With reporting by Margo Vansynghel and Alex Garland
With some $716,000 in campaign contributions, another $250,000 in Democracy Vouchers, and tens of thousands more from special interest “political action committee” spending injected, the District 3 race to November is shaping up as a battle over Amazon — and bologna sandwiches.
District 3 incumbent Kshama Sawant and challenger Egan Orion emerged with substantial, likely insurmountable leads in the first drop of ballots Tuesday night.
As of Tuesday night at 6 PM, ballots representing 31.8% of District 3’s 73,061 registered voters had been tallied as received with only 26.75% counted. With forecasts ranging around 40% predicted turnout across the city, Tuesday night’s first results are due for significant shifting — but the top two seem unlikely to be displaced. Challenger and Speak out Seattle champion Pat Murakami has the clearest shot but she will have to make up more than nine points to catch Orion.
At his Election Night party at 12th Ave Rachel’s Ginger Beer, the crowd produced a high-pitched scream and some claps from those browsing results on the internet — but the screen at Rachel’s was tuned to aa dog show.
“It’s looking really good,” Orion said, looking at the cell phone of his campaign manager. “Murakami’s at 14?” he said, surprised before hugging his campaign team.
Orion said he thinks people voted for him because “they see a candidate that is thoughtful, that has a long history of working in this district, that can point to concrete results, in the work that I’ve done. Someone that has not sought the limelight. In a lot of ways, I’m the anti-Sawant,” Orion said.
In a speech to the crowd at Rachel’s following the announcement of the first ballot counts, Orion began his focus on November.
“From the start I wanted this campaign to really be about a vision I was laying out for this city, a place we can all be proud of, for those who are suffering the most,” Orion said, noting that he wanted to make sure that in this “unprecedented economic boom, that we don’t leave people behind.”
“I think we can do better at City Council, I think that we can work together across constituencies and communities, we can move this city forward. So I ask you to donate please, if you have not given your democracy vouchers, give those, we need help in volunteering, knocking on doors, or putting labels on flyers, anything you can do, we appreciate your help.”
Sawant, meanwhile, celebrated with supporters at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.
“Amazon’s candidate in our race shamelessly put up posters saying “no corporate PAC money,” Sawant said Tuesday. The crowd boo-ed. “That’s bologna,” someone in the fired-up crowd — responding to Sawant with shouts and applause and some boos throughout her speech — said to laughs.
“He is honest about his agenda at least,” Sawant continued. “He wants to partner with (big) business,” said Sawant. “He told The Guardian newspaper, ‘Kshama Sawant is the worst partner for our large businesses. You know, a bologna sandwich would be a better partner.'”
“I guess it’s good for big business to be so fired up to be their bologna sandwich,” she said.
“But after five and a half years on the City Council: there is already no shortage of bologna sandwiches representing big business.”
“This is a straight-up battle between the billionaire class and the working class,” Sawant continued.
“It is also a battle of ideas, in particular on how progressive changes happens. How do we win games as working people? How have we won our progressive victories in the past?” she said, her voice growing hoarse, touting successes such as $15 minimum wage.
“I wear the badge of socialist with honor,” Sawant said later to loud applause. “Every candidate in this race has talked about affordable housing, and will continue to talk about affordable housing. But we should not fall for lip service, what we are looking for is the courage to acknowledge what most renters and homeowners already know: That the for-profit housing market has completely failed it, and that we need bold policy,” such as rent control, and social housing funded by taxing Amazon, Sawant said. The crowd erupted.
In her speech, Sawant also unleashed some zingers reserved for Mayor Jenny Durkan, who she called “Jeff Bezos’s mayor,” the PAC Moms For Seattle — “shameless” — and People for Seattle, the PAC created by former city council member Tim Burgess — she said their name was Orwellian and that it should be called “Billionaires against Seattle” instead.
The race for Sawant’s seat into November will be a battle over who runs Seattle.
Sawant kicked off her campaign with the provocative, straight out of Thunderdome question when she announced her reelection campaign in January — “This year will be a referendum on one vital question: Who runs Seattle? Amazon and big business,” Sawant asked in January. “or working people?” She also immediately stirred controversy by throwing off the campaign fundraising restrictions of the Democracy Vouchers program. Others profited in her absence.
Relatively unheard of challenger Ami Nguyen was able to put the potentially game changing program to full use, leading the pack with some $57,000 in Democracy Vouchers pledged as she promised to focus on representing all of District 3 including neighborhoods far beyond its Capitol Hill core. Beacon Hill small business owner, neighborhood activist, and previously unsuccessful City Council candidate Pat Murakami, meanwhile, also found an alternative route for her campaign, rising on support from anti-crime and street disorder, pro-police, and slow growth sentiment.
Candidates Logan Bowers and Zachary DeWolf gave the D3 race a stronger challenge. Urbanist and pot shop entrepreneur Bowers built on a housing first approach to D3’s issues including affordability and homelessness. While DeWolf, the area’s representative on the Seattle School Board, worked early to position himself as a progressive alternative to Sawant’s brash style. DeWolf also pulled off a damaging coup when he chiseled away a solid chunk of labor support from Sawant’s base.
Former Capitol Hill Chamber head and longtime Pridefest organizer Egan Orion played from a stronger deck. With a strong social network of Capitol Hill small business interests, Orion launched his campaign with talk of a more business friendly approach and a queer voice on the council. “I landed back in District 3 after I came out as gay in the early 90s,”Orion said as he addressed a small group of media and supporters on a Broadway sidewalk to launch his campaign, “and I remember watching the Pride parade on Broadway just a few steps from here, literally, and feeling that I’d arrived someplace special, someplace where I could be myself and be safe.”
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce liked what it heard. Its Vulcan, Amazon, and Expedia — along with hundreds of small businesses — powered PAC threw its considerable weight and budget behind Orion with a barrage of
aggressive mailers and anti-progressive messaging. UPDATE: A representative for the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC has clarified that the group was not responsible for any mailers produced for the D3 campaign during the Primary. CHS apologizes for the error. Other PACs also provided support for the Orion campaign including People for Seattle, the group responsible for the “aggressive mailers” CHS originally referenced.
Sawant, meanwhile, began a strategy with eyes on defending her seat in November. In recent weeks, she leveraged her incumbent position to hold a council committee meeting on gentrification in the Central District at a location *in* the Central District. And only a barrage of ethics threats kept her from attending her office’s rally in support of promised rent control legislation on Capitol Hill. Much as she built her past campaign around the $15 Now cause, Sawant’s camp has now teed up rent control as the rallying flag heading into November.
“Is that the full dump for tonight. Is that all we’re going to get?” Orion asked his campaign team Tuesday night.
“Is that Murakami, is third?” he said. “Murakami is very surprising.”
“That’s exactly where we thought we’d be sitting and where we want to be sitting,” Orion said seconds later in a first reaction to CHS. “Because Sawant’s got a very passionate following, we see her ceiling right now, or her floor really,” he said.
After her speech, Sawant made her way through the packed basement hall of Langston Hughes and was cornered by groups of supporters, photographers, and journalists. After some photos and conversations with supporters, Sawant still had energy to spare. In a reaction to CHS, Sawant called for unity on the left.
“The Chamber-backed candidate made it through in every race. In other words: If we don’t want the city to be the Chamber’s playground, if we don’t want this to be a company town, we’re going to have to fight,” Sawant told CHS. “And for that we’ll have to unite progressive forces, the labor movement, progressive organizations, everybody who agrees that the city should be affordable for all families, everybody who is on the side of struggling small businesses.”
Sawant said she saw tonight’s results, with Orion and Murakami in second and third place, showed “that big business is going to exploit the fact that the democratic establishment has singularly failed to address the housing and homelessness crisis.”
That failure has also created, she added, a “space for the right-wing and for right-wing ideologies. That’s why our main message today was a call to action, both against big business, and against the right wing. It means the left has to unite.”
Sawant didn’t directly respond to CHS’s questions about whether she saw Orion’s and Murakami’s results as an anti-Sawant vote. She brought it back to her message of unity: “What it shows is that there are a lot of genuine people who can be won over to progressive and left politics, even socialist politics. But what we have seen is that the left and the labor movement has been fractured, it has allowed the Chamber PACs and their lies to capture some of those votes.”
“The best defense is a good offense,” she said. “It’s a call to action to all the progressive candidates in this year’s general election also, let’s get united to fight for bold policy to address affordable housing.”
Born in Mumbai, Sawant’s political career in Seattle was formed out of the Occupy movement when the economist was still teaching at Seattle Central and Seattle University. Sawant’s leadership, the council member has said herself, has been focused on larger, sometimes global issues. As other district leaders have made habits of community meetings and “coffee talk,” Sawant has mostly avoided that kind of interaction in favor of rallies and protests. A September agenda-less community gathering at a Central District coffee shop was a rarity for Sawant. At the local level, this has left Sawant open to criticism about her office’s interest and availability in neighborhood issues and day to day problems around homelessness, drug use, and street safety. Some Capitol Hill community leaders have praised her “alternative” style and leadership on issues like the minimum wage.
Orion, meanwhile, has built a career as an events entrepreneur built around flash mobs and PrideFest, the annual Pride celebration at Seattle Center, and the Broadway Pride Festival which he took over two years ago after the city decided to reject the street festival’s founding group’s permit. Orion was also tabbed to lead the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce but his tenure there lasted only a few months as the nonprofit faced dwindling funding, fading enthusiasm, and legal issues before it folded earlier this summer. Orion has said he is taking on Sawant because “there’s a difference between talk and legislation and building coalitions and getting real change done” and says Sawant “seems to be a little more focused on rallies over results.”
In a fully unscientific online poll of self-selected respondents, CHS readers predicted a top two finish of Sawant and Orion:
And for final shits and giggles, here is how respondents are predicting the D3 race will shake out pic.twitter.com/g16UdlGCQL
— jseattle (@jseattle) August 6, 2019
Respondents were most likely to cite homeless, transportation, and affordability as the factors most important to them in selecting a candidate.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the ballot, challenger Girmay Zahilay has emerged as a serious player in the race against longtime King County Council member Larry Gossett. CHS wrote about the race — the first time in a decade Gossett has faced a legitimate challenger — here. Levies to support Seattle libraries and King County Park also seemed to be on the road to passage. “Tonight, we won a victory for young people, students, families and lifelong learners,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said of the positive showing for libraries funding. “I am grateful that Seattle voters continue to overwhelmingly support equity, education, and opportunity for all. The Seattle Public Library is a shared investment in places where communities come together and open up doors to learning.”
Updated results are scheduled to be released daily at 4 PM here on the King County Elections site.
SUBSCRIBE TO CHS: Subscribers help pay for the writers and photographers who provide CHS's daily news coverage. Join TODAY to become a subscriber at $1/$5/$10 a month to help CHS provide community news with NO PAYWALL. You can also sign up for a one-time annual payment. Why support CHS? More here.