In 2015, Seattle will hold the first non-citywide City Council election in more than a century, with seven of the nine seats on the council elected by district. 36 candidates are currently filed with the city clerk’s office, and nearly a third of the incumbents have already declined to run for reelection. So with the old guard seemingly stepping aside and the young Turks charging in, CHS asked various players in the city government: How will this change things?
Best case scenario: the district system will make money less decisive in city politics. When all nine seats were elected at-large, former mayor Mike McGinn told CHS, little people didn’t stand a chance.
“Under the old system,” said McGinn, “the mayor and the city council all relied on the same traditional sources of political support, the big donors and the large endorsing organizations.”
With the smaller scale of district elections lowering campaigns’ price tag, dollar-spouting lobbyists could be less essential to candidates — and therefore less influential on those elected.
“Redistricting… created a new kind of accountability [to local communities],” candidate Jon Grant told CHS, “and new kind of platform for grassroots candidates to actually have a shot at challenging incumbents who are bankrolled by moneyed interests like developers.”
There also seems to be a growing force of potential big-time leaders focused on small-time problems.
“I think you’re gonna hear more about dogs barking, more about traffic congestion, more about, maybe [about] a crack house or something,” said retiring councilor Nick Licata. “I think the influence of developers will go down… because they’re probably the most active business constituent in the city.”
Those are the hopes — and some of the fears — anyway. And the influx of 30 newcomers into this election certainly looks like a rush of new blood to the heads of the city. The newbs outnumber incumbents by nearly five to one, and campaign fundraising so far shows a marked trend toward deep-pocketed incumbents. Councilor Bruce Harrell, for instance, has already pulled in about $65,000, more than three times as much as his only challenger, and council president Tim Burgess has raised about $34,000, a little more than two and a half times as much as his only serious challenger. In fact, of councilors who are running for reelection, only socialist Kshama Sawant has been out-fundraised (so far) by one of their challengers. Congratulations, candidate Rod Hearne.
Sawant’s surprise victory against incumbent Richard Conlin in 2013 is probably another reason why so much of the current council is bowing out.
“Kshama’s victory against Richard Conlin kind of put the council members on notice that they were vulnerable,” said McGinn. “To a great degree, she didn’t run against Richard Conlin individually, she ran against the city council… and I think it was a sign to any one of them that a strong progressive candidate could win. And I think if you look at both Kshama’s victory — a very close victory — and the overwhelming victory of districts [on the ballot in 2013] — you put those two together and it doesn’t look like the public thought that highly of the city council as a whole.”
Grant agrees. “This city yearns for more progressive leadership,” he said. “[New candidates are] tapping into that frustrating that the community has been feeling for years.”
It’s possible, of course, that a brand-new council might fall on its face from inexperience or infighting. But in a city seemingly aching for reforms on issues ranging from housing affordability to police accountability, there is hope that this unprecedented election could establish a strong progressive bloc on the council — perhaps even the majority (five votes) needed to fast-track lefty legislation.
Or, on the other hand, we could end up worried about barking dogs.
Morgan Beach, another District 3 candidate, said in her early campaigning, it has been small, local issues like parking around new construction that voters seem most focused on.
“It’s really little micro issues that affect their daily lives that people are paying attention to,” the candidate said.
“The little issues will win out and sift up to the top, in a lot of ways.”