District elections could empower neighborhoods

by John V. Fox and Carolee Colter, Seattle Displacement Coalition – November 15, 2014

We’re now just one year from electing seven councilmembers under the new district election system overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2013. For the first time in a century, voters will have someone from their own area of the city officially representing them at City Hall. Only two Council seats will be filled by a citywide “at large” vote.

A growing list of candidates has filed or expressed interest in running for a district seat. So far, we’re not sure there’s a marked change in the calibre of candidates.

First there are born-again incumbents who under our previous at-large system have a long history of representing downtown and development interests.  Suddenly they’re telling us they really care about neighborhoods, Then there are out-of-the-blue ‘newbies’ with near zero experience working with neighborhoods– seemingly driven by the desire to see their name in lights. Finally there are the well-intentioned who we fear lack the gravitas, know-how or resources to ever get elected.   

Where we’re seeing the impact of district election is the messaging–more direct appeals and actions speaking directly to neighborhood needs in communities the candidates seek to represent. A year ago, the current Council wouldn’t have even considered, let alone approved, housing linkage fees soon to be required of developers when they build in Seattle. We think these fees are set too low but still they would have been out of the question before district elections. Nor would councilmembers a year ago have approved legislation regulating microhousing in our neighborhoods. All nine current councilmembers recently signed a joint letter opposing Seattle Housing Authority’s plan to raise rents on hundreds of public housing residents.

Councilmember Harrell must run in the second district in 2015 and it’s no coincidence he opposed the recent upzone of the Mt Baker neighbourhood in the heart of that district.  Councilmember O’Brien who has for years led the charge for runaway growth and giving developers free rein, played a key role in brokering both the new microhousing legislation and developer linkage fees.  

All incumbents seeking election to the new district seats appear to be trying to reinvent themselves to some degree as the “neighborhood candidate.” They’d better. A recent citywide poll indicated the popularity of all them, except Sawant and Licata, was miserably low. 

Meanwhile the new candidates who’ve already declared are clearly appealing to neighborhood basics like police and sidewalks.  So in this sense change is already afoot.

While getting back to the “basics’ will certainly attract voters, we believe the easiest path to election to the new district seats is to run on a platform calling for limiting runaway growth, making developers pay their fair share and ensuring a fairer distribution of the city’s resources.

So far, however, no one has stepped up to grab this mantle. We’ve said all along that district elections aren’t a panacea but an unprecedented opportunity for our neighborhoods and the cause of economic justice. The playing field has been levelled so we can compete on even terms with downtown, corporate, developer and special interest-backed candidates. 

But we have to “seize the moment”.  We can’t just wait for good candidates to jump in. That means recruiting and actively backing people who are “winnable” and who embrace a progressive and neighborhood-based agenda. By “actively backing”, we mean supporting candidates not only with volunteers but with our dollars. 

We’re involved right now – and that’s what the Coalition for an Affordable, Livable Seattle is all about – in creating a broad grassroots coalition of tenant, housing, neighborhood, senior, progressive labor and small business people, in setting an agenda and then holding candidates accountable to that agenda. 

Moreover, we’d like to see some kind of PAC that can raise at least $100,000, hold candidate forums in the districts, interview and evaluate candidates, then most importantly, put money into direct mails and materials to get their message out to every voter. 

Seattle is now one of the most expensive cities in the country, with the most rapidly rising rents. Thousands of low-income and working people are being forced from their homes and the city due to runaway growth and development. There are 9000 to 10,000 homeless on any given night.  The unique physical character of our city – our open space, parks, tree canopy, urban streams – is under siege. To a large degree we have our current councilmembers to thank for that and a now defunct at-large election system has kept them in far too long. 

For the first time we have the opportunity not only to get back to the basics that people at the neighborhood level care about, but also (and most importantly for us) to make strides toward economic justice.

What districts have done is create this remarkable opportunity, but it’s really up to us to grab it—to get more effectively organized and geared up for 2015 to elect people who share these progressive goals.  Let’s do it!

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