Everyone Got It Wrong

In the weeks since the November 3 election, the media narrative for the most closely watched local races – all nine of Seattle’s city council seats, using the new district system for the first time – was clear. Mayor Ed Murray won. The urbanists won. The voters spoke, and it was a resounding endorsement of Seattle’s real estate-driven, density at all costs mania. The Seattle Times said so..

Or, as local political consultant Ben Anderstone put it six days after the election in Crosscut, “Candidates who warned of approaching stormclouds got little traction.”

Really? By “approaching stormclouds,” Anderstone can only mean the city’s crisis in escalating rents and loss of affordable housing. The candidates on either side of this divide were relatively easy to identify: Mayor Ed Murray’s consultant, Christian Sinderman, had establishment-backed clients in eight of the nine council races. Pitted against them were progressive candidates focusing on housing and development issues in eight races.

Now, in the past few elections, incumbents generally coasted to re-election.Their huge money advantage, and the foreboding logistics of running citywide, made strong challengers relatively rare. That’s one big reason why Kshama Sawant’s win in 2013 was so shocking – until late in that race, Sawant wasn’t even seen as a serious challenger. Richard Conlin, like most of his colleagues, expected another somnambulent coronation.

The “big win for urbanists!” frame starts with that assumption – but in the new era of both unlimited outside money and districts, it’s a bad assumption. Those eight progressive candidates? All but one broke 40 percent. With Lisa Herbold pulling ahead of Shannon Braddock in their West Seattle race, it looks like four progressives will have actually won: Herbold, Sawant, O’Brien, and Debora Juarez in Northeast Seattle – will have won. As the last votes are counted, a fifth, Tammy Morales, still has an outside chance of catching incumbent Bruce Harrell in South Seattle. That would be a majority of city council that ran against the developer-driven agenda of Sinderman’s candidates. By any definition, that’s “traction.” It’s hardly a sweeping mandate for business as usual.

Even if Harrell pulls out another term, the new council will be far more diverse – and not just ideologically. A majority are women. Four are be non-white. Given that money still played a huge part in determining winners and losers in these races – only Herbold, and (barely) Juarez were outspent among the winning candidates – the fact that a progressive slate will have far more influence, and on many issues a working council majority, is shocking.

The district system was designed to increase city council accountability, and in that it was successful. Seven of nine council seats faced strong challenges to the establishment candidate. Four dozen people ran for those seats in the primary.

The days of a monolithic council and chronic 9-0 and 8-1 votes are over for a while to come. With I-122 winning, complementing the district system, next time underfunded candidates will have another assist in waging competitive campaigns. Moreover, other local results had a decidedly progressive bent. I-122 passed easily, all four reform candidates won 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 history.

Those downticket races had even more progressive results precisely because they didn’t draw as much corporate money. In the council races, that money was critical. Three of the four biggest beneficiaries of corporate soft money (Banks, Burgess, Braddock, and Johnson) held election night leads. Cash still has a disproportionate influence on local elections, and most of the money is coming from people and companies who rely on elected officials to help them make more of it.

The other significant result, though, shows a strong and likely ongoing constituency for candidates who warn of “stormclouds.” Kshama Sawant is shaping up to be a unique political talent, and her success is a genuine phenomenon: Despite a ferocious challenge backed by the mayor and by council president Tim Burgess, Sawant got a higher percentage of votes this year than in 2013. And consider her campaign: Over 600 active volunteers; over 178,000 phone calls; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend, and over 90,000 in the campaign; and well over $450,000 in donations – without accepting any corporate cash – from 3,445 different donors, triple the number of any other candidate. Sawant’s donations were smaller, averaging half or less than that of other campaigns. But she made it up with her sheer number of donors and volunteers.

That is utterly unprecedented in local politics. Can public financing and campaign experience outpace Seattle’s steady exodus of voters who can no longer afford to live here? We’ll find out in 2017.

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