Urbanists — who advocate for more biking, transit and dense development — may be the biggest winners in Tuesday’s Seattle City Council election.
Some critics of district voting for the Seattle City Council argued it would hand political power to cranky homeowners hostile to new bicycle lanes, costly transit projects and dense development.
But the biggest winners in Tuesday’s election appear to be Seattle’s urbanists — its advocates for more bicycling, transit and density. Candidates they backed have won or are ahead in every race as ballots continue to be counted.
And the Move Seattle transportation levy they championed is all but certain to pass, as well.
The election was the council’s first in more than 100 years with neighborhood districts. All nine positions were up for grabs, including seven district seats.
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“I was very concerned a year ago, two years ago,” said David Rolf, president of the Seattle-based Service Employees International Union 775, who opposed the 2013 ballot measure that moved the council to district voting.
“But I think urbanists in Seattle can sort of breathe a sigh of relief. Districts didn’t end up doing what they theoretically could have done.”
Debora Juarez (District 5), Mike O’Brien (District 6), Sally Bagshaw (District 7) and Lorena González (Position 9) are clear winners after two days of ballot-counting.
Shannon Braddock (District 1), Bruce Harrell (District 2), Kshama Sawant (District 3), Rob Johnson (District 4) and Tim Burgess (Position 9) each continued to lead their races in returns updated Wednesday.
Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Transit Blog, Seattle Bike Blog and Seattle Subway, urbanist-type organizations that endorsed in the council election, are getting their way. No council candidate endorsed by any of those groups is currently losing.
“This election is a huge win,” said Owen Pickford, executive director of The Urbanist, a Seattle-based organization and blog.
“Not only are the candidates that urbanists endorsed ahead, but the candidates many people considered the least urbanist are behind by large margins.”
Two candidates endorsed by The Urbanist are losing — Tammy Morales (District 2) and Michael Maddux (District 4). But both are behind by small margins and both have opponents with similar views on transportation and development.
“With a couple of exceptions, the true anti-urbanists were actually weeded out in the primary,” Rolf said, mentioning Phillip Tavel (District 1) and Tony Provine (District 4).
Mayor Ed Murray could benefit from the election, particularly if the leaders all hold on. That’s because most strongly support the housing-affordability agenda he wants the council to approve over the next two years.
“Despite the geographic and economic differences (between the districts), what we see (winning) is a strong urbanist agenda,” Murray said.
The mayor already has withdrawn his most controversial housing-affordability proposal — allowing more density in all of Seattle’s single-family zones. But his agenda still includes a plan to allow taller buildings elsewhere.
“This is more likely to happen now, though I want to emphasize ‘more likely’ because there’s still a lot of anxiety around it,” Murray said. “If we aren’t able to articulate that this isn’t a neighborhood destroyer, it could still end up in trouble.”
Murray said polling before the election showed a clear divide between young and middle-aged voters on one side and older voters on the other. The returns indicate younger voters are ascendant, he said.
John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a group opposing rapid development, also called the election a win for urbanists. He’s not happy about it.
“I’m disappointed in the results, to say the least,” Fox remarked Wednesday, arguing that some candidates did well not because voters liked their views on development, but because their campaigns spent a lot of money.
“These (urbanist) candidates were heavily financed by the corporate establishment, in most cases,” he said. “The influence of money in some races is what made the difference. It was less about their message.”
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s preferred candidates all have won or are winning, with the exception of Pamela Banks (District 3), whom the group’s political arm endorsed against Sawant. The Chamber, like urbanists, backed Move Seattle and supports the mayor’s housing agenda.
Though many Seattle voters are concerned about growth and the gentrification that can accompany it, only Bill Bradburd (Position 9) made reining in development the main focus of his campaign, Fox noted. Bradburd was badly beaten by González.
Some City Hall watchers thought Jon Grant (Position 8), former executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington, would ride angst among Seattle renters to victory over Burgess, said Brianna Thomas, a Seattle political-campaign manager.
But Burgess and other candidates with pro-rent-control challengers may have survived partly by embracing a progressive brand of urbanism.
The mayor’s plan, for example, would require housing developers who build in areas with loosened zoning restrictions to include some affordable units or pay fees.
“The urbanist message wasn’t just bike lanes. It was also about the housing shortage and economic justice and transit,” Thomas said.
The North Seattle businesswoman who made district voting happen by funding the campaign for the 2013 measure is no urbanist.
Faye Garneau bankrolled this year’s campaign against Move Seattle, which will create new bus corridors and bike lanes by hiking property taxes.
“Maybe the NIMBYs are loud but smaller in number than we thought they were,” Rolf said, using an acronym for people with the attitude “Not in my backyard.”
He added: “Maybe this is like, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ Faye Garneau.”
Garneau insists she has no regrets. She was upbeat during a phone interview Wednesday, pleased the new council will include at least four new faces.
“Local representation and accountability is what we wanted,” Garneau said. “I’m sure (urbanists) are happy because these candidates do appear to have the same views they do. But when it comes to being re-elected, voters may have some other opinions.”