Two weeks ago, at a City Council debate in Ballard, the moderator prompted Dan Strauss to ask a question of his opponent, Heidi Wills.
“Voters need to be asking us, the candidates, the questions,” he said. “I’ve had all my questions answered for the day.”
The moderator, surprised, said he’d never seen a candidate turn down such an opportunity before.
“I would just say that he’s a gentleman,” Wills responded. “I would feel better asking him a question if he would ask me one.”
The campaign for Seattle City Council in District 6, representing Ballard, Fremont, Phinney Ridge and Green Lake, has been very polite.
The two candidates agree on a lot. Both want denser housing and more duplexes and triplexes in single family neighborhoods. Both want more bike lanes, but neither want the Burke-Gilman Trail missing link to be completed on Shilshole Avenue, where the city has been trying to build it for at least 15 years.
Wills, a former council member who has run a golf nonprofit, has even told audiences, repeatedly, that their election is not the most important on the ballot, urging them to vote against Initiative 976, Tim Eyman’s $30 car-tab measure.
But the business community sees significant differences between the two candidates.
Wills has been resolute that the head tax — a tax on big business the City Council passed last year and then abruptly repealed — was a bad idea and should not return, while Strauss, an aide to Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, has been less clear. Strauss has said clearly that the city needs a new, progressive, revenue source to fund solutions to homelessness, while Wills says new revenue discussions should take a back seat to reevaluating how funds are currently being spent.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s political-action committee, bankrolled mostly by Amazon, has spent nearly $300,000 to date on Wills’ behalf. That’s more than either candidate has raised for their own campaigns.
Another PAC, People For Seattle, funded by wealthy local businessmen, including Amazon executives, has spent more than $135,000 boosting Wills’ campaign. She also has received more than $85,000 in outside spending from the Seattle Fire Fighters union PAC, while Strauss has received more than $100,000 in help from a PAC funded by unions and wealthy investor Nick Hanauer.
Asked to delineate the major differences between himself and his opponent, Strauss, 33, points immediately toward their funders, rather than policy differences.
“I’m not tied to any special interests,” he said. “If you look at the amount of donors she has and the amount of money she’s raising, it’s all from people who put her in office before: special interests, business groups.”
Wills, 51, says her campaign is about refocusing on “basic services” of local government and that her emphasis on public safety has resonated with the business community.
“People deserve to feel safe and be safe where they live and work,” she said. “He does not mention public safety at all, even in his voter pamphlet statement.”
Former “rising star” vs. “Boy Scout”
Wills, a Fremont homeowner, was student body president at the University of Washington before working on fundraising for the King County Democrats and then working as an aide to the County Council and to then-County Executive Ron Sims.
In 1999, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Seattle City Council, but was bounced after just one term due, in large part, to her involvement in the “Strippergate” scandal, in which a strip-club owner illegally bundled donations to her and two other council members prior to their approving a zoning change at one of his clubs.
After leaving the council, for 13 years she led The First Tee of Greater Seattle, a nonprofit that teaches life skills to kids through golf. She and her husband also own a business that sells inspirational cards and gifts.
Peter Steinbrueck, the City Council president when Wills was on the council, said she was a “rising star” and would have been reelected if not for the scandal.
“She is a very good communicator and networker. She impressed everyone with those kinds of skills — smart, thoughtful and, I think, value-based,” he said.
“We can all make mistakes, but I think the important thing is that you learn from them,” Steinbrueck said. “I think she’s had plenty of time to think about that and has matured and is wiser and better for it, in terms of returning to political office.”
Wills has said that she didn’t know who the organized crime-affiliated strip club owner was at the time. Late last month she added a section to her website called “Strippergate explained,” in which she says she “accepts responsibility for my missteps 16 years ago” and “negative campaigning is not what’s needed now.”
Strauss begins his pitch to voters by telling them that he’s born and raised in Ballard, where he still lives. He has worked almost exclusively in government and politics since 2012, when he earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Oregon.
He led the 2013 reelection campaign of then-Snohomish County Councilmember Dave Somers and worked in the offices of state Sen. David Frockt and the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Since 2017, he’s been a legislative assistant to Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.
“Two words,” Bagshaw said of her aide. “Boy Scout.” She chuckles that he’s a member of the Ballard Elks Club — “How many 33-, 34-year-olds belong to the Ballard Elks Club?” she asked.
“He is much tougher than he looks,” Bagshaw said. “And he has a wonderful, kind approach to people. We both recognize that kindness matters and respecting individual opinions matters.”
Strauss mostly declines to directly attack Wills over the past controversy, but points to a series of old op-eds by former mayor and council member Tim Burgess. In 2006, Burgess called Strippergate “a black mark that still stains the legacy of our City Council.” He now runs the People for Seattle PAC that’s spent more than $135,000 on Wills’ behalf.
Head tax, bus lanes debated
Wills says current City Council has strayed too far from the foundations of municipal government: public safety, transportation, infrastructure, parks and community centers.
She doesn’t support the head tax and says any new revenue to address homelessness should come only after a clear plan for how funds would be used, and that any new tax should probably be regional, not Seattle-specific.
“The fact that city leaders moved forward to pass that without responding to real concerns of small businesses, family-owned businesses,” she said, “was really shortsighted.”
She likes the idea of more bus lanes, but “what are the trade-offs? What do you take away? Do you take away that lane of traffic, do you take away the center lane, do you take away parking?”
Strauss wants a “citywide network of connected bus lanes” to give people an alternative to driving. “There hasn’t been an urgency, a political will, and I’m going to bring that urgency,” he said.
He got gently heckled at the Ballard debate for equivocating on the head tax, saying “my preference is to not have it come back.”
He says it was “too big a fight over too little money.”