As results trickled in from this month’s first primary electing Seattle City Council members by district, two strong trends emerged – trends that are completely mutually incompatible. The tension between them – between the citizen-powered campaigns the new district system supposedly enable and the massive floods of campaign cash flowing from Seattle’s newfound wealth – will be the dominant story of this fall’s general election.
The primary was a good night for activist campaigns. The biggest of them, of course, was Kshama Sawant, the council incumbent whose socialist class rhetoric is as alarming to Seattle’s civic establishment as its popularity is bewildering to them. Big money opposition to Sawant in the District 3 Capitol Hill seat had coalesced around Pamela Banks, a former Urban League head who touted her progressive credentials even as her stances – and donors – belied them. With two other active candidates in the race, and after doubling down on her image with a campaign centered around her demand for rent control, Sawant was expected to win only a tight plurality.
Nope. Instead, Sawant topped 52%. Her closest challenger, Banks, lagged far behind at 34%. It turns out that Seattle’s renters, caught in an unprecedented housing crisis, aren’t all that alarmed by talk of rent control after all. Who knew?
Jonathan Grant knew. The underdog former Tenants Union executive, running citywide against well-funded rocker John Roderick and labor activist John Persak for the right to challenge council president Tim Burgess this fall, campaigned almost exclusively on housing issues. Grant not only beat the far better-funded Roderick, but held the powerful Burgess to under 50%. With almost all of Roderick and Persak’s votes likely to go to Grant in November, Burgess appears surprisingly vulnerable.
Voters also threw a long-overdue retirement party for Jean Godden in District 4 (University District), promoting well-funded developer favorite Rob Johnson – no surprise – and progressive LGBT activist Michael Maddux – more of a surprise. A strong progressive also narrowly topped a well-funded establishment favorite in District 1 (West Seattle), with Lisa Herbold, an 18-year legislative aide to the retiring Nick Licata, edging Joe McDermott aide Shannon Braddock
Progressives did well elsewhere, too. Environmental activist Fred Felleman topped a crowded field for an open Port of Seattle Commissioner seat. Reform candidates Jill Geary and Leslie Harris won the two Seattle School Board races. And King County Elections Deputy Director Julie Wise thumped two political candidates for the right to run that critical agency. Given that summer primaries have less of a turnout and skew older, whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than general elections, the primary bodes well for progressive candidates’ chances this fall.
At first blush, the new mixed 7-2 district system for council elections worked as designed. It gave challengers a greater chance against incumbents, and encouraged more candidates – a record 47 ran for the nine seats, compared to only a handful of serious challenges to incumbents over the last decade of stagnant council politics. With three incumbents retiring and Godden losing at the polls, city council hasn’t seen so much turnover in ages. Whether districts are the reason or voters are simply disgruntled, city council is suddenly accountable in a way it hasn’t been for at least a generation.
Predictably, the people who’ve benefited most from that lack of accountability are fighting back.
With Seattle’s newfound, unprecedented wealth, and with the unlimited spending made possible by Citizens United, so called “soft money” showed up for the first time this year in a local primary – independent expenditures meant to support one or another candidate, but not directly tied to their campaign.
The biggest beneficiaries were Johnson and Braddock, who reportedly had $200,000 in such hidden money spent on their behalf. But the most attention came from the first announced donation, a $65,000 drop to a previously unnoticed candidate in District 5 (Northeast Seattle) from the National Association of Realtors. Kris Lethin was a realtor himself, but one with no real campaign or chance. In a crowded field, the NAR spent a whopping $50 a vote on Lethin, apparently solely because he opposed rent control.
The message to other candidates this fall couldn’t have been clearer: toe the pro-development line, oppose rent control and linkage fees and impact fees and incentive zoning and any other taxes or regulations that might impinge on the current developer gravy train, and expect a lot of cash – amounts that make a mockery of the city’s pathetic little $700 limit on individual donations. Count on Johnson and Braddock to get lots more such business money come fall. Even more so for Banks, whose uphill effort to unseat Sawant will be the most expensive council race in city history. If Grant looks competitive, Tim Burgess will also be a beneficiary.
Housing activists aren’t the only people wanting to control city council. Their opponents have deep pockets. and Seattle politicians remain a shockingly cheap, loyal, and pliable investment. It’ll be a long fall.