Election Night: First Impressions

First of all, the enormous caveat: Nothing got decided tonight. Not really. Not with Seattle’s city council, the most important set of elections on the night, and not with the new district system in which fewer than 10,000 votes have been counted so far in some districts and four candidates – incumbents Bruce Harrell and Kshama Sawant and establishment favorites Shannon Braddock and Rob Johnson – having first-night leads of less than 1,100 votes.

Two years ago, Sawant won citywide despite trailing incumbent Richard Conlin by eight percent on election night. With two new factors this year – the much smaller electorates of districts and the unprecedented infusions of last-minute corporate cash into several races – plus an unusually low voter turnout leading up to the campaign’s final days, no district lead of than about 15 percent tonight should be considered safe.

That said, enough results are clear to draw a few early conclusions:

Business as usual in Seattle has nothing to worry about… The five people who clearly will be on council in 2017 – Tim Burgess, Lorena Gonzales, Debora Juarez, Mike O’Brien, and Sally Bagshaw -includes four near-automatic votes for whatever the developer/real estate lobby wants. In two other races, Bruce Harrell and Rob Johnson, both also developer favorites, have ten percent leads that will be hard to overcome. There’s thus a near-certain five-vote majority for business as usual, aka the rapid transformation of Seattle into a city of, by, and for the young, white and wealthy, to continue apace.

…Yet. In all seven of the seriously contested races involving allies of Mayor Ed Murray (and clients of his consultant, Christian Sinderman), the general election opponents were progressives whose campaigns centered on affordable housing. and six of those seven races – all but Gonzales/Bradburd – were closely contested. That in itself is unprecedented.

O’Brien, winner of the only race without a Sinderman client, has been solidly progressive on a number of issues not involving real estate. Juarez, the strongest of the progressive candidates, won comfortably. Sawant is in a closer race, but with a phenomenal get-out-the-vote effort (more on her later), she is well-situated to return to council. And Lisa Herbold, the long-term Licata aide who is in the night’s closest race, could well still win with a similar grass roots push. That’s four solid progressive votes, more than Seattle’s city council has had in a long time, and one short of a majority on any given issue. In all likelihood, the days of a monolithic council and chronic 9-0 and 8-1 votes are over for a while to come.

That unpredictability likely won’t extend to anything involving serious money. But that could change – on any issue where there’s a strong grass roots push, or, in two years, if another progressive or two can get into office to replace Burgess and/or Gonzales. And with I-122 winning, complementing the district system, underfunded candidates will have another assist in waging more competitive campaigns. Moreover, the local non-council races had a decidedly progressive bent -I-122 passed easily, all four reform candidates are leading in their school board races, and in Fred Felleman, the Port of Seattle will have an ardent environmentalist as a commissioner for the first time in its sordid, corrupt history.

But money still talks in politics. At the end of the day, despite all the corporate money assisting her, challenger Pamela Banks may still have been outfundraised by Sawant. If so, in every single one of the nine council races, the campaign that raised the most money will have held the lead on election night. Three of the four biggest beneficiaries of corporate soft money (Banks, Burgess, Braddock, and Johnson) hold election night leads, and in the case of Braddock, Johnson, and Harrell, the margins are small enough to have quite possibly swung their respective elections. Money still has a disproportionate influence on local election results, and most of the money is coming from people and companies who rely on elected officials to help them make more of it. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s not corrupt as all hell. But then, there’s the outlier…

Kshama Sawant is a unique political talent, and her success is a genuine phenomenon: Maybe the media novelty has worn off of our city electing an open socialist. Maybe, as an incumbent, getting re-elected – despite a concerted establishment effort to unseat her, led by council president Tim Burgess and mayor Ed Murray – just isn’t as newsworthy. But get a load of these number from the Sawant campaign earlier this week:

Over 600 active volunteers; over 178,000 phone calls; knocked on 90,000+ doors throughout the campaign, resulting in over 16,000 Voter IDs; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend, and 7,500 the previous weekend; well over $400,000 in donations – while not accepting any corporate cash – from 3,445 different donors . That last number is about triple that of any other council candidate. The donations themselves were on average much smaller – averaging about $50 a donor, half or less than that of any other campaign. But Sawant made it up with her sheer number of donors and volunteers.

That is utterly unprecedented in local politics. It’s why, despite a ferocious (and at times dirty) campaign by Banks and her establishment backers, Sawant is poised to return to council but the other progressive candidates she worked most closely with – Morales, Maddux, Herbold, Grant – didn’t do as well. If what Sawant has could be bottled or cloned, progressives would dominate city politics. As is, they’re only an election away from being a determining force. Whether public financing and campaign experience can outpace Seattle’s steady erosion of working class voters in two years is yet to be determined – but what the voter tallies are in the next few days will play an important role in determining it.

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