Although Council meetings have been online since March 2020, several staff members still come into Bellevue City Hall for their work. (Photo by author)

Article update: On January 3rd, 2022, Lynne Robinson was reelected as Mayor and Jared Nieuwenhuis as Deputy Mayor of Bellevue.

It’s been nearly two months since Election Day delivered a mixed bag of results for regional progressives, and energy has since shifted from lookbacks and post-mortems to planning for policy wins given the new political landscape. An uncustomary December recall election in Seattle certainly threw a curveball in this process for many, but with all that behind us and the year drawing to a close, eyes are firmly aimed towards the future. With all three incumbents having won reelection in Bellevue, the city’s residents are faced with a largely similar political landscape to the one of November 1st; however, there’s still one important vote left that will have significant impacts on the city’s trajectory over the next two years.

Unlike Seattle, which has a mayor-council government, Bellevue employs a council-manager structure. In this form of government, residents do not directly elect their mayor; instead, they vote solely for councilmembers, who in turn appoint a city manager that acts as the chief executive. The positions of “mayor” and “deputy mayor” still exist in Bellevue, but these roles are filled through a vote amongst the seven-member Council every two years — and the next vote is scheduled for Monday’s City Council meeting.

Even if the role of chief executive is fulfilled by the city manager, the title of mayor is still an important one to bear in Bellevue. The mayor is tasked with managing council meetings and, more importantly, plays a significant part in setting meeting agendas. They also serve as the city’s spokesperson — the one to show up at events, to speak with media, and to represent the city on most regional committees. In times of crisis, the mayor can also issue emergency orders or impose curfews, as was done amid the civil unrest in June of 2020. With these powers, the mayor has a disproportionate impact relative to other councilmembers on how the city chooses to address its problems and present itself to the world.

Photos of current Councilmembers are located a short distance away from council chambers. As Mayor, Ms. Robinson is situated at the top, with Deputy Mayor Nieuwenhuis beneath her to the left. (Photo by author)

At the vote two years ago, centrist Lynne Robinson was nominated to be mayor by her progressive colleague John Stokes. Since there were no additional nominations from other Councilmembers, her vote proceeded unanimously and with little controversy. Murkier was the vote for deputy mayor, which saw two nominations: progressive Janice Zahn (by John Stokes) and conservative Jared Nieuwenhuis (by Conrad Lee). Although deputy mayor is a less glamorous role with fewer obligations, it still carries importance: in addition to the legitimacy afforded by the title, the person steps in as a meeting facilitator when the mayor is away and participates in some key public appearances. Perhaps most importantly, deputy mayors in recent cycles have gone on to become mayor in the next; both Robinson and John Chelminiak, her predecessor, first were in the number two role for a spin before being tapped for mayor in the following cycle. It therefore might not bode well for Bellevue progressives that Nieuwenhuis was ultimately selected to be deputy mayor by a narrow 4-3 vote.

Beyond its direct implications, this vote also serves as a great introduction to the ideological dynamics of Bellevue City Council that have mostly remained unexamined by local media. For the last two years, the body has been perfectly split between three conservatives, three progressives, and one centrist. Understandably, the centrist (Mayor Robinson) holds immense power by serving as a key swing vote, as she did during the selection of her deputy mayor. In justifying her choice to Northwest Asian Weekly, she explained: “[Nieuwenhuis] has a more conservative viewpoint and I thought it was important to have balance in leadership.” Understanding this “balance” is key to understanding why Bellevue is in the position it’s in with regards to transportation and affordable housing, and the upcoming mayoral vote may provide insights into whether this ideological deadlock can be broken to enact policy that meaningfully addresses Bellevue’s needs in equitable, progressive ways.

The landscape for conservatives

It’s important to establish that, in spite of the reputation crafted by Kemper Freeman, Kevin Wallace, and other high-profile conservatives who paint the city as a business-friendly foil to overly-“woke” Seattle, Bellevue is an overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic city. Voters have repeatedly chosen to tax themselves for better multimodal transportation both regionally and within the city, residents want Bellevue to take bold action on climate change, and Democratic candidates at the county, state, and federal levels have won races by double-digit margins for years now. These margins may only increase as the fabled tech workers the city has attracted continue to flock in, provided progressives sufficiently court them.

It is therefore legitimately impressive that three conservative councilmembers have survived this far into the city’s demographic shift despite repeatedly aligning themselves with local Republican voices and right-wing media. And although Republican Conrad Lee‘s exceptional success can be mainly attributed to steadfast support from Bellevue’s large Asian American community, repeated electoral wins by Jennifer Robertson and Jared Nieuwenhuis are largely due to the nonpartisan nature of low-information municipal races. These members, understanding that the conservative and Republican brands are overwhelmingly unpopular in the city, frequently go so far as bill themselves as progressives in electoral op-eds, voter pamphlets, and political mailers.

And if you understand that most residents only tune into city politics once every four years, in large part because of a lack of coverage of municipal issues, it’s not difficult to understand why this approach succeeds. Every Bellevue City Councilmember, to their credit, has repeatedly identified issues of affordable housing, multimodal transportation, and environmental stewardship as key priorities — issues important with Bellevue voters and traditionally associated with the progressive sphere.

However, and this bears repeating, the electoral success of conservatives in Bellevue has consistently hinged upon the successful masking of their conservative decisions, actions, and worldview with progressive rhetoric.

Note that this statement is not logically inconsistent with or disproven by isolated examples where conservatives on the Council voted for seemingly progressive positions. Usually these instances can be explained by the progressive choice legitimately making fiscal sense, and even when not, a broken clock is right twice a day. What’s important to distinguish is that progressivism is (and should be) more than a buzzword — it’s a values-based ideology that understands the importance that collective action can have in creating a better and more just society.

What does it mean to be progressive?

Because official definitions certainly vary (and because the word has now appeared 15 times in this article), it’s important for me to clarify how I’m using the word “progressive” and what I mean by that term. In my view, progressivism is about creating an environment where each one of us is empowered and has tools available to us to have agency over our own lives. It’s an acknowledgement that an unregulated free market very often creates circumstances where those with wealth and privilege are able to use it to amass even more, whereas those without are often left without the resources to successfully better their lives. It’s an understanding that, throughout history and persisting today, there have been systems of power that have made self-determination not possible for large swathes of our population, and it’s a commitment to deconstructing those systems so that new, more just ones can be created.

For specific examples of what I mean, consider the service worker in Factoria who is reliant on lengthy and indirect transit trips because they cannot afford the thousands of dollars it takes to purchase and maintain a car. The family that’s getting priced out of their Lake Hills apartment because of rising rents and an insufficient affordable housing stock. The father who’s afraid to call 911 when his child is experiencing a mental health crisis, out of fear of documented police brutality. A progressive fundamentally believes that anybody who has made Bellevue their home deserves to have a city that wants them to be able to stay and thrive here. Progressives understand that when we create systems that lift up the most vulnerable among us — such as a fast and frequent transit network that rivals car travel, sufficient affordable housing for all incomes, and a multifaceted public safety apparatus — we uplift all in our community by creating tools that enable us to be our best selves and achieve our maximum potential.

Fundamentally, progressivism is about empowerment for those previously unempowered by existing systems and making political choices that may upset current power structures if it leads to justice and agency for more people. This is the test that conservatives on Bellevue City Council consistently fail — very frequently, they are only willing to take actions towards addressing stated priorities of affordable housing, multimodal transportation, environmental stewardship, and others insofar as those actions do not challenge entrenched power. One can often even recognize when a proposed policy would do so by a common rhetorical framework employed by those hesitant to rock the boat: “I’m certainly not opposed to [affordable housing, transit, environmental stewardship, insert other progressive priority here], but…”

“Creating an eviction moratorium is not, in my opinion, the right way [to keep people housed]… I certainly don’t want a bunch of people in Bellevue to be evicted, but…Do we want to start divestment in Bellevue?… [An eviction moratorium] is just a mistake, and Bellevue is much too smart…to make a mistake.

Councilmember Jennifer Robertson, June 14th, 2021 City Council meeting, 40:00

“We’re using the vision of the city [for affordable housing], which we all support… except the difference is how you do it & where you do it… with consideration of overall goals, affordable housing, housing options, absolutely… residents say ‘we support all these things, but remember, not in unique neighborhoods.'”

Councilmember Conrad Lee, November 22nd, 2021 City Council meeting, 2:59:06

True progressives, in my view, exhibit a worldview that strives for equality of opportunity while acknowledging and celebrating our differences — a framework that seeks logically consistent policy based upon a shared value system. If you truly believe that “diversity is our strength,” then it logically follows that we should encourage land use provisions that enable people from diverse family structures, backgrounds, and income levels to live together in diverse housing types.

If you sincerely understand that climate change is a fundamental threat to our society and action at every level of government will be required to mitigate it, then you will use your power to advocate for urgent actions and funds to address it.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, progressivism is defined by a willingness to tackle these difficult issues even if it means upsetting the status quo. In fact, by definition, true solutions to the problems we face must upset the status quo – business as usual is how we arrived at the current state of affairs in the first place. The true progressives on Bellevue City Council (Councilmembers Barksdale, Stokes, and Zahn) consistently operate with this framework in mind. They at least seem to understand that a better city is one where everyone is empowered to live their best life, and that empowering everyone means centering the experiences and interests of those with the least instead of those with the most. With that understanding, it should hopefully be clear that:

  • Progressive Councilmembers who understand that non-automobile infrastructure is not only an essential equity-building, emissions reduction, and Vision Zero strategy, but that it has been consistently under-prioritized in favor of roadway expansions throughout Bellevue’s history, would not advocate for a new highway interchange bisecting walkable transit-oriented development — like Councilmember Robertson has.
  • And a progressive wouldn’t heed the requests of well-known Republican anti-transit advocates, nor would they consistently side with their conservative colleagues on issues of zoning, affordable housing, and homeless shelters — like Deputy Mayor Nieuwenhuis has.

Each of these actions represent an entrenchment of existing power structures, which is a fundamental (if unspoken) part of a conservative worldview. When you understand this key difference in framework between political ideologies, it becomes all the easier to understand Councilmember positions on particular issues, and all the more frustrating when members attempt to misrepresent their ideology for political gain. Bellevue residents deserve to be informed on the actual positions their elected officials take in key votes, and not be blinded by feel-good rhetoric that at best misleads and at worst misinforms.

The importance of the mayor

This ideological discussion ultimately brings us back to the final piece of Bellevue’s Council — current Mayor Lynne Robinson — because understanding her role in the divide can paint a picture of what might be to come over the next two years. As many Councilmembers do, Mayor Robinson has in the past described herself as progressive, but although her record is better than that of her conservative colleagues, it’s still marked by troublespots and insufficient challenging of the status quo. Her frequent desire for unanimity and consensus on the divided body has often led to delay, lengthy process, and a lack of the urgency that will be needed to meaningfully solve Bellevue’s problems.

For example, the Council stalemate has led to insufficient staffing in several departments for a city of Bellevue’s size. The city’s planning department has 1/15th the planners of Seattle despite the city being 1/5th the size of its neighbor. The largest city on the Eastside that will soon be breaking ground on its men’s homeless shelter currently only has one homelessness outreach coordinator. Implementation of the city’s ambitious Environmental Stewardship Initiative is delegated to just two staff members, with a discussion about adding more delayed to next year. When conservative members are reticent to provide funding for more positions (with Councilmember Lee frequently speaking against tax increases), a hesitancy to bring thorny funding issues to the forefront of Council discourse is somewhat understandable. However, inaction leads to tangible delay in implementation of Bellevue’s key priorities and implies there’s a lack of willingness to bring difficult things up for a vote. Although consensus and coalition-building are admirable, logically-consistent progressivism requires that one not let process and decorum be more important that actually implementing policies that empower more people.

Additionally, the positions Robinson advocates for also don’t always line up with progressive values. At a recent Council meeting, she’s raised questions about what purpose detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) can serve in Bellevue and expressed concerns about seniors staying alone in single family homes (a problem that can be solved by providing diverse housing types). To her credit, she issued a pledge for the city to review Bellevue Police Department’s use of force policies in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Although this process is a good start towards ensuring police accountability in Bellevue and has led to several recommendations for policy changes, she’s seemed hesitant to endorse a wider review of police policies in spite of widespread community support. And, similar to her conservative colleagues, her comments on multimodal transportation seem to reveal a worldview that views private automobile travel as a higher priority.

Even though Robinson identifies as a Democrat, both the 41st legislative district and 48th legislative district Democrats chose not to endorse her in her recent election, despite her opponent being a pro-business conservative and a Republican Party Precinct Committee Officer. Among other reasons, this was in part due to Robinson’s vote for Nieuwenhuis for Deputy Mayor in 2020, and in part due to her lack of support for his progressive challenger Ruth Lipscomb in their 2021 race. To return in their good graces, it’s possible that Robinson might change tune and support a progressive in leadership. After all, although recent precedent has been to have the deputy mayor replace the mayor, this has not always been the case: since 2006, the deputy mayor has gone on to become mayor in the next consecutive two-year period only three times.

There’s also precedent for leaders to serve back-to-back terms: Councilmember Degginger served as mayor from 2006 to 2010, with Chelminiak as deputy mayor during the first two years and Claudia Balducci during the second two. Unless Robinson has a significant change of heart with her mayoral vote this year, it’s likely this would be the only way to keep a conservative from sitting in the mayor’s chair in one week’s time. Regardless of the vote’s outcome, there is still a solidly progressive wing on the City Council who will be able to accomplish important things. All that remains to be seen is if, over the next two years, Bellevue will be able to live up to the potential of the progressive goals and values that define its residents.

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Article Author
Senior Eastside Reporter

Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.