Tuesday’s city elections will be Seattle’s first since a deadly pandemic emerged, a racial justice movement surged and the economy ruptured — accentuating problems that already existed in the city, a growing tech hub.
Now comes the ballot-box reckoning, with voters trying to decide whom they can trust as mayor, city attorney and on the City Council to address challenges related to COVID-19, inequality, homelessness, mental health, police brutality and crime.
Matched up on the ballot are M. Lorena González and Bruce Harrell for mayor, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison for city attorney, incumbent Teresa Mosqueda and Kenneth Wilson for Position 8, and Nikkita Oliver and Sara Nelson for Position 9.
In one scenario, there could be a sweep for candidates who, casting themselves as progressives, have said they want to tax large corporations and wealthy people for affordable housing, avoid forcible removals of unsheltered people, divest from flawed policing and prosecutions to fund other services, and legalize apartments throughout neighborhoods. González, Thomas-Kennedy, Mosqueda and Oliver don’t agree on everything but share many of those aims.
Under another scenario, candidates who, trying to channel a strain of frustration with recent City Hall politics, have variously said they would confer with business leaders and spend more efficiently, keep parks clear of tent encampments, add police officers alongside reforms, sustain prosecutions, and continue to primarily concentrate apartments along transit corridors. Harrell, Davison, Wilson and Nelson have each made such points.
Mixed results in Tuesday’s elections are perhaps more likely, because there are distinctions between the candidates on each unofficial slate, and some have run stronger campaigns than others. That could perpetuate friction within City Hall, where outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan has at times butted heads with left-wing council members and with City Attorney Pete Holmes.
The Seattle matchups parallel clashes in other cities, from New York to San Francisco, with progressives facing moderates in mayoral races and with public defenders seeking prosecutor jobs. National names like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have weighed in, endorsing González, and the city attorney’s race has been spotlighted by Fox News.
There are echoes of Seattle’s 2017 mayoral contest, when Durkan defeated Cary Moon with a campaign platform similar to Harrell’s, and of 2019’s council races, when labor-backed candidates defeated business-backed opponents despite a “Seattle is dying” narrative capturing airtime.
Several service workers unions have spent big behind González, while real estate executives and other business interests have splashed cash to help Harrell, Nelson and Davison. More than $10 million, a record sum for Seattle, has flowed into the races in donations to candidate campaigns and spending by independent political action committees.
But there are unique circumstances in Tuesday’s elections, too, as voters look back and judge how leaders like González and Harrell have prepared Seattle for and navigated the city through recent turbulence. Though Durkan has helmed responses to multiple emergencies, she isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot, having announced last December she wouldn’t run for reelection.
Officials have predicted 50% turnout in Seattle, which could be an underestimate. Ballot returns for the city this past week outpaced returns in 2017, when turnout was 49%.
González, the council’s current president and the Central Washington daughter of migrant farmworkers, has based her campaign on a willingness to tax the rich, telling voters she can unlock problems that Durkan hasn’t been able to solve. She and colleagues have accused the current mayor of sitting on dollars allocated to combat homelessness.
Harrell, her predecessor as council president and the Central District son of city workers, has courted voters fed up with tents in parks, also stressing his absence from City Hall last year as González and colleagues pledged to defund the police by 50% and shift the money to other approaches.
He bore down on that point during a televised debate Thursday night, promising to hire more regular and unarmed officers; González, who this year has softened on the 50% defunding target, maintained that only she would help Seattle shed law enforcement’s “failed policies of the past.” Durkan and the council ultimately reduced the police budget for 2021 by less than 20%, without layoffs; then-Chief Carmen Best and large numbers of officers have since retired or quit.
Simmering tensions boiled late in the race, as González, trailing in independent September and October polling, went on the attack with an ad accusing Harrell of “siding with abusers,” mentioning the scandal that ended then-Mayor Ed Murray’s career in 2017.
Reminding voters that Harrell, who is Black and Asian American, didn’t join González that summer in calling on Murray to consider resigning amid allegations he had abused multiple teenagers decades earlier, the ad featured a white rape survivor not connected to the Murray allegations. Many Black political and civic leaders slammed the television spot as racist, saying the messaging reinforced tropes about dangerous Black men.
González pulled the commercial, apologizing for who the campaign featured in the ad while standing by her criticism of Harrell. But the matter came up again during Thursday night’s debate.
Durkan and Holmes are on their way out after receiving heat from the left and the right last year amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations and COVID. Pressure built as crowds choked on tear gas, young people were killed in a protest zone, downtown windows were boarded up, homeless shelters were shuttered and encampments proliferated in parks.
The mayoral race initially grew crowded, as candidates powered by democracy vouchers pushed new perspectives, and then narrowed over the summer, as primary voters picked experienced candidates: González, who would be Seattle’s first Latina mayor and who has served on the council since 2015, and Harrell, who would be the city’s first Asian American and second Black mayor and who served from 2008 to 2019.
Primary polling showed Holmes in trouble, rousing the incumbent into campaign mode. But a one-two punch knocked him out, setting up a high-stakes bout between Thomas-Kennedy, a police and jail abolitionist, and Davison, who ran for state lieutenant governor in 2020 as a Republican.
Mosqueda breezed through her primary, touting a new JumpStart Seattle tax on high salaries at large companies that she championed last year with González for affordable housing and small-business assistance. But bridge engineer Kenneth Wilson has turned some heads since winning the other spot on Tuesday’s ballot, arguing the council could benefit from his nuts-and-bolts perspective on infrastructure and everything else.
No race has illustrated Seattle’s civic divides as sharply as the contest between Oliver, a lawyer and nonprofit leader, and Nelson, a brewery owner and former council aide. Oliver has helped lead calls for City Hall to reverse decades of police budget increases and invest in community solutions. Nelson has rejected divesting as a strategy for public safety and sworn to bring a business-owner voice to the council.
Harrell’s campaign includes ingredients that powered Durkan to victory in 2017, plus particularly strong support among prominent and longtime leaders of color in the city. He’s drawn on connections forged over decades in his hometown.
But González touts more labor backing and much more governing experience than Moon did. Seattle’s many union households have received 50,000 visits from “labor neighbor” canvassers for González and allies, according to a hotel union leader managing the effort.
Environmental and urbanist organizations have endorsed González (along with Mosqueda and Oliver), citing her vision for a dense 15-minute city for car-free households, though climate and transportation have played a relatively minor role in the mayoral race. Harrell and Wilson have said there’s no need to do away with zoning that reserves most Seattle blocks for detached houses (Nelson favors gradual changes), while their opponents have called that zoning exclusionary.
Pledging to keep public spaces clear of encampments may be securing Harrell a significant number of votes, and the former University of Washington football star has also scored points with retail politics, meeting with voters face-to-face outside supermarkets.
Harrell volunteer Catherine Gerlach watched the candidate spend many hours chatting with shoppers, she says. People sometimes waited in line to speak with Harrell, whose affable manner put them at ease, says Gerlach. He answered “any question, big or small,” said the Ballard resident, who works in the nonprofit world.
Gerlach says she joined the Harrell campaign because she grew up in Seattle and “I’m just in a complete state of shock,” seeing so many parks and sidewalks taken over by encampments and seeing so many criminal acts go apparently ignored, including thefts she witnessed at the supermarkets where she canvassed.
She believes Harrell (who called the city’s streets “filthy” and ordered trash cleanups during a few days as interim mayor in 2017) is capable of “taking charge and getting people into some type of environment that’s not our public spaces … getting our city back.”
But Harrell’s plan could face difficulties. The candidate, who acknowledges that encampment removals without adequate housing options solve little in the long term, has vowed to boost shelter and outreach — without new, ongoing revenue. He’s promised consequences for some people who decline help — without explaining what those would be.
The focus by candidates and voters on homelessness in the Seattle elections may later on seem misplaced, given that a regional authority is taking over most of the city’s contracts with service providers next year. Across the board, candidates have talked about the need for more mental health and drug treatment.
Centering her campaign on taxes has allowed González to draw a contrast with Harrell and his affluent backers. Harrell has voiced support for tax changes at the state level and said he would call for philanthropic donations to address the city’s problems.
Thomas-Kennedy, Mosqueda and Oliver joined labor leaders this past Monday to “call out” business-interest spending in elections, holding a news conference outside the waterfront office of Goodman Real Estate, whose founder John Goodman and CEO George Petrie have plowed nearly $200,000 into the races through PACs.
When voters learn about Seattle’s regressive tax system, in which low-income residents and small businesses pay more, percentage-wise, they see the light, says Suresh Chanmugam, who’s rung hundreds of doorbells with his children this year as a campaign volunteer for González, Thomas-Kennedy, Mosqueda and Oliver.
A tech worker whose rent was $225 when he moved to Seattle long ago, he says corporations like Amazon must do more to address the havoc their undertaxed growth here has wreaked with housing costs.
“We don’t spend nearly enough” to combat homelessness, Chanmugam said, citing reports by McKinsey & Company that agree.
Yet González’s taxing plans are somewhat nebulous (she’s mentioned a flat income tax with credits for working-class households and a local capital gains tax as possibilities, while Oliver has cited a menu of options, such as a local inheritance tax), and the progressive slate’s message is more complicated than in 2019, when a rally against massive expenditures by Amazon for business-friendly candidates made national headlines.
This year, Amazon has stayed on the sidelines — and the Downtown Seattle Association has accused González’s council of not allocating enough federal COVID-relief funds to homelessness now. González and Mosqueda point to their JumpStart tax as a signature win, with the proceeds earmarked for thousands of rent-restricted apartments in years to come.
They’re warning that the JumpStart tax and other progressive measures, like renter rights, must be protected by electing Thomas-Kennedy.
At the waterfront news conference, Thomas-Kennedy promised to do just that, noting that the corporate leaders backing Davison have sued to undo policies like the JumpStart tax. Davison has said she would defend measures passed by the mayor and council, setting her own politics aside.
The civil ligation aspect of the city attorney’s job has received less attention in the race than the criminal side, partly because Thomas-Kennedy wants to take apart the criminal-legal system that Davison wants to buttress.
Dogged by tweets during the 2020 protests that described “rabid hatred for the police” and other sentiments, Thomas-Kennedy has sought to focus on which crimes are handled by the city attorney (misdemeanors), her more extensive courtroom experience and what she says moving toward abolition could look like (fewer prosecutions of crimes of poverty, more services and a victims compensation fund).
Davison has tacked to the political center after publicly disavowing the Democratic Party last year, downplaying Republican connections and talking points she previously trumpeted when Donald Trump was president while describing her opponent as radical and juxtaposing her own commitment to civility and accountability for crime victims against the threat of “lawlessness and disorder.”
Public safety questions have also animated the council races, especially the Position 9 contest. Homicides and gun violence spiked last year in the Seattle area and the upward trend has largely continued through 2021, according to police data, mirroring national figures since the pandemic began. A controversial police union contract that shields officers from discipline in certain cases expired nearly a year ago and must be renegotiated.
Nelson has criticized Oliver’s defunding stance as unrealistic, asking in a Rainier Avenue Radio debate, “What is your plan when people need to call the police if someone is breaking into their home?” Up to half of calls Seattle police receive could be handled without armed officers, Oliver has countered, citing a recent Durkan-commissioned report.