The Seattle region has more of almost everything than it did just six years ago, when voters chose to elect City Council members by districts.
The area has added 135,000 homes, but has seen its population swell by 400,000.
Homelessness has spiked by a third.
Amazon’s workforce here has exploded from 13,000 to nearly 55,000.
And the light-rail system meant to connect the region has inched ahead. It now spans 22 miles, with 94 more miles in the works.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s elections — the most expensive in Seattle history, thanks to record sums spent in the City Council’s district races — voters are wondering: Now that a historic boom has reshaped the region, to what extent should its politics be reshaped, too?
“Growth is on people’s minds, and that’s natural,” said Josh Brown, executive director at the Puget Sound Regional Council, a planning body.
Homelessness and housing-cost challenges, aggravated by a surge in new residents without a commensurate increase in affordable housing, highlight almost every race and issue on Seattle-area ballots.
The region’s plan for moving all those people around — a $54 billion expansion of light rail and bus service approved in 2016 — faces an uncertain future as voters weigh whether to claw back the car-tab taxes that help pay for it.
In surveys before the boom, Seattle-area residents said jobs and the economy were top concerns, Brown noted. Now, housing and mobility worries dominate instead.
“Folks look at the great quality of life in our region and look at things that potentially threaten that quality of life,” said Brown, the planner.
Even the region’s electorate has been remade. Nearly 40% of Seattle voters weren’t registered in Washington four years ago. Amazon, driving the boom, has spent an unprecedented amount of money to bend the Seattle City Council toward its vision.
“The 12th man just moved here,” Brown joked, playing with the nickname for Seahawks fans. Even suburbs like Bellevue and Newcastle are now adding more apartments than single-family houses, he noted.
“We need candidates who can plan,” said Bellevue City Councilmember and Deputy Mayor Lynne Robinson. “You can’t fight growth, so you better plan for it.”
In Bellevue, where a majority of the City Council is up for election, the city upzoned its downtown two years ago, allowing buildings to double in height in some areas. That was well before Amazon officially announced it would build a campus there, but Robinson said the city made a smart bet.
“We knew we were going to have companies coming in and many, many employees,” Robinson said. “We just didn’t imagine it would be one company, but we’re thrilled we planned for that.”
Three years ago, local leaders likewise urged voters to plan ahead by sending them Sound Transit 3, or ST3.
“Growth is a fact: Our region adds 230 people every day,” the ballot measure’s supporters wrote at the time, promising the massive bus and rail build-out would provide them “the choice to get out of daily gridlock.”
Regional voters concurred, approving the measure. But voters across Washington — most of whom don’t even pay Sound Transit taxes — are now considering something like a do-over.
Tim Eyman’s state Initiative 976 would cut all car-tab taxes to a flat $30. That would cost Sound Transit $20 billion over the next 20 years, directly and through higher borrowing costs, according to the agency. Eyman supporters say it’s a way to push back on what they argue is a misguided and misleading policy for addressing growth.
“Seattle and King County voters who get their annual car tabs look at the (transit) portion and say, ‘Holy crap, I don’t think I voted for that, and here’s a chance I can vote against it,’ ” said Vic Bishop, legislative chair of an Eastside group that advocates for highway expansion.
The Seattle City Council unanimously stuck by ST3, stating in a resolution that local residents “voted to tax themselves to address their own transportation needs.” I-976 “would in fact reverse the will of the people,” Councilmember Debora Juarez said.
For Dorli Rainey, the ballot measure is also about Amazon’s hulking advance, because the corporate behemoth has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat I-976. Though the 92-year-old Seattle voter has never before voted with Eyman, she worries the company run by Jeff Bezos is meddling too much.
“Somebody has gotta stop Jeff Bezos,” Rainey said.
Ona Johnson agrees with that sentiment, at least with respect to the Seattle elections, though she’s contemplating local politics from the other end of the age spectrum. The 12-year-old sold homemade cupcakes just outside the Ballard Farmers Market last weekend to “fight back” against Amazon’s record spending in the council elections via political-action committees and to speak up for marginalized people not benefiting from the city’s boom.
All seven of the council’s district seats are up for election, and each race has one candidate backed by Amazon.
In every district race but one, those candidates are battling opponents with support from service-worker unions and social-justice advocates.
That showdown has attracted attention from progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and energized lefty voters, with the hype irking business-backed candidates who would rather talk about their own ideas, like hiring more cops to patrol Seattle streets.
Johnson hit on the bake-sale idea when her mother, a community organizer, attended an event about Amazon “buying candidates and not paying taxes” she said, noting such taxes could help the homeless people she sees around town.
“I have a big heart and really care about homeless people,” said Johnson, whose interactions with market-goers were positive except when, “A man came by and he said that I was ruining the city.”
Though Seattle politics are particularly divisive this year, voters mostly agree about the city’s problems, which are similar to those plaguing other growing cities, said Jeff Shulman, a University of Washington professor who hosts the Seattle Growth Podcast.
“Whether you’re talking to artists or developers or business leaders … there’s this question of who Seattle is being built for,” Shulman said. Many people “feel like they’re being discarded or erased, and that stems from the buildings they’re used to and the businesses they’re used to and the people they’re used to being gone.”
The reason local politics are red-hot is that voters disagree vehemently about the proper solutions to Seattle’s problems, Shulman said. Some think bike and bus lanes are the answer to Seattle’s mobility challenges, while others scoff. Some think upzones are the answer to the city’s housing woes, while others are skeptical.
The council candidates who convince voters “their way of life and culture will be carried forward” are going to win, the professor and podcaster predicted.
Sameth Mell, who has been vetting candidates with the Seattle-based Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color, echoed that view.
Three Cambodian American restaurants have gone out of business this year, said Mell. Voters he talks to want to know “which candidates are actually tracking” such closures and who can help ethnic businesses thrive even as the city changes, he said.
An uncomfortable truth is that the Seattle council, held responsible by critics for allowing homelessness to spread, has relatively little power, said state Sen. Joe Nguyen, whose district stretches from West Seattle to White Center and Burien.
“The things people blame the Seattle City Council for” should be taken up with the state Legislature, Nguyen said, because Olympia has the authority to reform Washington’s tax system and direct new money toward growth challenges.
The anger directed at Seattle incumbents Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Debora Juarez represents a backlash against increasing gender and racial diversity in local politics, rather than a revolt by fiscally conservative voters, Nguyen contends.
In Renton, outgoing Mayor Denis Law remembers not that long ago when the suburb was essentially a Boeing company town, with more than half its workforce employed by the aerospace giant. Now Law pegs Renton’s Boeing employment at about 20%. The city’s population has doubled since the turn of the century, both Kaiser Permanente and Providence Health have opened major facilities there, and new housing developments going in are selling homes starting at well over $1 million.
The race to succeed Law as mayor is close — the two candidates were separated in the primary by just a dozen votes. Their campaigns, focused on housing, homelessness, traffic and public safety, might sound familiar to Seattle residents.
“All the gentrification is clearly moving south. Over the last 10, 15 years Renton has become literally unaffordable for a lot of people,” Law said. “The tap dance is, how do you accept more growth but also protect what you have?”