With one day left before polls close on the 2021 election, campaigns are in a mad dash to the finish line. Voters have some of the starkest candidate choices in recent memory, and activists on both sides have emphasized how much is at stake.
“Don’t wanna sound hyperbolic but this Tuesday’s election might be Seattle’s most important in a while,” progressive organizer and writer Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr tweeted Friday. “Seattle could have a majority WOC [women of color] progressive council or one that sweeps encampments. City Attorney will either be abolitionist or MAGA [Make America Great Again]. Mayor either pro-corporate or pro-labor.”
Progressive candidates are urging supporters to vote, citing the King County Elections is projecting just 50% turnout in Seattle. Some also noted that even-year elections would be more fair and democratic given the higher turnout in those years with federal and state races also on the ballot. The 2020 presidential year saw an all-time record turnout rate in King County with 86.67% of registered voters participating — and an even higher percentage in Seattle.
In Seattle races, a mid-October poll sponsored by Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI) found Lorena González down 16 points, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy down 19 points, Nikkita Oliver down four points, and Teresa Mosqueda up eight points, and every race had at least 18% undecided — 30% were undecided in the City Attorney race in which Thomas-Kennedy trailed.
NPI and its pollster Change Research modeled the turnout as 82% White based on 2017 election results. Overall, Seattle’s population was 67% White in the 2020 census, but off-year electorates have tended to be older, Whiter, and more dominated by homeowners than the population writ-large. This time around, with candidates of color at the top of the ballot, it’ll be interesting to see if turnout among voters of color is higher.
Early turnout figures have also shown conservative precincts in single-family view corridors leading the pack. Given that late results typically trend progressive in Seattle races this could reflect the normal pattern. However, if progressives dig themselves in too deep, they may not be able to dig themselves out with late returns on ballots submitted on the final days of the election.
Famously, councilmember Kshama Sawant got a nearly nine-point swing from election night to final results in her 2013 race to unseat Richard Conlin. She was down 7.4 points on election night, but ended up winning by almost two points. Sawant repeated and strengthened this finishing kick in 2019, starting from down eight points on election night before ultimately winning by 4.1 points over moderate challenger Egan Orion.
On election night, the more conservative candidate will likely not feel confident of victory unless they’re margin surpasses the 12-point finishing kick that Sawant had in display in 2019 (and that fellow socialist Shaun Scott matched — though that wasn’t quite enough to catch Alex Pedersen.)
On the other hand, 12-point swings don’t happen by accident. The 2019 races were dominated by the narrative that Amazon was trying to buy the election with more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions. This seemed to turn public opinion against the corporate-friendly moderates that Amazon backed. Amazon and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce haven’t been as directly involved this time around. Progressives may not have as easy of a narrative to propel their finishing charge.
Still, conservative forces are spending aggressively to fend off this surge. The political action committee (PAC) backing Harrell has pulled $1.3 million in donations, while the PAC opposing Thomas-Kennedy has pulled in $357,000 and counting — unprecedented in a Seattle City Attorney race. In particular, real estate moguls like top Trump donor George Petrie and his business partner John Goodman have spent the heaviest. Almost $1 million in union-backed PAC support has kept González competitive in fundraising, but Harrell still holds the edge money-wise. He has raised $1.2 million to go along with $1.3 million in PAC support. The Stranger‘s Hannah Krieg broke down how similar the wealthy donors and consultants working on Harrell’s campaign are to those of the last two mayors elected: Jenny Durkan and Ed Murray.
The urbanist platform is very much on the ballot.
The more right-leaning candidates in Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, and Kenneth Wilson have pledged to keep single family zoning and support more incremental changes to zoning and housing policy. This could set Seattle’s housing reform goals back and delay it from joining cities like Portland, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and even Berkeley in legalizing triplexes and fourplexes on all residential land. The business-backed candidates would also shift focus away from a long-term fix for homelessness centered on investing more in social housing and homelessness services via progressive taxation, favoring instead a crackdown on encampments paired with some vague promise of mentoring homeless people out of abject poverty. They back the failed Compassion Seattle approach that seeks a temporary surge in temporary shelter building in order to justify aggressive encampment sweeps across the city.
The business-lane candidates are also supporting more incremental changes on transportation. Harrell said he “would not lead with bikes” at a Seattle Times debate. Nelson is interested in kayaks and Lake Union ferries rather than tackling the contentious issue of how to prioritize Seattle’s limited street space, which has long been overwhelmingly dedicated to moving and storing cars. Wilson’s main issue is opening the West Seattle Bridge to cars even before it’s fully repaired, laying bare how much he values motorist convenience over safety.
In contrast, Lorena González is running on ending exclusionary zoning, boosting social housing production, and 15-minute city reforms to make it easier and safer to get around and meet basic needs in every neighborhood without a car. Nikkita Oliver and Teresa Mosqueda have also embraced this vision and would provide Mayor González with support on City Council to make her climate-friendly vision a reality.
Alarmingly, if Trump Republican Ann Davison bests Thomas-Kennedy, Seattle could have a City Attorney who would be loath to defend key wins like the popular JumpStart Seattle tax, zoning reform, and tenant protections when they face inevitable lawsuits from conservative interests. Davison has almost no courtroom experience and follows outdated conservative ideas around crime and punishment, such as the debunked broken windows theory. After running a Bluewashed campaign of fear, Davison would focus on criminalizing poverty and sweeping homeless people instead of promoting equal justice and addressing the root causes of crime. Yes, Thomas-Kennedy sent some mean tweets about cops last summer, but can you really hand the keys to the city’s public law office (and its staff of 150 plus) to a lifelong Republican aiming to undermine progressive reforms and let the Seattle Police Department go hog-wild?
The Urbanist Elections Committee (of which I am one of eight members) endorsed González, Thomas-Kennedy, Mosqueda, and Oliver. We hope that bold action on housing, climate, criminal justice reform, and racial equity could happen sometime this decade instead of being kicked down the road through yet another administration.
Vote and remind your friends and neighbors to vote, too.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.