Money Changes Everything

One of the more eventful local elections in Seattle history is now over. With a new district system for electing city council members, all nine council seats up for grabs, and an unprecedented infusion of corporate money, the biggest takeaway from the results was surprisingly pedestrian:

People who have made a lot of money really like the idea of making more of it.

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, as opposed to the somnambulent coronations that have been the Seattle norm in recent years. Four dozen people ran for those seats in the primary. And the single most important issue dominating the election – the city’s relentless push for density and its impact on decimating affordable housing – was the campaign centerpiece of every one of the challengers, including several strong progressives.

But in all nine races, the candidate who raised the most money also won. Six of those winning candidates shared the same campaign consultant, Christian Sinderman, who also ran Mayor Ed Murray’s 2013 campaign.

These results are being spun by urbanist backers of Seattle’s real-estate-driven politics as an electoral ratification of Seattle’s current infestation of construction cranes. That’s one way to read the results. Another is to conclude that most people don’t follow city council politics very closely, and name familiarity – which is driven by money – is a huge advantage. And another is to note that in eight of nine races, challengers got over 40 percent of the vote, in stark contrast to the 70 and 80 percent winning margins many council members have enjoyed in the past. Slowing the developer gravy train clearly has a significant local constituency, far more so than in the past.

It just wasn’t enough to win a majority of council seats.

As is, Seattle’s city council will be far more diverse in almost every respect than it has been in the past few decades. A majority are women and four are non-white. Even more importantly, both Kshama Sswant and Mike O’Brien were re-elected – in Sawant’s case, despite a ferociou establishment effort to unseat her led by Murray and council president Tim Burgess. Debora Juarez’s election in Northeast Seattle adds another progressive voice, and on some issues Lorena Gonzales, newly elected to a citywide seat, will be a progressive voice as well. Getting a fifth vote to pass progressive legislation won’t be an unthinkable non-starter any longer.

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. 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 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, and in the case of Braddock, Johnson, and Harrell, their leads were small enough that corporate money swung their elections. 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, was the outlier to all of these trends. Kshama Sawant is shaping up to be a unique political talent, and her success is a genuine phenomenon: Consider these number from her campaign: Over 600 active volunteers; over 178,000 phone calls; knocked on 90,000+ doors throughout the campaign; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend; and well over $450,000 in donations – without accepting any corporate cash – from 3,445 different donors, triple the number of any other candidate. Her donations were smaller, averaging half or less than that of other campaigns. But Sawant made it up with her sheer number of donors and volunteers.

That is utterly unprecedented in local politics. It’s why Sawant is returning to council while the candidates she worked most closely with fell short 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. 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 next time..

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