Voters trickled by ballot drop boxes and candidates rushed to knock on more doors Monday as Seattle geared up for a City Council primary election that will help determine the trajectory of local politics for the next four years.
Business-backed candidates could curb advances by the council’s left wing, or candidates with ties to unions and socialist groups could make additional gains in a booming metropolis with a chasm between rich and poor. Mayor Jenny Durkan could add or lose allies.
Neighborhood issues are playing a role in the first district races since Seattle moved to geographic representation in 2015, with some voters asking candidates about local streets and parks.
The results also may demonstrate whether the city’s taxpayer-funded democracy vouchers are a huge game-changer for grassroots candidates or mostly a money-maker for political consultants.
Meanwhile, Washington has adopted same-day voter registration and launched a new statewide voter-management system. As of noon Monday, about 20% of active Seattle voters had returned their ballots.
There have been no public polls on the council candidates this spring and summer to measure which way the winds are blowing, leaving many questions to be answered Tuesday night, when initial tallies will be released.
All seven of the council’s district seats are up for grabs and there are 55 candidates — the most in a Seattle primary in modern history. The top two vote-getters in each race will advance to the Nov. 5 general election.
Depositing ballots in a drop box outside Rainier Beach Community Center, voters cited housing costs and racial inequities as key challenges. Evelyn Shelby, 57, sought “people who are vested in the diversity of communities,” she said, casting her lot with District 2 candidate Tammy Morales.
Looming over the primary is the memory of turmoil at City Hall last year, when the council passed a per-employee head tax on high-grossing businesses to fund homeless services and housing and then repealed the tax weeks later under pressure from companies like Amazon and some voters.
Four of seven incumbents decided to wave goodbye rather than take their chances, leaving only three colleagues to battle critics who say the council stumbled on problems related to rapid growth, cost of living increases and homelessness.
Seeking a council less likely to raise taxes on businesses and add regulations, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and its allies hope to unseat two of the three remaining incumbents, Lisa Herbold in District 1 and Kshama Sawant in District 3. That would leave Debora Juarez in District 5 as the only district-based council member still standing.
The chamber’s PAC has spent more than $377,000 to support and oppose candidates, while a PAC with similar views called People for Seattle has spent more than $117,000, both urging votes for “pragmatic progressives.”
Less lefty voters have called for a clean sweep. The Speak Out Seattle advocacy group, which has opposed the head tax and safe drug consumption sites, recommended challengers in all three races after drawing crowds to candidate forums.
But unions, their allies and Democratic Party groups have rallied behind Herbold and Juarez, who may also benefit from paying closer attention than some of their colleagues to constituent issues in their districts. Some large unions have abandoned Sawant, yet others have stood by the outspoken socialist council member, along with many social-justice advocates.
At a drop box outside Seattle Central College, Ryan Crawford, 33, voted for Sawant to “keep pulling the City Council more progressively left,” while Quentin King, 57, chose Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce leader Egan Orion to “work with other [council members] … to get things done.”
Herbold will almost certainly advance alongside attorney Phillip Tavel. Juarez also is almost sure to clear the primary, perhaps accompanied by environmental consultant John Lombard or attorney Ann Davison Sattler.
Sawant is likely to advance, as well. Less clear is which challenger could join her. Egan Orion is supported by the chamber, and Zachary DeWolf and Ami Nguyen by Democratic groups and unions. Logan Bowers was an early entrant and older voters could boost Pat Murakami.
Seattle’s democracy vouchers, which voters assign to the candidates they like, have helped more candidates than usual run serious, viable campaigns.
District 2’s Bruce Harrell and District 7’s Sally Bagshaw, who both declined to seek reelection, have aligned with Durkan on some issues, as did District 4’s Rob Johnson before he resigned in April. District 6’s departing Mike O’Brien has tended to team up with Sawant and Herbold.
O’Brien, Sawant and Herbold joined citywide Councilmembers Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda to champion a larger head tax last year, outnumbering the more leery Juarez, Harrell, Bagshaw and Johnson.
The open-seat races, which could alter the balance of power, have attracted large numbers of candidates, making them unpredictable. The District 2 contest has generated heat, with the mayor weighing in for chamber pick Mark Solomon against union-backed Morales.
Chamber-supported Alex Pedersen, labor choice Emily Myers, Democratic Socialist Shaun Scott and safe-streets advocate Cathy Tuttle appear to be contenders in District 4.
Former Councilmember Heidi Wills is the best known name in District 6 while Jay Fathi and Dan Strauss have institutional endorsements. Melissa Hall, Jon Lisbin and Sergio Garcia could make noise. Andrew Lewis and Jim Pugel could top a relatively conservative crop of District 7 candidates, with Michael George also a contender.
It’s unclear what influence environmentalist voters may wield. Seattle’s Sierra Club chapter spread its primary endorsements between socialists and chamber-backed candidates.
The median age of Seattle voters who had returned their ballots as of Monday was 56, according to Maple Leaf resident Glenn Pittenger, a professional data analyst who digs into local politics in his spare time.
“The median registered voter age is 43,” Pittenger said, encouraging younger people to complete their ballots.