On Friday afternoon, Councilmember Lisa Herbold announced that she is not seeking another term, saying that she hopes to increase the odds that a progressive holds the seat.
“I feel like it’s time to do my part to create an open seat election in District 1,” Herbold wrote on her Council newsletter. “I believe that an open seat can better drive turnout and deliver District 1 to another progressive.”
Herbold has more than 20 years of experience at City Council: two terms as a Councilmember and a long stint as legislative aide to former Councilmember Nick Licata. Herbold raised the specter of getting pinched in a primary and going the route of former City Attorney Pete Holmes, who after a similarly long career was challenged from both the left and right and ended up not making through the primary.
“When a segment of the Seattle left says that they intend to ‘primary’ sitting Council members who are not proposing a 50% cut to SPD’s budget, I am reminded that we cannot repeat the 2021 race for the City Attorney when a very strong and proven progressive didn’t advance to the general, forcing a choice between a carceral system abolitionist and a Republican,” Herbold wrote. “In a similar 2023 scenario, progressives could lose District 1, and a seat on the Council.”
One member of The Stranger Election Control Board criticized the analogy with Holmes, arguing Holmes barely campaigned in 2021 and wasn’t consistently progressive. For example, former Mayor Mike McGinn has said Holmes sought to undermine police reform through his role in the consent decree. He also failed to hold former Mayor Jenny Durkan accountable to public records and transparency laws she blatantly flouted under his watch.
Even so, Herbold hasn’t been the only sitting councilmember with this “getting Holmes’d” worry. And she likely won’t be the only one to retire rather than face a grueling campaign with the slings and arrows potentially coming from both directions. Council President Debora Juarez, who represents District 5, told the Puget Sound Business Journal in June that she does not plan to seek a third term — although such a statement isn’t binding. Other councilmembers haven’t announced their plans so far.
All seven district-based Seattle city councilmembers are up for election in 2023. Herbold represents District 1, which encompasses West Seattle, Delridge, and South Park. The district also gained Georgetown and SoDo via redistricting this year, which The Urbanist projected would make the district lean slightly more progressive based on past results. Herbold had a double-digit win with 56% of the vote in 2019, earning her second term.
However, Bruce Harrell carried the district handily in 2021 with 62% of the vote, which has led some to speculate that D1 and perhaps the city at large had shifted in a more conservative direction. On the other hand, the 2021 election does appear to have been an outlier based on the unique dynamics of the race and a progressive trend re-emerging in the 2022 election. Regardless, D1 is likely to be hotly contested.
According to leaked excerpts of speeches to local police precincts, Mayor Harrell had pledged to recruit a business-friendly, police-friendly candidate to run against and oust Herbold and other progressives impeding his police and sweeps agenda. Harrell walked back the statements once they became public and offered a cordial and congratulatory statement Friday shortly after news broke.
“Across all our work together over nearly 15 years, from legislative aide to city councilmember, [Herbold] has always led with a dedication to the details and love for West Seattle and our entire city,” Harrell said in a tweet.
Public safety chair up for grabs
Herbold chairs public safety committee, which has put her in the middle of a maelstrom around police accountability and appropriate police funding levels. Following widespread protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020, Herbold joined a majority of her colleagues in pledging to transfer funding from the Seattle Police Department to alternative community safety programs. Activists demanding that Council defund SPD by 50% took this as signing on to their 50% pledge, but Herbold soon distanced herself from the 50% figure, and earned many of their ire. In fact, some police abolitionists were celebrating Herbold’s retirement in social media posts on Friday evening.
Still, the 2020 budget that Herbold supported did decrease SPD’s budget by 18%, albeit largely through vacant positions doing their work for them and budget tricks like transferring parking enforcement out of the department. The latter move turned out to be temporary as Council transferred it back to SPD in budget deliberations this fall. While she favored a cautious and incremental approach and did not identify as an abolitionist, Herbold ultimately did support efforts to rein in SPD and reduce its scope of work and budget. Her departure leaves open the possibility a more conservative councilmember who is far more deferential to SPD could take over as public safety chair.
Of course, progressives cleaning up in 2023 elections would greatly reduce this possibility.
Herbold’s Unique Brand of Politics
Across issues, Herbold built a reputation as a workhorse legislator and a detail-oriented wonk, but she also has been ideologically heterodox and vacillated between the progressive and moderate wings depending on the issue at hand. She backed the JumpStart payroll tax in 2020, which helped provide a veto-proof majority. JumpStart proved essential to covering pandemic-related holes in the City budget over coming years in addition to boosting investment in affordable housing in a time of need.
On urbanist issues, she wasn’t as reliable. The Urbanist Elections Committee seemed to see this coming and endorsed Brianna Thomas over Herbold in the 2015 Primary. However, in the 2019 Primary, the elections committee (I was a committee member that cycle) endorsed Herbold over middling opponents.
She has been the most vociferous opponent of the Center City streetcar, and worked with Mayor Jenny Durkan to shelve the streetcar project in 2018 where it has remained in limbo ever since. She led the charge to block an expansion of Seattle’s public bikeshare program, Pronto, and then helped kill the program entirely. She opposed parking reforms in 2018 and generally favored a cautious approach to zoning reform. She added amendments reducing Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) upzones in her district but did vote for MHA legislation. She has backed repeated efforts to raid Seattle Transportation Benefit District transit funding for bridge maintenance bonds of dubious value — an effort which finally succeeded this fall. While her allies credited her ability to listen to conflicting opinions and change her mind when presented with data and new facts, on issues like the streetcar she was immoveable.
However, on labor and economic issues, she generally voted with the progressives, and shepherded legislation like “PayUp” protections for app-based workers. She also supported a major expansion of tenant rights over her tenure. She always didn’t fit neatly on ideological lines, but she cast some key votes for progressives.
Herbold’s full statement is below:
I will not be running for re-election in 2023. Above my love of public service to the constituents of District 1, I don’t want the Council to lose a progressive voice on the Council.
The 2022 elections last month were good for progressives. I feel like it’s time to do my part to create an open seat election in District 1. I believe that an open seat can better drive turnout and deliver District 1 to another progressive.
When a segment of the Seattle left says that they intend to “primary” sitting Council members who are not proposing a 50% cut to SPD’s budget, I am reminded that we cannot repeat the 2021 race for the City Attorney when a very strong and proven progressive didn’t advance to the general, forcing a choice between a carceral system abolitionist and a Republican. In a similar 2023 scenario, progressives could lose District 1, and a seat on the Council.
On the other side of the political spectrum, I’m not worried about the center right or the Chamber of Commerce or any of the cynical big money Independent Expenditure campaigns in what would be yet another likely very ugly re-election bid if I were to run again. There was $4,395,075 spent in independent expenditures in the 2019 Council races; I won my re-election by nearly 12%. Rather, my choice is because I love and honor the work the progressive left has done in Seattle and I don’t want to do anything that makes it less likely for a non-progressive to be elected to represent the great District 1.
I will continue to represent and advocate for District 1 over the next year. We’ve still got a lot of work to do!Councilmember Lisa Herbold
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.