Seattle politics are being shaken like a rug at spring cleaning. In the last month, three City Council members — Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark — with a collective 38 years in office called it quits. An astonishing 28 candidates have filed to take their spots and to challenge the remaining six incumbents this November.
This political scrum is just what a handful of cranky business types had in mind back in 2013, when they convinced Seattle to switch from electing all City Council members by citywide elections to mostly district elections.
Out with the old, in with a slew.
But shaking up Seattle politics these days is a gamble. The backers of Seattle Districts Now, who include the last few conservatives active in local politics, may not like what their work brings come November.
The most left-leaning Seattle City Council in recent history looks like it’s heading more left.
There are three months until the filing deadline. But thus far the slew includes credible progressive challengers to replace or supplant more moderate council members. For example, the favorite to replace Rasmussen in West Seattle is Lisa Herbold, who worked for more than a decade for Licata, the council’s progressive lion. Council President Tim Burgess has his work cut out to beat Jonathan Grant, head of the state Tenants Union. Councilmember Jean Godden faces a strong challenge by transit activist Rob Johnson.
I asked Eugene Wasserman if this is what he envisioned when he helped draft the district-election measure. He sighed. “For us more on the right, it was a chance we took,” said Wasserman, who represents maritime and industrial businesses in North Seattle.
The slew of candidates, if elected, could make the council younger and have more diversity in living situations. Both are good. Before Kshama Sawant won a seat on the council in 2013, the average age of the nine-member council was 61, nearly twice the average age in the city they represented. None of the nine council members was a renter, in a city with increasingly exorbitant rent prices. The Seattle Times editorial board endorsed district elections with those gaps in mind.
What’s missing is a slate of business-friendly candidates and some pragmatic progressives. I count just a handful of challengers with business ties, including Taso Lagos, whose family ran a popular Greek restaurant on University Avenue. You’d think the recent city initiatives opposed by elements of the business community — the $15 minimum wage, a paid sick-leave law and an ordinance restricting pre-hiring criminal background checks — would prompt pushback. Apparently not.
Wasserman said he hoped a few young business owners would run, but recruitment efforts by business leaders have been weak. “This is a whole new ballgame, and nobody in the business community knows how to play it.”
I tried to ask George Allen of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce about district elections. He took a pass “until closer to the filing date.”
Clark recently noted that when she arrived on the council in 2008, she was considered center-left, and was only the fourth openly gay council member in the city’s history. Today, she’s scorched by the activist fringe as a too-cautious moderate.
That’s because the “fault lines” of Seattle progressive politics shifted, she said. Historically, voters have simply wanted to live in a smooth-running city. “But it has swung toward a younger electorate — if they show up [to vote] — who are saying, ‘I want social and economic inequality addressed’,” she said.
Call it the Sawant effect. Her socialist firebrand message stretched the left bounds on economic policy, and incumbents are looking over their far-left shoulder for activist challengers.
I expected district elections to moderate that. Councilmembers elected citywide had freedom to talk more about social justice than about getting more sidewalks or traffic circles in neighborhoods. District elections will make council members accountable to the retail political needs of fewer constituents, closer to home.
And that includes the small-business community — some its members are still scarred from the Sawant-led firebrand on the $15 minimum-wage debate. When Alison Holcomb, the activist attorney who led the state’s marijuana-legalization campaign, considered a run against Sawant, Holcomb criticized Sawant for rhetoric that “is all about ‘you are a capitalist pig’ no matter what the size of your business.” Holcomb, whose husband owns a Capitol Hill bar, dropped her challenge, for a better job.
That leaves a hole for some smart, progressive, business-friendly candidates to step in to. The filing date is May 15.