Jenny Durkan starts as the favorite in the August 1 primary but five others are competitive
By George Howland Jr
The race for mayor of Seattle is not wide open. There is one candidate, barring some unforeseen circumstance, who will get through the August primary: Jenny Durkan, 59. Five others are fighting to be the other candidate to move onto November’s general election.
The reason I express such confidence in Durkan’s electoral strength is two-fold: first, she is the establishment candidate; second, she has the combination of experience and charisma that Seattle voters generally award.
The Seattle establishment is the ruling coalition that has dominated City Hall for decades: The Chamber, the Downtown Seattle Association, big Democrats, big labor and big developers. Seattle’s establishment doesn’t always put forward the most electable candidates, but this year, they’ve got a very strong one. The imprimatur of the establishment has already reaped benefits for Durkan: she reportedly raked in $100,000 in the first week of fundraising. Money doesn’t always win elections, but it seldom hurts a candidate.
For campaign purposes, Durkan’s resume is fabulous. She is running as former President Barack Obama’s U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. In addition, as U.S. Attorney, she successfully sued Seattle over the use of excessive force and biased policing by the Seattle Police Department (SPD). She also shattered a glass ceiling by being the first openly GLBTQ U.S. Attorney in the nation’s history. All of these things will help her win over Seattle’s dominant liberal electorate.
In addition, Durkan will appeal to the city’s more moderate and conservative voters because she was, after all, a tough prosecutor. During her tenure, she took action that raised concerns from both civil libertarians and activists: busting pot shops, using a child-molester informant to convict would-be bombers and holding anarchists in jail when they refused to testify before a grand jury.
Durkan is also running against President Trump. It’s a good time for a mayoral candidate to be a highly accomplished attorney, since the courts are serving as an important check on Trump’s efforts to punish liberal cities. Durkan, of course, won’t be using her legal skills in the courtroom, but, when it comes to electioneering, that’s beside the point. Elections are often more about optics than substance.
Personally, Durkan is more charismatic, telegenic and warm than any Seattle mayor since Norm Rice. Finally, she is the only establishment candidate in the race. She doesn’t have competition in her lane.
The other five viable contenders are not so lucky. This congestion makes it all the harder to figure out who else will make it through the primary.
The Transformers: Oliver and Hasagewa
Two candidates are running to transform City Hall. This means, unfortunately, they will split their base.
The first to declare was Nikkita Oliver, 31, an attorney, an educator, a poet and an activist. Oliver, who is also smart, charismatic and telegenic, is Seattle’s first candidate to emerge from the new civil rights movement.
Oliver’s platform focuses on social justice.
On housing affordability, she transcends the usual debate by calling for density while really protecting against displacement. She also wants rent control and plans to work with the Seattle Housing Authority to build more public housing.
In order to address homelessness, Oliver would open up new 24/7 shelters and levy luxury taxes to pay for homes without barriers—like sobriety, psychiatric treatment or transitional housing—to entry.
In regards to public safety, she advocates for restorative justice “that repairs harms through the cooperation and participation of all stakeholders” and against punitive institutions like the new youth jail in the Central Area. She supports strong powers for the Community Policing Commission to help ordinary folks shape police reform.
Oliver’s candidacy is accompanied by the birth of a new local political party: the Peoples Party of Seattle. Oliver is running a movement campaign, relying on the activism and enthusiasm of her supporters rather than a huge bank account or mainstream electioneering. She refuses to take corporate donations.
Her path is similar to the one that Seattle City Councilmember and Socialist Alternative Party leader Kshama Sawant forged in her citywide victory over incumbent Richard Conlin. This week, Sawant endorsed Oliver.
Since 2005, Bob Hasegawa,64, has been a member of the Washington state Legislature, first as a state Representative then as a state Senator. Hasegawa is a lifelong resident of Beacon Hill and in the 1990s and early 2000s, he was a leader of the effort to reform Teamsters Local 174.
Hasegawa has a low-key, aw-shucks charm and says things like, “I’m just an ordinary worker who happened to get elected to public office.” His personality shows no evidence of the egotism so common to politicians. He gives the impression of just wanting to roll his sleeves up and get to work on behalf of regular working folks like himself.
Like Oliver, he will be running a people’s campaign, albeit with some important differences. As a former Bernie Sanders delegate, he will try to tap into the grass-roots energy of activists in the Democratic Party that fueled the Vermont Senator’s run for president. He will also be looking to attract progressive unionists who want to shake up Seattle’s status quo.
As he opened his campaign, his central issue was a municipal bank, something he has advocated for in the state legislature. The idea has two benefits: first, it removes tax money from corporate banks that do nasty things with it; second, Hasegawa hopes it will enable city government to use its bonding capacity at a lower cost to do things like build affordable housing.
It’s a great idea, but it is a bit abstract to build a campaign around.
Still, Hasegawa has name recognition in his legislative district, the 11th, which includes parts of South Seattle. He also has well-established ties to Seattle’s non-Sawantist, older left-wing activists.
Three urbanists are running for mayor, which will hurt their chances.
While the former mayor,57, probably has the highest name recognition in the race, he also probably has the highest negative rating among voters. Even those who have voted for him in the past may not want to put him back in city hall. Yet in a race as crowded as this one, you can’t count him out. Candidates don’t need that many votes to get into November’s general election.
In his winning mayoral campaign of 2009, McGinn ran as an outsider opposed to a tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Near the end of that year’s mayoral campaign, in a brilliant strategic move, he declared the tunnel was a settled matter because the city council had made it law.
Once he got into office, he governed like an outsider—one unfamiliar with how to set forth an agenda and accomplish it. Meanwhile, he worked furiously behind the scenes to scuttle the tunnel. This second reversal hurt his credibility with the voters. And when, in August 2011, the tunnel was put on the ballot in an advisory vote, the majority of Seattle voters supported it.
Now, in his latest campaign, McGinn is attempting yet a third reversal. He is running as a neighborhood candidate who wants government to do a better job managing growth. Previously, he was a hard charging urbanist mayor, wanting government to help create housing density, transportation alternatives (“Mayor McSchwinn”) and skyscraper construction to attract major corporations.
Neither the progressive nor the conservative neighborhood movement will embrace him. Some of his old supporters, however, still remember him fondly and will vote for him.
Moon, 53, co-founded the People’s Waterfront Coalition to promote the idea of tearing down the viaduct and not replacing it at all: no tunnel and no rebuilt elevated highway. The idea was wildly popular with urbanists and environmentalists, but went nowhere with the general public or Seattle’s political and business leaders. In August 2011, when Seattleites voted for the tunnel, the idea died for good.
Now Moon is running as an urban planner and a technocrat who understands how cities succeed or fail. It is an untested strategy and doesn’t immediately seem like it will be broadly embraced, but we’ll find out.
Her favorite idea is that speculative foreign investment may be worsening our housing crisis. She admits, however, that no one knows for sure, so, she’d like to study the issue. If there is evidence, it’s worth checking out, but you can’t excite voters with a possibility.
Moon lacks a great personal story to introduce herself to Seattle voters. Basically, she grew up rich as the daughter of a factory owner, not a popular background for a politician to have in the Emerald City. Subsequently, her family sold the business and, therefore, she’s wealthy.
While it may not fit the Horatio Alger narrative, a personal fortune is a terrific thing to have in a crowded primary. The word among politicos is that Moon is prepared to spend big money—including buying serious TV time. If that’s the case and her campaign uses the money wisely, she could find herself in a general election.
Since 2013, Farrell, 43, has represented Northeast Seattle’s 46th District in the state House of Representatives. Before that, she was executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for transit, bicycling and pedestrians.
While in the legislature, she helped make sure the state’s latest transportation package, 2015’s Connect Washington, included $1.3 billion for transit, bike paths and walkways.
In the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure approved by voters, Farrell included an amendment that required the transit agency to “contribute $20 million to a revolving loan fund to support affordable housing” in areas served by its rail and bus expansion.
The mother of three young children, this year Farrell was a House sponsor for a bill that will provide accommodations for pregnant women in the workplace—including flexible schedules and temporary transfer to less hazardous or strenuous work.
In her announcement for mayor, Farrell came out swinging hard for urban density, telling The Stranger, “We need to go bigger and bolder and faster.” Her unapologetic, pro-growth stance will win her votes among the urbanist faithful. She will be able to combine that support with her legislative base of Northeast Seattle voters who reliably turn out for elections.
Money, however, may be a real problem for her, as she, like Hasegawa, can’t raise any dough for the mayor’s race while the legislature is in session. Currently the legislature is deadlocked over spending for education and the session may stretch into summer.
There are 15 other candidates who have registered for August’s mayoral primary. Due to a lack of name recognition, political experience, money, endorsements or significant grassroots support, none of them are likely to turn up on November’s ballot.
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Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He even refuses to drink beer with the Coalition’s John Fox.