With Ed Murray out, the once-drowsy Seattle mayor race has become a mind-boggling free-for-all with more than a dozen serious candidates, including a former U.S. attorney, a state senator, a state representative, a former mayor and an educator-attorney-activist.
As recently as February, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s most prominent challenger for re-election was a safe-streets activist who distributed homemade tamales from his cargo bike at a campaign-launch event that no major news outlets attended.
Three months later, neither the mayor nor that first challenger remain in the race — and the once-drowsy contest has become a mind-boggling free-for-all with more than a dozen serious candidates, including a former U.S. attorney, a state senator, a state representative, a former mayor and an educator-attorney-activist.
Murray dropped out Tuesday, saying allegations that he sexually abused teenagers in the 1980s had become too much of a distraction, despite his denials. Before the claims surfaced in April, he had been widely expected to cruise to a second term.
Safe-streets activist Andres Salomon had already bowed out — ending his run to make way for a better-known bicycling advocate, former Mayor Mike McGinn. Looking back, Salomon can’t believe how drastically and how quickly everything changed.
“With the Murray scandal and everything else, it’s been a really bizarre race,” he said last week. “Not what I expected, and we’re not even at the deadline yet.”
That deadline is Friday, the end of candidate-filing week. The top two finishers in an Aug. 1 nonpartisan primary will advance to the Nov. 7 general election.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Salomon said, “which way this will go.”
From a purely political perspective, Jenny Durkan and McGinn enjoy major advantages, though state Sen. Bob Hasegawa, state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and activist Nikkita Oliver also are prominent candidates.
Durkan, who was the first openly gay U.S. attorney, is a respected lawyer with useful connections. Friends with former Gov. Chris Gregoire, the 58-year-old is a state Democratic Party insider, having served behind the scenes for years as an adviser and courtroom warrior.
She met with business and labor-union power brokers in the days before announcing her candidacy and is poised to pick up support from deep-pocketed donors and influential organizationsthat helped Murray unseat McGinn in 2013.
Mayor Murray quits race
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Murray’s union endorsements are now up for grabs, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce also has yet to pick a candidate.
Though Durkan’s background isn’t in business, downtown players may view her as the candidate most likely to make sure they have a seat at the policymaking table.
“She’s talking about working in a collaborative way and including the business community,” said Jon Scholes, Downtown Seattle Association president. “That message will resonate.”
Winning movers and shakers may boost Durkan’s campaign with endorsements, money and momentum. Former King County Executive Ron Sims described Durkan as highly competent, calling her the “total package.”
But Durkan is better known in political circles than among ordinary voters. In Bernie Sanders-loving Seattle, her establishment credentials could be turned against her.
That’s the line of attack McGinn, 57, hinted at in an interview. “We don’t need somebody who checks in with the dealmakers before they can run,” he said. “We have an affordability problem in part because the dealmakers are running this town.”
When he ran for re-election four years ago, McGinn raised less money than Murray, who criticized the incumbent for picking fights with others in government.
But McGinn has something Durkan doesn’t — name recognition. And while money is important, Marco Lowe, who worked in the McGinn city administration, noted Seattle’s low, $500 limit on contributions. Television ads can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“You can’t buy a victory outright,” said Lowe, now a Seattle University politics professor. “You need to have your ear to the ground and boots on the ground.”
Hasegawa, 64, and Farrell, 41, Democrats who each entered the race this past week, will be hamstrung for a while — barred from raising money while the Legislature is in session.
Both candidates are spinning the situation as a positive — an opportunity to run campaigns unshackled from the corrosive influence of money in politics.
But there’s also a chance of spending support from independent-expenditure committees, separate from the lawmakers’ campaigns.
And Hasegawa may appeal to voters who felt the Bern; the Beacon Hill native, a lawmaker since 2005, was a Sanders delegate in Philadelphia last year.
But here’s a wrinkle: Now that Murray and his $200,000 war chest are out of the race, it’s a less-conventional candidate who has the most campaign cash. Oliver.
The attorney and spoken-word artist, who works with teenagers in the public schools, has raised more than $34,000, with an average contribution of just $52.
Come August, will she still be in the lead? McGinn thinks someone else will be.
“Who the dealmakers want,” he said. “You’ll see who that candidate is. You’ll be able to tell. The big Murray supporters and donors will figure it out. The rest of us will have to overcome … by talking about the issues that really matter.”
Those issues are the same as before Murray stepped away. Homelessness, growth, transportation and taxes are likely to dominate.
Unauthorized encampments have been the current mayor’s toughest challenge, with some Seattle residents upset the city isn’t acting more aggressively to clear them, others appalled the city is evicting people from them, and everyone dismayed that thousands of people are living in tents and under bridges.
Tim Harris, director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project, expects the candidates to split on the encampments question. It’s been more than 550 days since Murray proclaimed a homelessness state of emergency, and the crisis continues.
“There are going to be two varieties,” Harris said. “The hard-press, law-and-order approach, which is about driving people and making homelessness less visible. That’s always a crowd pleaser. The other would be addressing the problem with more resources for outreach and moving people more quickly into shelter and housing.”
Oliver will be speaking from a more authentic place than some other candidates. She was homeless for a quarter while attending Seattle Pacific University.
“I slept in my car, slept in friends’ houses, slept in the student government office,” Oliver recently told the Real Change street newspaper.
She responded to the Murray scandal by calling for the city to better support young people who are homeless and vulnerable, as the mayor’s accusers were as teens.
“All the things we’ve been talking about remain relevant,” she said in an interview Saturday. “Having been homeless and being a renter gives me a particular understanding of who is experiencing what in our city and what solutions are needed.”
Farrell may flex her muscles when the race turns to growth and transportation.
A former head of the Transportation Choices Coalition, the lawmaker first elected in 2012 has indicated she may push to allow more apartments in neighborhoods.
Voters want to know how the candidates would tackle rising rents and home prices.
“I’m going to say just flat out — density is a good thing,” Farrell said as she announced her bid from a Wallingford sidewalk. “Cities are made for people to live in.”
Durkan has praised Murray’s housing-affordability plan, which includes upzones paired with requirements for developers to help create low-income housing.
But McGinn has suggested he would start over, saying more neighborhood engagement is warranted.
“The affordability issue, everybody is feeling it in their pocketbooks to some degree,” said Crystal Fincher, a political consultant not working in the mayor’s race this year.
“Voters have heard leaders talk about it. They’re ready to see something done.”
What’s that something? Cary Moon, an urban planner who opposed building a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, has vowed to crack down on real-estate speculators who she says are driving up the cost of housing.
And Hasegawa, a Teamsters union leader before becoming a lawmaker, has promised he would combat Wall Street greed by trying to set up a municipal bank.
Several candidates (but not Durkan) are bullish on a city income tax — as a legal test-case and an alternative to sales- and property-tax hikes that hit poor people hardest.
And Fincher wonders whether tax fatigue and annual increases in city spending may steer voters toward a candidate willing to mix progressive policy with penny-pinching.
“People in Seattle are willing to pay their fair share, but they want the resources to be used wisely,” she said.
Politics. Policy. And the third key in a wide-open race: people power. As the summer wears on, look for who can best inspire voters.
With such a crowded field, garnering 20 percent in August could mean a trip to the general election. And 20 percent in a low-turnout primary isn’t very many voters.
Fewer than 150,000 voted in the 2013 primary, and Murray and McGinn each advanced with less than 30 percent, separated by fewer than 2,000 ballots.
“That genuine connection with voters will be important,” said Bailey Stober, who chairs the King County Democrats. “The one thing I hear consistently is that voters are tired of the status quo. There’s an undercurrent of frustration with government.”
Oliver’s campaign has verve. She drew hundreds of people to a campaign kickoff in the Central District and has made combating gentrification a focus. The 31-year-old says her campaign is registering people to vote.
Fincher says there’s a lesson to be drawn from City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s underdog election in 2013. The Socialist Alternative Party member was an early advocate for a $15-per-hour minimum wage. She put $15 on her red signs.
“Having a simple, bold vision you can communicate is very effective,” the consultant said, noting ballots will be mailed out in less than two months. “Voters can only digest and retain so much information. A singular vision is going to break through.”
A lot of the political energy in Seattle these days was generated in November, when Donald Trump won election, and Trump backlash could be crucial in the mayor race.
“People are recognizing that politics isn’t a game,” said Tom Geiger, communications director for the UFCW Local 21 supermarket-workers union. “You could have large blocks of people voting who might not have otherwise been involved.”
Also registered to campaign are Safe Seattle activist Harley Lever, Libertarian Casey Carlisle, conservationist Michael Harris, and Mary Martin of the Socialist Workers Party, along with Keith Whiteman, Jason Roberts, Alex Tsimerman and David Ishii.
Yet the candidate who might best seize on anti-Trump sentiment hasn’t jumped in. City Councilmember M. Lorena González, rumored to be on the verge of announcing, is a civil-rights attorney and immigrant-rights leader whose parents came to Washington as undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
She stood with Murray to announce a lawsuit against Trump, and she sponsored legislation allocating $1 million to help defend people in immigration court. On the council, González also has worked on police reform.
The character of the race won’t truly be clear until the candidates start “bouncing off each other” on stages across the city, according to Lowe, the politics professor.
“A great pollster in town once said, ‘Every race is about something,’ ” Lowe said. “But you don’t know for sure what that something is until you’re deep into it.”
Listen to the Overcast, Seattle Times’ political podcast with Daniel Beekman and Jim Brummer on the upcoming mayoral race: