Seattle’s City Council is due to experience a massive turnover.
This election cycle, more council incumbents will voluntarily give up their positions than will seek reelection as council careers continue to trend shorter.
A largely new council will then inherit Seattle’s perennial issues of building more affordable housing and addressing growing public safety concerns, among others. The very same issues that have made council members targets of harassment are contributing to the body’s high turnover, according to interviews with present and former council members.
The council’s exodus includes Kshama Sawant, its senior member, who announced two weeks ago that she will vacate her seat after a decade. She followed announcements by District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold and District 4 Councilmember Alex Pedersen, and a series of informal statements by Council President Debora Juarez, who represents District 5.
Though Juarez has not yet made an announcement about seeking a new term, she said Friday that harassment and “credible threats” have increased in her time on council and have contributed to her decision.
“I’m not seen as a person by some people and it’s not safe for me or my family,” Juarez said in an interview.
“No job is worth that,” she later added.
While recently retired council members describe the decision to step down as “complex” and “deeply personal,” the political climate in Seattle appears to be a primary reason some local leaders are seeking shorter careers on the dais.
“It became less fun and more strenuous,” said former Councilmember Nick Licata, who served from 1998-2016.
Of the nine total council seats, there are seven district seats up for election in November, as current terms expire on Dec. 31. The two citywide council positions, along with the mayoral seat, are up for election in 2025.
So far only one — first-term District 7 Councilmember Andrew Lewis — has said he’ll run again.
In their official statements, Sawant said she’s leaving the council to pursue a new national labor campaign, Herbold said she is making way for a new progressive to run, and Pedersen — who will have served just one term — says he’s leaving to spend more time with family.
But the days of “elder statesmen,” such as Licata, who served term after term on the council, may be over, as the city’s most daunting issues and heightened national attention add pressure to the job, according to former Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
“It felt like a place where you could show up, not piss anyone off, and you were here forever,” O’Brien, a self-described “bleeding heart” ideologue who served on the council from 2009-2019, said of the generations of council members who preceded him.
“But it seemed like when I came on some of us were like, ‘We’re really going to start doing [expletive],’” O’Brien said of a “radical” shift in policy on the council.
As members led on some progressive local policies — like an environmental ban on Yellow Pages in 2010, a $15-per-hour minimum wage in 2014 and a controversial tax on Amazon in 2018 that was later repealed — the council garnered attention from outside of the city, including coverage from national media, some of which credited the city for leading the way on local policy, while others used Seattle as a cautionary tale.
“I think that council members are more aware of Seattle being in some ways a national target, since it’s held up as being this uber-liberal city,” Licata said.
“Having a national prominence has affected how people worry about being perceived,” Licata added.
The city has had to assume a greater role in human services, Licata said, adding to the burden of elected officials, as economic disparities have worsened in the last decade.
“It’s not because liberals took over,” Licata said, “it’s because the problems became bigger and we had less money to solve them.”
Homelessness, O’Brien said, was the biggest and most difficult issue faced by the council in his time. As the visible and tangible impacts of the housing crisis outpaced any progress the city made, he said, frustrations and concerns mounted among constituents.
“If we built 600 affordable housing units in a year, doubling what we built the last year, people would still ask, ‘Well, then how are there now 2,000 homeless people when there used to be 1,500,’” O’Brien said. “We could not keep up.”
Homelessness spurred even his previously apolitical friends to start asking questions about how the city would solve the burgeoning housing crisis. Soon O’Brien says it was hard to show up at his kids’ birthday parties, because people wanted answers he didn’t have.
“I could never say, ‘Once we do this, it will be fixed,’ and that was hard to explain to people, because it wasn’t just one thing we could do to fix this,” he said.
Increased local economic issues and national attention drove a wedge between residents who grew frustrated with the council, begetting screaming matches in public meetings, and more serious examples of doxing and harassment.
While O’Brien describes himself as “a white dude with a bunch of privilege who hasn’t been yelled at much in [his] life,” he fears that vitriol and harassment toward other elected officials may discourage qualified people from running or staying in office.
“Can we recruit good quality people to run for office? Do they want it?” he asked. “I’m worried that it’s going to backslide.”
Juarez, the council’s first Indigenous president, agrees, noting that harassment is disproportionate for women and people of color on the council.
For example, back in 2016, the council voted 5-4 to block a developer from building a Sodo sports arena in an attempt to lure the NBA back to the city. The vote was split by gender, with all five female members — including Juarez, Sawant and Herbold — voting against it.
The women faced such backlash in person and online that it attracted national media coverage. On her now-defunct late-night comedy show, “Full Frontal,” comedian Samantha Bee deemed them the “Seattle Seawards.”
“And it was only because we were women and it never stopped,” Juarez said Friday, reflecting on her seven years on the council.
“It was always bad for women of color on the council and then all hell broke loose with 2020 and even before that with Trumpism,” Juarez added, noting that she and her family are addressing the most serious threats in court.
Harassment of local elected officials peaked during protests against police violence in summer 2020, and around a commitment to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50%, which was quickly reversed. Activists went to the homes of several City Council members, including Pedersen and Juarez, who reported intimidating behavior such as written messages left at their homes. Later that year, someone threw a rock through Herbold’s window after she suggested there be legal protections for people caught shoplifting essential items.
Last year, the council passed a resolution condemning the harassment of elected officials and candidates after the Rev. Cary Anderson of Seattle’s First AME Church was reportedly shot with a BB gun while campaigning for a seat in Washington’s 30th legislative district.
Since then, Sawant says bags of human feces have been thrown on the lawn of her private residence six times, though she noted when announcing that she would not seek a fourth term that the harassment did not cause her decision. No stranger to conflict, Sawant said in an interview last week that the tension around her politics is a “badge of honor.”
“If the ruling class and their spokespeople were not angry with me, I would worry about what I was doing wrong,” Sawant said after announcing her intentions to leave office.
Pedersen declined to comment for this story.
While Herbold said last week she agrees that “polarization in local politics has increased as Seattle has taken the national stage as a progressive leader,” she maintains that it was not the primary factor in her decision and that the trend started years before she was in office.
This election, the council will lose its only socialist member in Sawant — who has pushed ideas like rent control, defunding the police and taxing large businesses — and its most centrist member — Pedersen, who has opposed the same ideas, while backing policies that support businesses and the Seattle Police Department. In Juarez and Herbold, the council will lose a moderate and a progressive, both two-term members who veered away from extremes on the council.
While it’s uncertain who will fill the vacated seats, voters in 2021 chose former Councilmember Bruce Harrell, a moderate, as mayor, and pro-business, moderate Democrat Sara Nelson as a citywide council member, while electing Republican Ann Davison as city attorney. The victories suggested a potential shift on the council toward the center.
Still, Seattle writer and 2019 council candidate Shaun Scott predicts progressive activists will step up to fill the void left by Sawant, and other left-leaning public servants.
“In every generation in Seattle politics, there’s been an active and very vibrant left movement,” Scott said. “There are going to continue to be voices calling attention to the inequities that the social order we live under has produced.”
He added, “We tend to focus on the individual personalities, but I look at the structural side. We don’t have a fair city. We have a city with huge wealth inequalities and huge overreaches of police power.”
Licata also warned that consistent high turnover will necessitate more training if new council members want to be able to pass effective policies.
“Otherwise, power will drift toward department heads, and council members will become less powerful as they know less about how the city works,” Licata said.
O’Brien issued a similar warning, noting that the ideal council has some members with experience and other who are newer, more zealous.
“If [the council] turns into a school board where everyone serves four years, no one’s going to know enough to get things done,” O’Brien said.
Candidates have until May 19 to get on the ballot. So far 14 candidates have filed paperwork to run for one of the seats.
Seattle Times staff writer Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.