Council President Lorena González’s resounding loss to former Council President Bruce Harrell marks the third straight Seattle mayoral election in which the progressive fell to the corporate-friendly centrist. González conceded the race Thursday. To make matters worse, progressives also lost a Seattle City Council seat and the City Attorney’s office, barring a miraculous comeback. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda did hold on to her seat easily — she’s up 18 points as of Friday — and progressives are on course for two pickups on the Seattle Port Commission, but overall 2021 was a setback for Seattle progressives.

Soul searching is underway in progressive circles, while some centrists are indulging in gloating, as can be expected.

Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant and lobbyist for Comcast and Lyft who advised Republican Ann Davison’s campaign, penned the magnum opus in this genre under the title “Bubble Trouble: How Seattle’s Radical Left Grew and (Predictably) Got Whupped.” The piece has self-congratulatory pomp, condescending advice, and clumsy wordplay in spades, but Kaushik’s central premise is worth considering. Is the left unmoored, overconfident, and out of touch? Do progressives need to retool to win?

Looking farther afield, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s loss to a Republican does have Democrats worried about a national shift to the right. But it’s not clear turning to moderates running in the corporate-friendly center lane is the fix, since Governor McAuliffe was the posterchild for this kind of candidate. Plus, across the country there’s no clear pattern of victory for corporate friendly moderates; progressives prevailed in some big races, such as Elizabeth Warren protégé Michelle Wu coasting to victory in Boston’s mayoral race on a Green New Deal platform. Cleveland elected Justin Bibb on a police accountability and affordable housing platform despite his opponent’s attempts to brand him as a Defund candidate.

In the specific example of Seattle’s off-year mayoral elections, losing two straight races by double digits appears to be proof of concept. But, on the other hand, in order to make good on his bold pledges, Harrell now has to clean up the mess he pointed to on the campaign trail. If Harrell can’t deliver and show his policy platform and governing strategy works, what has he really proven? That said, even if Harrell can’t meet campaign promises, until progressive mayoral candidates get better at articulating an alternative vision and holding centrists accountable to their promises, they may well keep losing in Seattle.

Harrell wears a blazer and gestures toward tents in the background.
Bruce Harrell speaks near a homeless encampment on Broadview-Thomson school grounds. As mayor, Harrell will soon be responsible for addressing the problem of homelessness in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of KING 5)

One might have hoped for Seattle voters to have learned this lesson from Mayor Durkan’s hapless administration, but the genius of centrist campaigning this cycle was to relentlessly refocus voter anger and disappointment on the Seattle City Council, which had been a project of many years for the centrist pundit class. In reality, Seattle has a strong mayor system and many of key failures of the past four years should be laid at Durkan’s feet and the centrist administration before her. But, perhaps the greatest gift Durkan ever gave to her establishment backers was knowing when to exit stage right.

Well-timed exits laid groundwork for centrist wave

Without Durkan running in the election as a sharp reminder of a four years of inaction, insularity, and shrouded secrecy, voters clearly funneled their dissatisfaction at City Council instead. None suffered more from this dynamic than Council President González, who apparently seemed to voters as the next best emblem of a wayward City government and lack of progress addressing homelessness once Durkan was removed from the equation.

Knowing when to make his quiet exit also served Bruce Harrell well. Harrell served 12 years on Seattle City Council and didn’t really leave much of a lasting mark — even on the central issues on which he staked his mayoral campaign like homelessness and police reform. This is despite having allied with centrist mayors to work with for eight of those years. However, bowing out rather than facing a tough challenge from Tammy Morales in 2019 ended up baptizing Harrell anew from his association as an ineffective councilmember to — somehow — a competent outsider. It’s amazing what a 22-month break will do.

Mayor Durkan gives Bruce Harrell a squeeze on the shoulders.
Bruce Harrell at Mayor Durkan’s 2017 swearing in. (Photo courtesy of NW Progressive)

Exiting stage right meant Harrell had time to rest, relax, and prep his campaign rather than take part in tough decisions during a grueling pandemic that was paired with big budget shortfalls, mass protests, police tear gassing whole neighborhoods and abandoning East Precinct, a coordinated coverup in which Mayor Durkan and several top police officials deleted their text messages in violation of public records law, and then Mayor Durkan firing whistleblowers in her public records office.

Would Harrell have stuck by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) as they bungled things and doubled down? Could he have averted austerity budgeting without passing the JumpStart Seattle tax that Mayor Durkan opposed but ultimately raided to patch her budget? Could he have signed JumpStart without earning the ire of corporate leaders? Would he have seen a middle way out of the infighting as he now promises to do as mayor? Could he get the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to drop their second legal challenge to JumpStart?

We’ll never really know how Harrell would have handled the last two years, a period Mayor Durkan has called the most challenging in the city’s history. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to face many questions about how he would have handled key decisions differently. But now Harrell has four years to pick up the pieces and make good on campaign boasts. Whether Harrell can display policymaking skills as mayor that he didn’t really flash as councilmember remains to be seen. But that is the bet that Seattle voters have made.

Owning the issue of homelessness

The task for progressives is to break this pattern of centrist mayors playing them and their council majorities for fools and swiping credit for their key initiatives (like JumpStart) or obstructing them (pedestrianizing streets and equitable zoning reform) as they see fit and then turning around and blaming them for inaction and “divisiveness.” Progressive messaging in 2021 made some attempts at telling this story, but it failed to resonate and cut through the noise. The issue of homelessness dominated the election, and Harrell owned the issue.

González ran on a tax-the-rich platform, but what she’d invest the revenue on seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Supportive housing for homeless Seattleites certainly seemed to be in her plans and it’s a big part of what the JumpStart tax funds, but the vision didn’t seem concrete enough to inspire voters. The audacious promise from Harrell and the Compassion Seattle campaign to make 2,000 emergency housing units magically materialize in his first year with no new funding also helped wash out González’s message.

Now, unless Harrell is planning to pull a Durkan and retire rather than run for re-election, progressives at least are likely to have the opportunity to make the election about the incumbent mayor’s failure to meet his promises. Progressives need to get better at holding centrists accountable when they govern far from their campaign promises. Unless, Harrell manages to pull off a miracle and add 2,000 housing units in a year, he’s going to have answer for a failed pledge. Readers of The Urbanist may recall, Mayor Durkan promised 1,000 tiny homes in her first year, but built only 73 and still hasn’t made good on even half that in the proceeding years. Unfortunately, readers of most other publications didn’t hear much about that, and campaigns did not stress this issue enough, either.

LIHI tiny house village at 22nd Ave at Lutheran Church of Good Sheppard. (LIHI)

The Compassion Seattle plan was a quick emergency shelter buildout on the cheap and then the clearing of encampments from parks as soon as possible. But clearing encampments without a viable plan to shelter homeless people and stabilize them in permanent housing is inherently a temporary fix akin to a game of whack-a-mole. It may provide temporary relief to the homeowners near the encampment site, but the encampments will form again elsewhere in absence of stable low-barrier housing to offer the chronically homeless. The emergency housing thrown together in one year is not going to be permanent housing or high-quality.

The pandemic drove the increase in encampments since the City and its providers had to ensure physical distancing at congregate shelters right as many people lost their jobs or suffered relapses or intensified addiction issues due to the stress, anxiety, and isolation of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control also gave guidance against sweeping homeless camps during a pandemic to lower transmission risk, but the Durkan administration has continued to conduct some sweeps (albeit at a lesser pace) anyway.

Perhaps, most of the Seattle electorate didn’t really want to hear nuance and explanations why it’s a tough problem to solve. They wanted assurances the problem would be fixed soon. Even if it turns out to be a lie, Bruce Harrell was willing to make that pledge.

Structural disadvantages

Overpromising on the salient issue of the election can be a potent campaign tactic, even if it leads to tougher reelection four years down the road. But Harrell and the centrists also had other structural advantages on their side. Centrists can count on a significant fundraising advantage and favorable media coverage since many of the mainstream media sources in Seattle are conservative owned — from the Blethen-owned The Seattle Times to the Sinclair-owned KOMO. It’s not just fundraising and media bias, the centrist political machine is also more professionalized and better organized.

Harrell’s message was carefully calibrated to appeal to the likeliest off-year voters: Boomers and homeowners. The Urbanist has predicted the increase in Seattle’s tenant population would eventually swing the city’s politics, especially on issues of housing and wealth inequality. But when turnout is 50% and the half of the city that sat this election out is overwhelmingly tenants and younger people, then our politics are not going to reflect Seattle’s demographics, which recently became majority-renter for the first time in several generations.

Switching to even-year mayoral elections likely would not have saved González given her decisive defeat, but it would have given tenants a bigger voice and more of a chance to influence the debate. Outside of his 2,000 emergency housing pledge, Harrell never really articulated a clear policy on housing and criticized González in debates for calling for apartment ban repeals, and he got away with it. This could have big implications for the next big zoning debate that will come with the 2024 Comprehensive Plan update. Is Seattle under Mayor Harrell going to try to grow more equitably and promote affordable housing throughout the city or shrug and call the status quo good enough?

The centrist political machine

The business community, and the consulting and public relations apparatus around them, are always plotting the next campaign and seeding it with polling and messaging that feeds into poll-tested messages and brands their opposition before a candidate has even arrived. Much of this work happens via the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association, which released their polling in 2020, telegraphing their key issues and how they were likely to frame them. They carefully select a candidate ready to run their plan to the fullest and and rarely fail to get them through the primary given the consensus that has been reached ahead of time. Harrell was likely more progressive than some business leaders wanted, but their side didn’t splinter and backed him anyway, seeing that his pedigree growing up in the Central District, being a football star at the University of Washington, and a distinguished lawyer would play well.

The centrist machine playbook also planned negative messaging early with thorough opposition research that catalogued negative tweets and controversial statements. They then started amplifying them early through intermediaries that mostly insulated the candidates themselves from being being seen as launching the attacks. With the hits on the opponents delivered early and often by their allies, the final campaign messages centrists delivered in crunch time were largely positive and hopeful. Centrist candidates presented themselves as pragmatic “get things done” unifiers to cut through the gridlock and divisiveness. This is the third time that centrists have successfully used this formula while paying little penalty for not delivering on an end to divisiveness and gridlock on key issues in the city.

The centrist machine also learns from their mistakes. Since telecommunications executive Joe Mallahan’s failed mayoral bid in 2009, centrists haven’t run a straight White guy or a corporate executive for mayor. Instead, they select someone very ready to carry the corporate agenda, but who is also ready to appeal to a demographic outside their base. Because Harrell is of Black and Japanese descent, criticisms related to race and equity didn’t stick to him, and he turned the tables when Gonzalez inadvisably ran an ad with a White woman accusing him of siding with sexual abusers. Having a person of color this cycle, a lesbian before that, and a gay man on the ticket before that, allowed centrists to offer some semblance of social progress even if their economic platform in practice has boiled down to the rich get richer and the poor get scraps. And, to be clear, the centrists have championed a smattering of progressive programs, like Harrell’s “Health Care for All” idea and Durkan’s universal pre-K education, to curry favor with voters, even if the details are vague and campaign commitments are squishy.

One thing centrists didn’t do following their loss in 2009, however, was reconcile and help progressives implement their agenda. The centrist machine also still controlled the Seattle City Council at the time, so they had their base — which included Harrell — stonewall Mayor Mike McGinn’s agenda and did everything they could to paint him as ineffective, divisive, and out of touch, rebranding him Mayor McSchwinn in the process. The labels stuck and McGinn lost narrowly to Murray in his 2013 reelection bid.

Mayor Mike McGinn cutting the ribbon on the Ballard Neighborhood Greenway as kids on bikes line up to get a first ride. (Credit: Dennis Bratland)
Mayor Mike McGinn cutting the ribbon on the Ballard Neighborhood Greenway. (Credit: Dennis Bratland)

When the 2019 election blew up in their faces, centrists changed tactics. Amazon’s late million-dollar money bomb refocused the election around corporate excesses and juiced progressive turnout. Outside of Alex Pedersen, the Amazon/Chamber backed candidates were routed. In reaction, the Chamber announced it was going to take a step back and get out of the political action committee (PAC) game, putting its heavy-hitting Civic Alliance for Sound Economy (CASE) PAC on ice. Instead of being the funnel for corporate donations, those companies and business executives gave directly to PACs set up separately for each candidate.

The PAC backing Bruce Harrell still raised well over a million dollars, but it was harder to point to one villain without Amazon and the Chamber focusing attention on themselves. The biggest donor to Harrell’s PAC was George Petrie and his business partner John Goodman of Goodman Real Estate, a major Downtown landlord and prolific evicter. Petrie was also Trump’s biggest donor in Washington state, and González attempted to link Harrell to Trump, but it just didn’t resonate with swing voters like Amazon’s money bomb did in 2019. As The Stranger‘s Rich Smith put it, instead of Amazon, we got Amazon’s landlords giving in 2021. Additionally, Amazon did seem to be running a ton of TV ads about its $15 minimum wage, perhaps hoping to repair its public image after the 2019 debacle.

Progressive tent-building

To some extent this coalescing, planning, and course correction also happens on the left, but not nearly as systematically nor as grounded in political science and a strategy for winning the general election — not just the primary. For example, early polling provided warning signs that Council President González was not going to be a strong candidate this cycle, despite a strong progressive résumé and winning her last two citywide races decisively — albeit against middling opponents. Polling was clear: homelessness was going to be the top issue and the vast majority of voters thought the city was on the wrong track. It’s tough to be the incumbent in such an environment.

This is what ultimately pushed The Urbanist Elections Committee (of which I’m a member) to endorse Colleen Echohawk in the primary (before switching to González in the general). With her long stint running Chief Seattle Club, a housing and homelessness service provider geared toward urban Indigenous people, Echohawk could run as an expert and own the issue of homelessness while still running as an outsider. Nearly every other progressive group that weighed in went with González, including the pivotal endorsement from The Stranger, arguing Echohawk wasn’t sufficiently progressive. Echohawk finished a distant third in the primary with 10% of the vote.

Asymmetrical political warfare

It’s an asymmetrical contest right now between centrists and progressives in Seattle. The centrist side is well-funded, never stops campaigning, follows political science to hone their message and campaign plan, and exerts a great deal of message discipline. The progressive side doesn’t start campaigning and coalescing until the election year and finds itself woefully behind the opposition in orchestrating their plan, as expertly laid out by the panel on Crystal Fincher’s Hacks & Wonks post-election roundtable below.

The confluence of factors in 2021 played right into the centrist machine and their simple, but effective, campaign strategy. Having González, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, and Nikkita Oliver on the same ticket seemed to help centrist messaging that ‘radical activists have gone far’ hit home. With surgical precision, the centrist machine branded González as the status quo incumbent and Thomas-Kennedy and Oliver as too radical. It all blended into a ‘more of the same’ radical hodgepodge that turned off voters right as the centrist machine planned. Never mind that Mayor Durkan is the incumbent and Bruce Harrell’s platform is remarkably similar. That didn’t matter when the structural disadvantages were so steep and progressive messaging was so scattered compared to the opposition.

In a Citizens Unitedcorporation are people, my friends‘ world, progressives are unlikely to hold the edge on fundraising, so they really have to get the messaging right. There’s little room for error. Occasionally, a megarich progressive donor comes along like Nick Hanauer and erases some of the independent expenditure deficit, but in Seattle’s case, his money has always flowed to Jessyn Farrell, the vice president of his think-tank, and then dried up after the primary ends and she doesn’t make it through. That leaves unions as the only progressive funder to counteract the copious corporate and real estate campaign spending, and they struggle to keep pace in citywide races. And this year unions spent so much winning the primary for González (dried cherries aren’t cheap) that they were depleted for the general election.

Progressives can still win in Seattle on bold platforms, and we can see from races around the region that progressives are still gaining ground in the suburbs with cities like Burien, SeaTac, Everett, Bothell, and Kenmore swinging toward progressives. Republican King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert also lost to Democrat Sarah Perry in the 3rd District, which spans from Redmond and Sammamish to the east. This doesn’t bode well for the narrative of a major rightward shift in Seattle metropolitan races going forward. A few whiffs in Seattle doesn’t make a long-term regional trend. But progressives are going to have to run smarter campaigns to win citywide races in Seattle.

Progressives need to adapt to the specific conditions each election cycle presents to put forward the best campaign, lead with progressive values, but avoid leading with their chins. A boxer who leads with their chin tends to get knocked out, as we found out this cycle. As Bibb showed in Cleveland, progressives can win on police accountability in mayoral races, but they would be wise to have a knockdown case presented carefully and avoiding terms that turn off swing voters, even if the concept is still there in less inflammatory terms.

Wu’s inspiring campaign in Boston offers some hints for progressives. She centered her messaging around a clear Green New Deal platform and also championed rent stabilization as a tangible, immediately-felt improvement to the lives of stuggling tenants. That’s a demographic that didn’t turn out enough in Seattle, but carefully-calibrated rent control and a Green New Deal could cut through the malaise and incite younger voters to turn out in much higher numbers.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Nice thoughtful post showing a bit of self-reflection, and some great comments. I particularly appreciate TVR’s comments for how to talk about changing single family zoning: point out the racists origins, but don’t get caught up in a cycle of splaining and virtue signaling; instead, move on to tying changes in zoning to universal concerns about affordability and neighborhood quality. This editorial makes a similar point: A couple of things: First, didn’t The Urbanist also endorse Nicole Thomas-Kennedy? That was a huge mistake. I am furious at The Stranger, whose endorsements carry a lot of weight in the primaries, for endorsing her. Pete Holmes was a good progressive city attorney with a number of important accomplishments. Second, although Murray and Durkan received the backing of corporate money, they did support progressive initiatives. Under Murray we got a huge increase in the minimum wage, a big preschool expansion, and the HALA agreement. I know Urbanist readers consider the HALA agreement to fall short, but it has resulted in lots of new housing. (Although we should definitely eliminate single-family zoning as a matter of fairness, the experiences of Portland and Minneapolis suggest that change will results in only a modest short-term increase in housing). Under Durkan, we made community college free to graduates of Seattle high schools and we made use hotels to shelter a large number of people during the pandemic. My point is that progressives come off as a bit ridiculous when they characterize our recent mayors as corporate tools and make it sound like we have been living under an repressive corporatist tyranny. When we get things done, we need to tell a story about the successes– I will note The Urbanist does a nice job of highlighting transit improvements and new housing– rather than quickly focusing on where things fall short and moving on to quixotic goals in a way that reinforces the narrative that government is constantly failing.

Sally Kinney

How does one define “bad candidates?” From most of the comments below, it appears that bad candidates are those who don’t win in an election. If they’d won, I’d suppose that they would have been “good candidates.” That’s ridiculous; that means we choose candidates to run based solely on their likelihood to get the most votes. Since Seattle is NOT a liberal/progressive town anymore (and it didn’t take this election to make that plain), we would have picked and voted for exactly who won: Harrell, Nelson, and Davison. So, fellow progressives, would you have voted for them? No? Then stop the stupid talk about giving up our political morals in order to win. Either that, or just come out as the conservatives/Republicans that you appear to be.

Chris Burke

Here is a major problem. Some people actually seem to believe that if you can’t bring yourself to vote for Nikkita Oliver or NTK, you must be a conservative Republican. If the far left continues to alienate people who vote with them 90% of the time, they won’t win many elections.


Off the cuff, I know that my thoughts on some of the progressive candidates was that they were pushing from “progressive” to “extremist left”. I still voted a progressive ticket, but I am 100% sure that exclusive and hard line rhetoric like Oliver’s lost progressive votes this election. Even in a “progressive” city like Seattle, the majority of actual votes in a given year are likely to come from moderates to conservatives like business owners and older generations where the promises of centrists to be civil and listen to both sides tend to outweigh the reality that centrists often fail to push actual good policy (or even any policy, good or bad) because they are so busy trying to appear to have universal buy in that they are stuck when it comes to actually doing something unless it’s immediately clear that there is a positive outcome with essentially no downsides.

Which, of course, serves those who actually like the state of things (the rich benefactors that centrists lean on heavily) quite well. Add this to a backdrop of what many consider to be too much change (sure we all want to look like good people who want what’s best for everybody, but how many people actually live that way? Even in Seattle the number of people who loyally follow KIRO and Fox13 outweigh the number of people who have gone vegan, or ride bikes more than for fun, or put up solar panels, or organized a community, or made even a small sacrifice in their own lives, by choice, for the greater good. Add that to what is arguably too much change in the lives of many over the last few years, and people who are frustrated with the present are easily convinced to vote against the future, especially with centrist tactics of attacking everyone while promising civility, promising solutions to everything with compromise that has historically lead to stagnation, or even just beating the drum that it’s worse to be rude than actually not care. And of course, the subtle message that votes will sell to the highest bidder is a good way to get the high bidders buying votes for you so they can buy your votes later.

Unfortunately, the take away for progressives is that we need to start being polite but directly mean: having a plan or a history of building unity in small groups is not as important as reminding voters of the failures of centrists and conservatives to address mainstream problems. Broadcasting integrity is not as important as telling the politically privileged that they have been heard (whether or not they will actually be listened to). Also, we need to remind people that Progressives are the party that supports the democratic values of Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness, as well as Protecting the Weak from the Strong and not focus so much on this whole “party of the other” stuff that especially Oliver pushed pretty hard this cycle.

Of course, my opinion is worth what you paid for it. 🙂


It was always hard for me to buy that Gonzalez was a good transit/urbanist candidate and Harrell was not.

Harrell was council president through the largest upzone in Seattle history.

Gonzalez was council president and gave Alex Pedersen the transportation chair position (???) and presided over reducing the STBD (?????).

Douglas Trumm

Pedersen as transportation chair was a blunder, but she did have the better transportation platform. Although he was Council President, Harrell mostly pushed for smaller upzones in her amendments, while González pushed for bigger ones. And dating farther back, there were instances of Harrell opposing upzones (like the Lowe’s site) while González’s record was consistent.


but what about reducing the STBD as council president? this was probably the one thing I can remember the city council doing in the past few years that had a material impact on my life, as my bus route became noticeably less frequent.


I was wondering how The Urbanist was going to react to this election. Disappointing.

Most of this article is pouting and blaming opponents and circumstances. You need to get more voters to vote for your candidates, and that’s not gonna do it. You should have written that stuff up to get it out of your system–and then thrown it away.

One thing you got right was Echohawk. Hoping to see more of her in the future.

Douglas Trumm

No one is making you read it, Bill.

I’m not trying to let progressives off the hook. We knew the parameters. We failed to adjust to them. Without naming the structural advantages that centrists have we can’t beat them. But it’s no excuse for losing that badly.


The lack of any mention of policing, criminal justice, etc. in this article seems like a giant blind spot. From what I can tell, they were major motivating issues on both sides and my sense is that progressives came off the worse.

Progressives need to think hard about how to retool both their policy proposals and their communication strategy on these issues or they’re going to continue hemorrhaging votes.


TRUE. The problem here is perfectly encapsulated with the author Mr. Trumm and the rest of the Urbanist’s recent endorsements. Pretending that Nikkita Oliver would be in any way good for an urbanist’s policy goals is laughable.

While Mr. Trumm says that “rent stabilization” would be a good policy, the candidates that the Urbanist Editorial Board endorses over and over and over again (like Oliver, Sawant) want to basically destroy our housing market by demanding that all units are subject to rents that can never go up over inflation, and has an insane scheme to add like 50 more elected officials.

When you ignore great candidates like Brianna Thomas in favor of insanely extreme candidates like Oliver, this is what happens.

But that’s the only way y’all will be accepted into the cool kid’s table on twitter.

Douglas Trumm

I like Brianna Thomas and hope she runs again. But if González did so poorly in a change election, why would we expect her chief of staff to do far better?

Rent stabilization paired with upzones, streamlining design review/permitting, and boosting social housing can be an every wins platform. But if urbanists are going to be doctrinaire about rent control it’s not going to work. But I suspect a platform that includes rent stabilization will be more popular than market solutions alone based on the evidence from Boston and Saint Paul.

Chris Burke

It’s weird to read here about “campaigns” and “strategies.” I live in North Seattle, and I barely noticed any campaigns. Nobody visited my house, or left a doorknob hanger, or called me to ask for my vote. All of these things occurred in previous elections. I didn’t get any political ads in my social media feeds. There were a few mailers, around half of which arrived after I had already voted. I dunno, were all the campaigns taking my vote for granted somehow?
Ironically, I got most of my information about the candidates, both in the primary and in the general, from this website right here. I say ironically because what I read definitively made me NOT want to vote for any of the candidates endorsed by The Urbanist. Whatever differences I may have with the views generally espoused here, The Urbanist is a serious website with journalists doing good work, so I thank you for providing good coverage of this election.

Douglas Trumm

Thanks for reading, Chris. We don’t have to agree about everything, but I’m glad you share our interest in urbanist issues.

Chris Burke

Speaking of elections, has The Urbanist taken a position on the Kshama Sawant recall?


Does anyone think we might see a situation we’ve seen in the past, where a candidate who is currently behind, and everyone says they have no statistical chance of taking the lead, gradually starts taking the lead due to batches of “newly discovered ballots?”


I appreciate the comprehensive look the essay takes but I think four more points should be addressed.

First, while the establishment had a terrible 2019 Pederson’s win over Scott, albeit much closer, reminds me a lot of Oliver’s loss to Nelson. Both Scott and Oliver were activist outsider candidates who ran on complete disruption of the status quo versus Myers or Thomas who were institutionalist candidates that would’ve pushed for more incremental change. While radical change may seem imperative to progressives (and in many contexts it is), it is a strategy that isolates just as much as it excites and while Seattle politics has become much more combative, the electorate puts a much greater premium on competence than ideology in municipal elections. Both Pedersen and Nelson are “boring” and had strong traditional resumes, Pedersen having worked in the Clinton administration and for Burgess, Nelson in Coughlin’s and running a prominent local business. Both Thomas and Myers would not have engendered as strong a response against them since their rhetoric wasn’t nearly as strong, and their professional backgrounds (Myers – PhD at UW/union organizer, Thomas – former aide) show an ability to work within the system. At the end of the day nothing can be done if you’re not in power.

Second, arguments should be made to the widest possible audience. While single family zoning has racist roots and redlining perpetuated inequalities, framing it in such a way, only serves to limit the prospective audience. Lack of affordability may disproportionately impact minority communities, but it’s something most of the city is struggling with. Why do progressives pitch their ideas in the most morally absolute terms instead of those with the largest possible audience? Also from a messaging standpoint, ‘we need to eliminate SF zoning to address historically racist zoning practices’ is not the same as ‘more homes = less rent’. It’s an easy economic argument that gets neglected to everyone’s detriment, particularly minorities who have historically been excluded from housing opportunities. Who cares the terms of the debate so long as we get the outcome?

Third, while you cite Wu in Boston and Bibb in Cleveland, you ignored the most important recently elected Mayor in the country – Eric Adams a centrist, Black former police officer who carried the minority vote in NYC over the progressive Wiley and technocratic/progressive Garcia. Defund/abolition are toxic outside of a very small group and progressives (typically younger and college educated) are frequently detached from the very group’s interests they claim to represent.
Black survey respondents were more likely to oppose defund than white at 3/4: (
Meanwhile only 3% of U.S. Hispanics us Latinx (

Progressives should emulate the Sewer Socialists of old and start delivering economic policies that people can see being in their own self-interest and stop with the hyperbolic rhetoric and extreme policies that are proven losers nationally.


Good points.


Conlin* not Coughlin, probably should’ve made the distinction of Adams winning his primary against Garcia and Wiley previously versus the general against Silwa this week.


One huge change that’s happened in Seattle is there are now more renters than homeowners. The demand the lower priced homes younger people can buy is off the charts. There’s your winning issue. Is development to help the developers or is it to help the people?


The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I think the best way to proceed would be to rezone and promote alternative development methods like Baugruppen (group-build) that open purchase opportunities at more income levels. Also, the lots in SF zones are already being redeveloped into massive single-family homes, isn’t it better to have multiple units where there’s now one 6k sq/ft McMansion?


Be careful not to go down the rabbit hole…. it’s political death. (I completely agree with your post however). The details can get hashed out later, but until progressive candidates address home ownership it’s going to be tough sledding in Seattle elections. Home owners control the election process in America. Getting more home owners on your side is the only way to consistently win.


For progressives to succeed at the national level, I think the recipe is simple. Focus on areas where the left is popular, and stop making headlines about extraneous issues where the left is unpopular. For example, cheaper health care and more clean energy: popular. Putting an “equity” lens on everything under the sun: unpopular.

Just yesterday, I read an article in the New York Times about the California school board trying to incorporate social justice into the math curriculum, and discontinue opportunities for gifted and talented students to take more challenging classes, all in the name of “equity”. This is a perfect example of the Left wasting valuable political capital doing dumb things that make people’s life worse, not better. Of course, the rich will bypass this by sending their kids to private school, which makes the whole thing come across as very elitist. The fact that this made the national news will undoubtfully help elect Republicans.

One of the reasons why the Bernie Sanders campaign went so far in 2016 was that he ran hard on areas where the left was popular, but steered clear of the wokeness stuff where the left was unpopular. Instead of proposing special stuff targeted at people who were poor or black, he took the “rising tide lifts all boats” approach and campaigned on universal programs that would benefit everybody. While some of his ideas (e.g. medicare for all) were probably not realistic due to their huge price tag, the principle of popular stuff, universal benefits is important, and could serve as a model for a future progressive to run for president and actually win. The current political environment is making me very nervous that Biden will continue to stumble and lose badly in 3 years, ushering in an additional 4 years under Donald Trump. I keep hoping that Biden will choose to retire, rather than run again, and somebody I’ve never heard of (the crop of candidates for the 2020 race was largely terrible) will emerge out of the woodwork, defeat Harris (another very weak candidate) in the primary, and find a way to redeem the party and stop Trump. As of right now, though, I am not at all optimistic about the chances of this actually happening.

On local issues, the same principle applies – more sidewalks, more transit: popular. Saying it’s ok for homeless people to camp in schools and parks indefinitely until enough free housing is built (which will likely never happen, in practice): unpopular. Similarly, on the city attorney’s race, saying that it’s ok to commit crimes such as theft, so long as you’re poor: unpopular. A business cannot function if everybody who’s poor has a license to shoplift.

When it’s all Democrats on the ballot, I generally consider myself a swing voter between centrists and progressives. I generally lean towards centrists on the national stage to avoid electing an embarrassment, like the California school board, but often vote for progressives in local races, as they are typically much better on transportation options other than driving cars. While I do not get to vote in Seattle races directly anymore (I live in Kirkland), I ultimately did decide that the homeless-in-parks problem has to be brought under control, and would have voted for Harrell, given the chance. In council races, Oliver in particular is a hard-left ideologue that I especially distasted, enough that I actually asked a centrist friend who does live in Seattle, but doesn’t always vote, to vote for whoever was Oliver’s opponent.(Mosqueda, on the other hand, struck me as left, but not crazy; I probably would have voted for her considering the lack of quality in her opponent).


Great comment, asdf2!


> Putting an “equity” lens on everything under the sun: unpopular

LOL. Yeah, good luck getting the left to learn THAT lesson.


Definition of a white progressive business owner in our region: Will hang a BLM sign in their window, and retweet AOC, but has never had a black employee.


Nice try. Pointing out racism isn’t racism. I’m not accusing every white progressive business owner of this, of course, but I see it often enough.


RossB makes good points. For example, was it progressive for McGinn to boost streetcars or just dumb? It is not clear how the two winning POS challengers were more progressive than the incumbents; it would have been good for Trumm to define that term at the beginning of his piece. In 2019, the open seats attracted large numbers of challengers; the slates were imposed on the candidates after the Primary.

Douglas Trumm

Historically, progressive refers to social reformers who wanted to rein in the excesses of capitalism and political corruption. They wanted deeper reforms than liberals supported. In modern usage, it’s sometimes reduced to “left of center” but the sharp critique of capitalism is still there and something most centrists would avoid, hence the fissure.

I’d be curious to hear your case that Stephanie Bowman is a progressive. She voted to challenge SeaTac’s $15 minimum wage and to base Shell Oil’s arctic drilling operations at the port. She’s clearly comes from the centrist lane, and progressive groups and labor overwhelmingly backed Hamdi. Ditto Hasegawa.

Progressive is a bit squishy in common usage, but part of the confusion is centrists trying to glom on to the progressive brand. You can see that with Sandeep’s piece insisting on calling his candidates moderate-progressives. Not just moderates.


This is a great essay. I agree with almost everything.

The progressives suffered from two bad candidates, and one bad campaign. The main voice of the progressives — The Stranger — also played a big part in the loss.

There is no reason to believe that Oliver and Thomas-Kennedy would do a better job than Thomas and Holmes, in any respect. This includes pushing the progressive agenda. They are terrible candidates, and there is no reason to believe they would be very good public officials, which go together. (By the way, McGinn was a terrible mayor, and did the progressive cause no favors with his incompetence.)

In contrast, Gonzalez is an excellent candidate, and an excellent public official. Unfortunately, so is Bruce Harrell. As you wrote, though, her biggest mistake was letting Harrell win on homelessness. After being hit with a tough campaign ad about the issue, she responded with … an ad about Harrell’s response to the Murray allegation? WTF? It was at best a side issue, and at worst racist. She should have hit Murray just as hard about homelessness, pointing out that the biggest increase in homelessness occurred when he was in office, and that he voted against funding, while she voted for it. It wouldn’t have been that hard to paint him as the reason for the big increase in people sleeping in the parks (and cars, and at friends houses…) while also surrounding yourself with people who can connect the dots from homelessness to zoning.

While Gonzalez was ceding homelessness to Harrell (absurd at the face of it) The Stranger was ceding its role as the voice of reason to The Seattle Times. This isn’t easy, given the long history of The Seattle Times Editorial Board endorsing wackos (like Davison). Yet somehow, through sheer incompetence, The Stranger managed to make The Seattle Times editorial staff seem like the more sensible board, with its endorsement of Thomas-Kennedy in the primary. All of this played a big part in what Katie Wilson called the “Extreme Takeover” narrative, which ultimately lead to the huge progressive failure last Tuesday.

For progressives to be more successful, they need to avoid running bad candidates, bad campaigns and stupid endorsements.


Bruce Harrell ran for mayor because he wanted to. It’s not like there is some sort of Seattle Corporate Illuminati that gets together in basement of the Smith Tower and picks pro-business candidates.

I’m not going to name names, but there had to be progressives who knew that certain progressive candidates had crazy, incoherent and hateful social media posts. Nobody called them out in the primary. It’s quite possible that calling the police “pigs” on twitter means you’re going to loose an election in Seattle even if you’re running against a Republican… and drag down other progressive candidates with you.

A Joy

There are most definitely political movers and shakers who hand pick candidates to run against leftist ones in Seattle. Durkan chose Egan Orion to defeat Kshama Sawant, with the support of her LGBTQ Commission. It didn’t succeed, but it did reveal that backroom deals absolutely happen in Seattle politics these days.


That’s dangerous thinking. Orion wanted to run for public office. Nobody picks candidates in some smokey back room. Progressives need to stop thinking the rest of the City is out to get them and blaming that for their electoral losses.

Overall, I think it was a pretty bad slate of candidates this election cycle. Harrell seemed the most “adult” of the bunch and he’s the mayor now.  González is a pretty strong candidate, but being part of the council’s inaction for the last couple of years didn’t help her. The reason González isn’t mayor now, (and she would have been pretty good I’d guess), is she never laid out a plan to clean up the City’s homeless problem. The *people* want their parks and public spaces back. I’m going to guess that  González actually does have a plan for homelessness, but didn’t go into details during the election. Why? Because the Stranger would trash her. They trash everything. And other progressives would happily join in.

Moderates carried the day by not stabbing their candidates in the back

A Joy

It isn’t dangerous thinking at all. I know people who were on that LGBTQ Commission. This came directly from them. It wasn’t a smoky back room though. It was in City Hall, where no smoking is allowed. Durkan wanted Sawant gone, and so she had people discuss who the most likely candidate to defeat her would be. People who volunteered for Durkan were so enthusiastic about the idea they volunteered time and money to Orion’s campaign. It isn’t back room dealing at all. It is front room, openly admitted politics in this city. Orion would not have made it past the primary were it not for Durkan’s help. Plain and simple.