Election results show neighborhood candidates can compete

by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, Seattle Displacement Coalition – December 15, 2015

There was a lot of gloating in he pro-density/pro-growth blogs when initial results of city council elections came in on the evening of November 3rd. These were the first elections under our new council district system and in all but two of the nine races, (for seven district and two city-wide seats), developer-backed candidates were leading by wide margins.

Many political observers saw this as a mandate to turn up the throttle on growth. Others said the new district system hadn’t in any fundamental way altered the political landscape. Voters were backing status quo candidates and it was a rebuke of those calling for change at City Hall. 

Indeed it looked bleak for candidates aligned to any degree with the neighborhoods or raising concerns about the impacts of runaway growth or backing stronger protections for renters.

However, only about a third of all votes were tabulated on election night. As results continued to come in over the following weeks, margins narrowed dramatically in several of the races.

With the final results in, and one(?) race headed for a recount, here’s our takeaway on each race. 

District One–West Seattle: Tenant-rights and neighbourhood advocate Lisa Herbold has pulled ahead of Shannon Braddock by a scant 39 votes. If Herbold’s lead holds through the recount, this will be a tremendous victory. 

Apartment owners, developers and the downtown chamber of commerce poured $150,000 directly and another $210,000 in PAC money into Braddock’s campaign. Herbold was no slouch at raising funds, much of it from small contributors, but still was outspent more than 3 to 1.

Herbold ran an excellent campaign but it’s unlikely she could have overcome this funding disparity had she been running for a citywide seat. Under a district system, she only had to reach the 60,000 voters in West Seattle, not 460,000 citywide.  She could afford to hit every voter with one or more direct mails and reach most voters through concerted doorbelling. Her message of managing growth, making developers pay their fair share, tenants rights and economic justice resonated with voters. 

District 2–Southeast Seattle.  Current Councilmember Bruce Harrell was expected to win in a landslide. And from election night returns, it looked like he would. He had big developer bucks, name familiarity, and several ‘big shot’ endorsements.

His opponent, Tammy Morales, was dismissed by the mainstream media. But behind the scenes she quietly ran an effective campaign. She was able to raise about $70,000 mostly in smaller contributions to Harrell’s $227,000. Again, in a district system, it was enough to enable her to compete. Morales message similar to Herbold’s called for more accountability on issues of growth, more city’s resources for Southeast Seattle, and social and economic equity.

When the last votes were counted Harrell eked out a win by about 400 votes.  We were left wondering, what if this race got the press attention it deserved? What if more community donations had paid for at least one direct mail to all Southeast Seattle voters?

3rd District: Kashama Sawant with her progressive message, unprecedented grassroots base, unique ability to garner press attention, and fundraising prowess, handily defeated developer-backed Pamela Banks.

4th District–University District/Laurelhurst/Ravenna: By the time final results were counted, this race too was a squeaker. Developer-backed, pro-density Rob Johnson won. Though Maddux consciously shied away from a strong neighborhood position he did call strongly for developer impact fees.  But again, development interests spent over $240,000 on Johnson, through direct donations and PACs.  Despite the disparity, Maddux nearly pulled out a colossal upset. Again, we wonder the same what if’s as with Morales.

5th District–North Seattle: Deborah Juarez won a surprising landslide victory. Juarez made no particular appeal to neighborhood concerns on growth, but expressed support for developer impact fees and had a strong equity and social justice platform. As a Native American she drew funding from the Tribes, which allowed her to get her message out to district voters and surpass her developer-funded opponent Sandy Brown.

There were no surprises in the other Council races.

6th District—Northwest Seattle: Michael O’Brien, no friend of effective growth management, crushed neighbourhood-backed Catherine Weatbrook. We noted that O’Brien dominated in most precincts but in Ballard heavily impacted by runaway growth, Weatbrook won handily.

7th District—Downtown/Queen Anne: Incumbent Sally Bagshaw had no real competition in from Deborah Zech-Artis who lacked funds, name familiarity, and ability to get her message out. 

As is typical of citywide races, the two at-large seats were taken by establishment-backed candidates Tim Burgess and Lorena Gonzalez.  While Bill Bradburd offered a strong neighborhood message against Gonzalez, he was outspent nearly 4 to 1.

In the other at-large race, tenant rights advocate Jonathan Grant, though outspent $620,000 to $75,000, ran a strong campaign garnering 45% of the vote against Tim Burgess, darling of the downtown establishment. Even though Grant artfully captured free publicity late in the campaign, in a citywide race this disparity in funding simply is too much to overcome. 

The underlying message we take from these elections is that despite the power of special interests, now for the first time because of our district system, a pro-tenant, pro-neighborhood candidate can compete and win even when outspent 3, 4, or 5 to 1 by a developer-backed opponent. 

It seems odd to us that throughout this election, that few of the candidates fully embraced a neighborhood agenda premised off opposition to the Mayor’s upzones.  Had they, especially in these close races, it could have made the margin of difference they needed to get elected. 

And had the neighborhoods put more time and energy and their own funds into the candidates of their choice – many community leaders simply sat on the fence – this too could have turned the tide in these races. 

Voices on this council willing to speak for our neighborhoods will be in the minority for this term.  But over time, the 7 district Councilmembers will have to keep in mind they were elected to represent their own district. If they blindly back more tax breaks, upzones, and other giveaways for developers, there will be no disguising this insensitivity. It will prompt good challengers to no longer be daunted by running city-wide and with the ability to raise the the more modest amounts it takes to run and win in a district system and even if they are outspent by the status quo person holding the seat.  We believe the results from this election prove that point. 

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