In local politics, the tension between “old Seattle” and “new Seattle” is an enduring trope, to the point of becoming a cliche.
Things become cliches though because they’re often true.
The race for mayor in Seattle, which for all its importance has yet to really get off the ground, is being quietly fueled by just such a divide between older and younger people, between longtime residents and newcomers, according to the first independent poll on the race.
Going into primary voting, which has already begun, the poll shows former City Council member Bruce Harrell leading, with by far the best shot to survive into the general election (though he’s still registered at 20% in the poll). Current City Council member M. Lorena González, at 12%, seems most likely to join him there, with former nonprofit director Colleen Echohawk running close behind at 10%.
After those three, no one scored higher than 6% in the huge, 15-candidate field, according to the poll of 617 likely Seattle voters conducted July 12 to 15 by Change Research for the Northwest Progressive Institute, a lefty policy nonprofit.
What jumps out is a voter generational divide. Harrell scored 36% among voters 65 and up, but only 5% among the younger set (defined as voters between the ages of 18 and 34). Meanwhile González does roughly the reverse: She is grabbing 22% among young voters but a paltry 4% with the city’s elders.
“It’s the biggest divide in the city right now,” says Andrew Villeneuve, who runs the institute (which is not backing any candidate). “Younger voters aren’t going for Harrell, they’re not interested in him. But younger voters also haven’t coalesced around a candidate as much as older voters have.”
I see it like this: Harrell is the Joe Biden of the Seattle mayor’s race. As in: familiar, old school, sometimes gaffe-prone. At 62, Harrell is hardly Biden-ancient. But like Biden he speaks in sepia tones, often waxing about growing up at Garfield High and the Central Area back in the ’60s and ’70s, and how the modern city of ideological crusades amid shocking inequalities is “not the Seattle where I was born.”
González, 44, and some other candidates meanwhile are jostling more for the votes of Seattle’s socialist and restless progressive set — the Berniecrats, young urbanists and Kshama Sawant backers.
This “new Seattle” is a potent force that has kicked “old Seattle’s” butt a lot in recent years (election-wise, anyway). An example is Harrell himself, who ran for mayor in 2013 and finished fourth as the candidates above him all tacked hard and harder to the left. Then he barely won reelection in his own south-end council district, by 344 votes, over a lefty challenger (Tammy Morales, who later won the seat). Harrell retired in 2019 rather than face this rising new left in a rematch.
But civic moods soften and shift. With the pandemic, the tumult of the last year or maybe the lingering overall mania of the Trump era, it could be that normally adventurous, risk-taking Seattle voters are looking to order a little comfort food.
The other thing to note here is how unpopular the incumbents are. Typically incumbents are the comfort food, but now it’s more like something’s gone a little rotten in the fridge.
Of the two incumbents seeking reelection to their current seats, City Council member Teresa Mosqueda polled at 26% against a field of no names, while City Attorney Pete Holmes, who is seeking a fourth term, polled a dreadful 16%. His challengers — Ann Davison, who ran for lieutenant governor last year as a Republican, and former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy — nearly matched him at 14% each (about half the voters were undecided).
Not saying either Mosqueda or Holmes is going to lose — both remain heavy favorites, especially Mosqueda given the weak competition on the ballot. But these are red-flag numbers for known quantities like these two. It may signal some broader dissatisfaction with the performance of local government that could weigh down any incumbent running this year (warning to Dow Constantine, who is seeking a fourth term as King County executive).
There are no incumbents in the other citywide race, for City Council, in which Nikkita Oliver appears to have a strong lead at 26% versus 11% for Sara Nelson.
Back to Seattle mayor: The good news is this is, overall, an impressive field — probably the deepest crop of candidates I’ve seen. What I look for in a mayor first is political organizing skills, followed by experience running something (though I’m personally skeptical of rescue agents from the business world, as mayor is a highly political job). On that front, beyond the top three, both former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and former deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller also seem to have the political chops for the job.
It might take only 18% or 20% of the total vote in the primary to make it to the main event, so this race is wide open.
One thing that’s new, compared to the sleepier days of old Seattle when the city often seemed to run more on autopilot, is how intensely the mayor matters now. We all witnessed that in the past year. So get to voting, Seattle, like your city depends on it, because this time, it just might.