Primary Election 2017: It’s Crowded at the Top

It’s become a summer tradition in Seattle. In about the middle of July, people receive a primary election ballot in the mail, turn to each other, and say: “There’s an election?”

This year is particularly vexing, because there are only eight or nine items (depending on which district of Seattle Schools you live in), all of them local, on the entire ballot for Seattle voters. There’s no federal or state elected offices up for grabs this year. But those few items include primary elections for the four most powerful local elected officials in our area: Seattle’s mayor, Seattle’s two at-large city council members (after the council went to a split district/at large system in 2015), and the King County Executive.

Easy, right? Did I mention that two of those three Seattle positions have no incumbent, and that they have, respectively, twenty-one, nine, and seven people on the ballot?

Keeping it all straight in the heat of summer is going to be far more than most people can, or want, to do – especially with 21 people running for Seattle mayor and 16 more running for the two city council seats.

There’s one other important new aspect to this year’s election: Democracy Vouchers, the slips of paper mailed to registered voters last January that can be used to channel up to $100 in publicly funded donations to the candidates of your choice – if those candidates are running for city council (which is on this summer’s primary ballot) or city attorney (on the fall ballot). If you lost those slips of paper, you can get replacements here http://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/i-am-a-seattle-resident/voucher-replacement. To find out more about this groundbreaking program, go here http://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher.

It’s a lot to track, but I’m here – again – to help. And as has been true for each of the 22 (!) years I’ve been passing on my election recommendations, the usual caveats apply: this is one opinion. Take it for what it’s worth, which is, well, one opinion. Do your own research.

Remember, this is a top-two primary, meaning that the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election in November.

And be sure to return your ballot by Tuesday, August 1, but don’t think for a second the job of changing the world, or even our city, will be over when you do. Social change comes from below. Voting becomes most useful when people have already organized, not when the people and policies we empower are approved. Get out and make yourself heard all the time, not just by mailing in a piece of paper.

As for which lines to fill in the bubbles for…

THE TL;DR VERSION

King County Executive: Dow Constantine
Port of Seattle #1: Ryan Calkins
Port of Seattle #3: Ahmed Abdi
Port of Seattle #4: John Persak
City of Seattle Mayor: Bob Hasegawa
City of Seattle City Council #8: Mac McGregor
City of Seattle City Council #9: Pat Murakami
Seattle School District Director #4: Eden Mack
Seattle School District Director #5: Zachary Pullin DeWolf
Seattle School District Director #7: Betty Patu
King County Proposition 1: Rejected

THE DETAILS

King County Executive: Dow Constantine wants to be your next governor, following the path of former King County Executive Gary Locke. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also wants to be your next governor, following the path of former AG Christine Gregoire. (Jay Inslee took the third common route, via Congress.)

Ferguson has been busy for the last couple of years making headlines by taking on well-chosen liberal bene hoirs like Donald Trump, Tim Eyman, and Comcast. Constantine has kept a lower profile, but he’s up for re-election this year, and it’s a measure of his power and the quality of his performance as county executive that he’s drawn no serious opposition. He has three challengers on this summer’s primary ballot: permanent wack candidates Stan Lippman and Goodspaceguy, and Bill Hurt, a retired Boeing engineer who admits up front that “My candidacy’s an attempt to attract attention to my blog” – a blog focused solely on trying to stop the eastern expansion of light rail, and the Seattle-based Scary Brown People who might then ride it. The Republican Party, which not long ago fielded competitive candidates for this position, didn’t even bother this year. Constantine’s done a good job, and for all practical purposes he’s running unopposed. Dow Constantine.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 1: For literally decades, the Port of Seattle has been one of the most corrupt and insular public agencies in the state. With its own, independent taxing authority, the Port has long been run as an obedient subsidiary of the industries it does business with: cargo companies, airport vendors, and (more recently) the cruise ship industry. Senior staff, immune to public oversight, have been part of the problem. A succession of CEOs come, fit right in with the culture, and make bank until they leave, usually under the cloud of scandal. And for far too long, the Port of Seattle Commission – the one piece of this cozy arrangement that is in theory accountable to the public – has also been dominated by interests that, at best, are only too happy to go with the flow. Port Commissioners get paid poorly for what is supposed to be a part-time job – so, as with Seattle’s School Board, it usually attracts candidates who are either independently wealthy or have a vested interest in one of the Port’s customers. Or both.

It’s impossible to understand Port Commissioner races without this essential context – and as such, with the exception of occasional reform-minded people who sneak on the commission, it’s impossible to give the benefit of the doubt to almost any incumbent in a Port race. If you’re not part of the solution at the Port, you’re very definitely Part of the Problem. And with three Port Commission seats up for election this year – one of them open, the other to with POTP incumbents; and with environmentalist Fred Felleman having been elected to a four-year term in 2015, in theory the Commission could get a rare reform majority this year.

In theory. But in these first two positions, as we saw with the King County Executive race, not all challengers to an incumbent are created equal.

In Position 1, the incumbent is John Creighton. He’s by all accounts a nice guy, who has traded on business connections and a wealthy family to win three terms on the Port Commission. His record during that time isn’t terrible…but he’s seeking a fourth term as already the longest-serving member of the commission, and a former commission President. He claims to want greater accountability at the Port – but in a dozen years, there’s little or no evidence he’s made that a priority. It’s time for fresh blood.

Creighton has three challengers this time: former state senator Claudia Kauffman, Bea Querido-Rico, and Ryan Calkins. Kauffman served one term without distinction as a state senator from Kent from 2006-10, before achieving the nearly unthinkable feat of losing as a Democratic incumbent in a district that should be a Democratic sinecure. There’s nothing in her candidacy that suggests she’d be more effective at the Port. A better choice in Calkins, who has a good mix of economic and trade understanding, nonprofit and union experience, progressive values, and a commitment to transparency that would be a clear upgrade on John Creighton. Can he make that mix work on the port commission? Let’s find out. Ryan Calkins.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 3: Here, the incumbent is Stephanie Bowman. She’s…adequate. At best. But like Creighton, she’s shown little inclination to interfere with business as usual at the Port. This year, she has two primary challengers: Lisa Espinosa and Ahmed Abdi. Abdi, a Somali immigrant, is the more impressive challenger. He’s got good priorities, calling out the Port for its opposition to paying workers a livable wage and its notorious invitation to Shell Oil two summers ago (which Bowman supported). And it’s true that an immigant, non-white voice on the Port Commission would itself be a breath of fresh air. Is Abdi conversant enough in actual Port operations? If he gets through the primary, he has three more months to make that case. Ahmed Abdi.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 4: This is the one open seat, and as such it’s attracted the most candidates: Eight, headlined by the surprise candidacy of Seattle City Council veteran Peter Steinbrueck.

Like anyone else who’s been around local politics for a while, I know and like Peter. For a decade, from 1997-2007, he and Nick Licata were often the lonely progressive voices on a council that was far more corporatized than today’s (and that helped lay the groundwork for our current homelessness and housing crises.) Four years ago, he ran an unfortunate campaign for mayor that never really took off due to the odd combination of Peter and establishment consultant Cathy Allen. But he’s still a really good guy, and a civic treasure.

And he’s not the best candidate for this job.

Honestly, I don’t know why Peter is running. Both professionally (he’s a well-regarded architect and urban planner) and on council, he hasn’t shown any obvious past interest in the Port of Seattle. The port commission doesn’t pass laws; his budget and oversight experience would translate, but only if he were more familiar with the Port itself.

And there’s another progressive candidate for this seat who has probably forgotten more about the Port over the years than Peter Steinbrueck has ever known.

I first encountered John Persak in the ’90s, when he was a young IWW firebrand. But unlike many young radicals, he stuck with it. Today, he’s risen to become a policy expert and vice president of the ILWU longshoreman’s union. As such, he’d be an ideal advocate on the commission for exactly the constituencies the Port has cared the least about in recent years: the middle class blue collar workers on the waterfront, and the lower-paying airport service workers whose raise to a $15 minimum wage the Port fought so hard against, even as the last Port CEO was paying himself and his buddies exorbitant raises. It’s been a while since a union representative, any union representative, was on the port commission. There couldn’t be a better time, and Persak has spent a lifetime preparing for the role.

In a crowded, open seat race like this for a relatively obscure position, Steinbrueck’s connections and name familiarity will likely enable him to be one of the two finalists. Who will also make the cut? It’ll be tough for Persak. In 2015, in a similar crowded open seat race (the one eventually won by Felleman), the other finalist was a grossly underqualified woman, simply because she was the only woman in a nine-person primary. Again, in this eight-person race, there’s one woman, and she’ll have an advantage. There’s also a well-monied former Delta Airlines board member who ran in that last open seat race, permacandidate Richard Pope, and several others. Persak’s the only one who would be a strong, committed, knowledgable advocate for the people most impacted by the port commission’s decisions. John Persak.

City of Seattle: Mayor: Hoo Boy. Twenty. One. Fucking. Candidates.

Fortunately, only six of them are running serious, viable campaigns. You can forget about the other fifteen. Alex Tsimerman is not going to be our next mayor. (Thank Gaia.) Neither are Harvey Lever, Mary Martin, or a dozen others. But the six worth paying attention to each have significant strengths and serious flaws that are worth considering. In alphabetical order, they are: Jenny Durkan, Jessyn Farrell, Bob Hasegawa, Mike McGinn, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver.

Jenny Durkan was the last of these candidates to announce, once Ed Murray had withdrawn from the race; she’s relying heavily on Murray’s donors (and even some of his political staff), as well as her own family’s money and connections, for what instantly became the business community’s campaign of choice. As a former US Attorney who has never held public office, it’s hard to tell what kind of mayor Durkan would be; she starts as a Murray doppelganger with many of the same strengths (including the LGBTQ base) and weaknesses, but she’s also shown signs in the campaign of having creative, thoughtful ideas of her own. On the other hand, one of her decisions as US Attorney was to not federally prosecute the SPD cop who shot and killed John T. Williams in 2010. She could be surprisingly positive as mayor – or not. I’m betting on “not.”
Jessyn Farrell is a sleeper in this race. She’s not well known outside her Lake City base. But in her five years representing Northeast Seattle in Olympia (she left her secure seat to run for mayor), she’s gotten high marks from every progressive Olympia hand I’ve talked with, representing a variety of constituencies – an impressive record for a relatively young legislator. She could well inherit much of the environmental vote that mobilized for Mike McGinn in 2009, as well as appealing to women voters who are skeptical about Durkan. She’s smart, creative, and strong on the issues. Keep your eye on Jessyn Ferrell. All that said, she’s relatively young and has no executive experience – and she starts as arguably the least-known of the major candidates. This probably isn’t her year – but we could do a lot worse than Ferrell for mayor.
Bob Hasegawa has a different problem: as a longtime legislator representing Southeast Seattle, he was prohibited by law from raising money for his campaign before the legislature ended its third (!) special session on June 30. [UPDATE: MY MISTAKE. IT’S *STILL* IN SESSION.] With well-funded candidates like Durkan in the race in a crowded primary, that’s a significant disadvantage – which is a shame, because Hasegawa is a beloved icon in the south end. In Olympia, and before that as a union organizer, he’s spent his entire adult life fighting on behalf of working people, communities of color, and the mnny constituencies being left behind by Seattle’s ever-widening wealth gap. And he has a proven record of effectiveness that can’t be matched by most other candidates. That’s critical when tackling not only Seattle’s many difficult issues, but reversing decades of city hostility toward the people Hasegawa fights for. As a bonus, unlike our last three mayors, he’s not an arrogant, bullying asshole. That alone would be a welcome culture change. But first, he has to get through the primary.
Mike McGinn is running an odd campaign. In 2009, he surprised everyone and won with the solid support of the environmental movement. Those voters largely abandoned him four years later, when he lost to Murray. Now he’s back trying to champion neighborhoods and homeowners – and rhose are the people most likely to vote in our summer primary.
It’s not a bad strategy, even if it’s a complete reversal from the evangelical zeal with which he promoted density (and corporate welfare for developers) during his one term as mayor. McGinn is as responsible as any single individual for our current affordable housing crisis. He also fought hard against any sort of accountability during the Department of Justice’s investigation and action sgainst SPD. Those are serious negatives.
However, McGinn also did some really good things as mayor. He invested in the south end and in racial equity as no mayor has before or since. The Rainier Beach Community Center was his doing, and he forged important connections with immigrant communities. His approach to homelessness was flawed, but it was positively benevolent compared to what came before and afrer. Don’t rule him out – but given his abrasive (and sometimes openly misogynist) personal style and past pivots, it’s very difficult to predict how he’d govern during a second term, That’s a problem.
Cary Moon was running a stealth campaign, until winning the surprise endorsement of The Stranger. She’s a long-time civic activist but hasn’t been much in the public eye since helping to lead the effective, if ultimately doomed, 2007 fight against the downtown tunnel – a stand that looks better every year. She’s organized, well-versed in the issues, and has all the right priorities. It’s easy to see why The Stranger endorsed her.
The downside for Moon – as with Nikkita Oliver, who I’ll discuss next – is that Moon has never run an organization of any size. I have more confidence in her than I do in Oliver to step in and do the job, and Moon is far better at engaging with constituents outside her base. But there would still be hiccups. And Stranger endorsement notwithstanding, she hasn’t raised much money (relatively speaking), hasn’t been very visible, and will have a tough time getting through this primary But, er, stranger things have happened.
Nikkita Oliver is clearly the people’s candidate in this race – literally, as standard-bearer for the new People’s Party. She’s a charismatic natural leader who has emerged in recent years as an articulate, forceful, and effective community leader on issues like the youth jail and police accountability. She has by far the most enthusiastic backers, the most volunteers, the most juice of any of these candidates. She won the endorsement of the Seattle Weekly, and a significant dissent from members of The Stranger’s editorial board, on the strength of the cultural shift she’d represent. And I not only agree with but admire many of the radical positions she’s staked out. But that doesn’t mean she can either win in November or be a good mayor.
The big problem with Oliver is her lack of experience, and it manifests in many ways. Her support is deep but not broad; for a populist candidate, she hasn’t shown much interest in reaching out to forge the many coalitions needed for a successful city-wide race. As a 31-year-old activist, absolutely nothing in her past suggests she’s either qualified or capable of running the fastest-growing major city in the US, or the 11,000 workers it employs.
Oliver’s reply to this criticism is that she’d “learn on the job.” It took McGinn, an outsider and lawyer with far more experience than Oliver, two solid years to get his bearings – and he didn’t have the whole of the Seattle establishment arrayed against him like Oliver would.
To her credit, she has learned as a candidate. Early on she often showed an embarrassing lack of awareness of some issues – as when, in an interview, she seemed unaware that Seattle voters passed a huge housing levy last year, much of which was dedicated to affordable housing. She’s making fewer of those mistakes now, but even so, some of her positions – like her support for HALA – are both puzzling and worrisome.
Overall, Oliver has a lot going for her. But if I needed brain surgery, I wouldn’t pick a second year medical student with great new ideas about operating room procedure, no matter how engaging that person was. I’d want to pick a surgeon I was confident could do the job. Seattle’s many urgent challenges are at least as complex. Oliver’s young, dynamic, and has plenty of time to get more experience, but I don’t want a mayor, however much I like their rhetoric, who needs training wheels. And neither does most of Seattle, which along with her agenda virtually guarantees Oliver would lose a two-person November election badly. That might well result in the next mayor (especially a Mayor Durkan) sidelining the issues Oliver champions as only being the concern of a noisy but small minority. We can’t afford that.

If, as it appeared in March would be the case, Oliver was the only serious candidate standing between Ed Murray and a second term, I would have endorsed her enthuiastically. But we’ve got a lot more choices now. Bob Hasegawa has many of the same priorities as Oliver, but doesn’t carry her risks. He’s shown he can forge broad alliances and get laws and policies passed. And he’d be a credible progressive champion if matched against a business-as-usual candidate like Durkan.

As I said at the outside, each of these six candidates has things to recommend them, and each has flaws. But only one has not only the right values and priorities (and a track record of commitment to them), but the experience to turn those values into city policy. Bob Hasegawa

City of Seattle: City Council, Position 8: This open seat race, replacing the retiring Tim Burgess, has attracted several great candidates and one really bad one.

The bad one is Sara Nelson, the Seattle Times-endorsed candidate who identifies herself as owner of Fremont Brewery. But her relevant experience was serving as the senior legislative aide to the widely reviled Richard Conlin. In 2013, Conlin was upset in his city council bid for a fifth term by Kshama Sawant, both because she out-organized him and because Conlin’s arrogance and hostility to many of his constituents motivated some extremely unlikely bedfellows to help an open socialist beat him. That arrogance and hostility, basically toward anyone who wasn’t a developer or other large business interest, extended to Conlin’s office, which was unusually resistant to the most ordinary of constituent services and meetings. That is the experience Nelson, as the business community’s suggested replacement for Burgess, would bring to city council. Literally anyone else running in this race would be better. Most of the nut job contingent running for mayor would be better.

Nelson is particularly dangerous in the primary because there are several great candidates likely to split the progressive vote. The two strongest candidates so far, in terms of fundraising and volunteers, have been Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda. Grant ran a populist campaign against Burgess two years ago, almost entirely focused on affordable housing, and had a surprisingly strong showing; he’s the only candidate for the seat this year who filed to run before Burgess decided to retire. A former Tenants Union director, Grant has become far more conversant on other issues in his second run. He’d make a great councilperson.

Mosqueda? I have my doubts. She’s labor’s candidate in this race. A Washington State Labor Council executive, she helped author the minimum wage initiative that won statewide approval last year; she has nearly every union in town behind her. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. On the issues city council needs most urgently to address – and that Grant is a powerful voice for.- local unions have, frankly, been part of the problem with affordable housing and homelessness, only too willing to shovel money and favors to developers in exchange for short-term construction jobs. On issues I and many other Seattleites care most about, I don’t trust her.

Alas, Grant risks splitting the vote in this race with two other really good progressives. As an NAACP attorney, Sheley Secrest has been on the front lines of race and especially law enforcement issues for years. She also played a key role in 2013 in giving Sawant credibility in African-American communities. Mac McGregor is equally impressive – a charismatic longtime civic activist who seeks to become the first openly trans member of the city council of a major US city.

Since they haven’t run before, neither McGregor nor Secrest are as well known as Grant, and Jon honestly has done the best organizing job of any council candidate this year. You can’t go wrong with any of the three, but with Mosqueda also running a strong campaign, only one of the three is likely to make it to November. That will almost certainly be Grant, bur I’m going with McGregor, for the simple reason that a strong showing by him will help encourage either him or other trans candidates to run in the future. Mac McGregor.

City of Seattle: City Council, Position 9: Two years ago, Lorena Gonzalez sailed to election in an open seat, largely on the strength of a compelling life story and the connections she made as Mayor Ed Murray’s attorney. The concern, as she joined the council, was that she would be an unhelpful ally for a mayor intent on undermining any council ideas he couldn’t claim credit for.

Instead, Gonzalez has forged a much more independent path. She’s been friendly to business interests in some cases, a fierce advocate for the dispossessed in others. It’s been so strong a performance that when Ed Murray dropped out of the mayor’s race, she could seriously, credibly explore a mayoral run. (She sensibly declined – she’ll have plenty of oppottunities, and more experience, in the future – and Jenny Durkan jumped in instead.)

Instead, Gonzalez is likely to sail to re-election again, but she’s still got six opponents in this primary, and one of them will advance to the general. The worst of the batch is David Preston, by far the most dangerously abusive civic menace on the ballot (and that’s a ballot with Alex Tsimerman in the mayor’s race.) The best is Pat Murakami, a civic and neighborhood activist with many of the right priorities. Among other things, Murakami makes a compelling case that Gonzalez, in her time on council, has been only too willing to let developers terraform the University District and South Lake Union with almost no meaningful commitment to affordability. I don’t agree with Murakami on everything, either, but our city council has pretty much shut out neighborhood activists ever since council members started (allegedly) representing neighborhoods. In that context, Murakami is the better choice in this race. Pat Murakami.

UPDATE: It took all of ten days for me to take the for-me-unprecedented step of rescinding my endorsement for Murakami, while the election was still underway. Read why here. Skip it.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 4: As mentioned, for decades the Port of Seattle has been the local public agency that is the most corrupt, insular, and contemptuous of the public it serves. And for decades, the Seattle School District has given the Port stiff competition in all of those areas.

Like the port commissioners, Seattle school board members are (supposedly) part-time, grossly underpaid, and given wholly inadequate staff support. Like the Port, Seattle School District has had an all-too-frequent succession of chief executives who were cynical manipulators. Like the Port, Seattle Schools are unrelentingly hostile to the people most reliant on them, in this case teachers, support staff, parents, and especially students. Like the Port, Seattle Schools have a serious problem with racial equity – a doubly serious issue in a district with a majority of non-white students. Like the port commission, the school board occasionally gets reform-minded members, but more often it has overwhelmed board members who get led around by the nose by senior staff concerned primarily with protecting their own fiefdoms. Nauseatingly, where the Port glories in its culture of corruption, Seattle Schools justifies every depredation as being “for the kids.” Bullshit.

Like the Port, Seattle Schools needs a thorough culture change. And that starts with its board members.

Three of the seven board positions are up for election this year. In the primary, only people in their district vote, and then the top two advance to a city-wide vote in November. The first two of these positions are open, and have solid – even exciting – options.

For District 4, Megan Locatelli Hyska is a Bernie Sanders-inspired newcomer who says a lot of the right things, but is fuzzy on actual policy. That’s not the problem for Eden Mack, a longtime education activist who – like John Persak at the Port – has forgotten more education policy than most current board members know. Mack wants to prioritize racial equity. Just as importantly, and unlike Hyska, she has the chops to get that done. Eden Mack.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 6: Zachary Pullin DeWolf is the clear choice here. A Native American activist, he’s been on the board of both the Seattle Housing Authority and Gender Justice League, and has a long history of fighting for racial and gender equity. He’s what our schools look like, and he’s what our school board should look like. Zachary Pullin DeWolf.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 7: In recent years, one school board member has consistently fought, frequently alone, to get the district to improve its long-standing, shameful record of de facto discrimination against its non-white students. Betty Patu is an icon. We need her on the school board for another term. Betty Patu.

BALLOT MEASURES

Only one county-wide measure is on the primary ballot this year:

King County Proposition One: Sales Tax for Cultural Access Program: Seattle area voters are notoriously willing to tax ourselves. An arts levy, like this one, would normally be a slam dunk. Most people support arts funding. In a community with any sort of aspirations to civility, it’s not a luxury.

But the timing on this one is really, really unfortunate. This levy would create a county-wide increase of one tenth of one percent to fund cultural access to the arts, particularly through public schools and especially for lower-income students. That’s a worthy cause – and one funded here by the people least able to afford it. Sales taxes are the most regressive of our state’s limited range of revenue options. Moreover, thanks in large part to Seattle area Democrats who caved to Republican obstructionism, Olympia just agreed to impose a massive property tax increase aimed almost exclusively at Puget Sound property owners. That will add up to $1,000 a year for many homeowners. More importantly for this measure, it will also hit rental properties, and many if not most of those property owners will simply pass the full increase along to their tenants – even though their state property taxes are, in turn, tax-deductible for the IRS.

In short, many of those least able in our community to pay more taxes are about to get hit with a huge increase in their already skyrocketing rents. That’s who would also disproportionately pay the sales tax increase in Prop. 1. And we have enough wealthy philanthropists in our county happy to fund the arts. (Social services? Not so much.) Let them pay for these worthy programs – not those of us least able to afford it. Rejected.

And remember to get your ballots in by Tuesday, August 1!

[Author’s note: I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicating (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us. I’ll also be reviewing these races with my colleague, Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.

If you find my web and radio reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

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