
Jon Grant says Seattle should force developers to make 25 percent of new housing units affordable, a much higher mandate than the city is implementing now. Too high, Mosqueda says, arguing a 25 percent requirement could hamper production.
“I’m not interested in pounding my fist on the table,” she said. “The unfortunate truth is that 25 percent isn’t feasible. It would slow down building.”
Grant is the housing expert, having led the Tenants Union. He may not get votes from all his former colleagues, though. In a letter to the organization’s board shortly after he left, three staffers denounced a work environment “not prepared to nurture the leadership of people of color … bred by an executive director who lacked leadership and accountability.”
“I let down some employees, and I take their feedback to heart and always strive to do better,” Grant said recently, noting he had promoted one of the letter writers.
“Have you come through?”
Secrest is an experienced community advocate and might be the most compelling public speaker in the race. The 42-year-old attorney is a vice president of the local NAACP and is endorsed by Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (who has also endorsed Mosqueda).
Alec Stephens, who chairs the 37th District Democrats, expects Secrest to do well in his organization’s South Seattle territory. The 37th Dems endorsed her and Mosqueda.
“That wasn’t surprising — a strong African-American sister and a strong Latina sister,” said Stephens, who expects the most active candidate to prevail.
“It’ll come down to, ‘Have I seen you? Have you come through?’” he said.
Homelessness, rents and home prices are on the minds of voters this summer, along with police shootings, Stephens said, giving Secrest the edge in that subject area.
At the NAACP, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Urban League, the candidate has cooperated with anti-displacement activists and property owners, employees and employers, police critics and the police department.
“I have experience on the key issues,” she said, adding, “My work on police reform is more than a hashtag. I eat, live and breathe it.”
Mac McGregor would be the first transgender elected official in Washington, while Hisam Goueli, a physician calling for Seattle to invest $25 million in preventive medical care, has raised nearly $30,000.
Charlene Strong, an LGBTQ-rights activist who chairs the state’s human-rights commission, has raised more than $37,000, while Rudy Pantoja, a candidate from Ballard, has raised $100.
This story has been updated to reflect a dual endorsement of Sara Nelson and Teresa Mosqueda by the Washington Conservation Voters and a dual endorsement of Sheley Secrest and Teresa Mosqueda by Larry Gossett.