Council winnowed 72 applicants down to eight, with Tanya Woo and Vivian Song leading contenders.
The Seattle City Council has a vacancy and 72 people applied for the position and were qualified as eligible by City staff. Among them are many people who just ran for Seattle City Council last year but lost and some perennial candidates. After a Friday vote, only eight candidates remain; only a few applicants have a real shot at winning the interim position. Tanya Woo, who lost a close race against Councilmember Tammy Morales last year, has a clear edge after three councilmembers cited her as their top choice on Friday. Getting to five votes will seal the deal.
A small business owner, Woo is a CID nightwatch organizer who led a protest that succeeded in blocking a planned homeless shelter expansion adjacent to Chinatown-International District (CID). Woo has no prior public service experience and a spotty voting record in local elections.
As a temporary fill-in, the selected applicant will serve about 10 months and then would have to run and win reelection in November to keep the seat, with a primary this August. Nonetheless, the appointee — set to serve on both the transportation and land use committees — could have an oversized influence on big votes, such as amending a transportation levy renewal package (likely in excess of one billion dollars) and approving the major update to the Seattle Comprehensive Plan, a once-per-decade overhaul to Seattle’s overarching strategy for growth and infrastructure needs.
The Complete Communities Coalition (of which The Urbanist is a member) sent a letter to the council urging them to select a councilmember with a strong stance on the issue of housing abundance and with experience to aid in the comprehensive plan process. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration is very behind schedule on delivering a draft comp plan with a full analysis of the growth alternatives the city could take, and a full plan is required to be adopted by December 31, under state law.
“The most consequential task that the Seattle City Council will undertake in 2024 is the major update to the Comprehensive Plan,” the coalition wrote. “In preparation, it is essential that the Seattle City Council selects a temporary replacement councilmember who is strong on housing policy and familiar with the planning process. The landslide victory of the Seattle Housing Levy showed that voters are concerned about housing affordability and want their leaders to do everything in their power to help ease the crisis.”
Beyond Woo, current Seattle School Boardmember Vivian Song also appears to have a strong bid, with Councilmember Dan Strauss signaling support and advancing her into the top eight. Song is a finance professional with a Master in Business Administration, experience Strauss pointed to as valuable as the city grapples with a looming budget crisis. Strauss, as newly appointed budget chair, will need all the help he can get. With a strong housing advocacy stance, she also earned some support in urbanist circles.
“Housing growth has not kept pace with population growth in Seattle and is a primary driver of our homelessness crisis,” Song wrote in her application. “As we look towards our upcoming Comprehensive Plan update, we should seek to scale our housing supply, particularly high-quality, affordable family housing. Seattle is losing working families because it is too expensive to live here. I support the addition of density in areas around important infrastructure such as schools, parks, and transportation.”
Among the candidates that the City Council declined to advance into the final list was Ray Dubicki, a columnist here at The Urbanist with a background in planning who urged the council to take a deep dive on the city’s land use code and tackle the “ridiculously convoluted rules and antiquated terms” that exist now as hindrances on the city’s growth and vibrancy. He also stated a desire to take a look at the city’s current usage of its public golf courses, many of which are close to current and planned frequent transit, and also ways to enhance the city’s nightlife outside of a longtime focus on 9-to-5 workers in the central core.
Tanya Woo was the only candidate who garnered first place votes from multiple councilmembers at the dais, suggesting it is ultimately her race to lose.
Here are the eight candidates remaining in contention with the councilmember who advanced them.
- Tanya Woo (nominated by Bob Kettle)
- Neha Nariya (nominated by Cathy Moore)
- Mari Sugiyama (nominated by Tammy Morales)
- Juan Cotto (nominated by Maritza Rivera)
- Mark Solomon (nominated by Rob Saka)
- Vivian Song (nominated by Dan Strauss)
- Linh Thai (nominated by Joy Hollingsworth)
- Steven Strand (nominated by Sara Nelson)
Solomon and Strand are both Seattle Police Department (SPD) employees. A civilian “crime prevention coordinator,” Solomon ran against Tammy Morales in 2019, losing by over 20 points. Solomon is a board member on the Beacon Hill Council, one of the loudest voices pushing back on Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plans to finally build a protected bike lane through the neighborhood on 15th Avenue S.
Strand is a police captain at the West Precinct. Over the course of his 15-year career with SPD, Strand has seen five complaints filed via the Office of Police Accountability, one of which included sustained allegations, according to Open Oversight data. An army veteran, Strand noted he was proud to help liberate Iraq.
As a civilian and a manager, respectively, neither would be covered by the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract that council is set to approve in the year ahead. However, their association with SPD could still represent a conflict of interest that pushes them to recuse from that vote.
Rather than seeking a caretaker, Council President Nelson said she preferred a candidate who would run for the seat and retain it in November. She said Strand’s pledge to run a robust campaign in the fall convinced her, as did his credibility in her eyes on the crime and fentanyl crisis.
Woo’s advantage and the centrist alliance
Woo’s advantage stems from the inroads she made while running alongside the slate of centrists that swept into office in November. The group of candidates met fairly regularly to strategize and finetune messaging, political operatives have noted. Business leaders have cited this cohesion as a reason why they are optimistic the incoming council will keep that work well together and stay disciplined to the message and agenda that helped get them elected.
The only wrench that prevented business-aligned candidates from completely sweeping Seattle’s 2023 election, however, was the come-from-behind victory Morales pulled off in Southeast Seattle’s District 2. In the eyes of the victors, appointing Woo would erase that defeat in a way. Since her votes often aligned with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, Morales would effectively become the new Mosqueda and Woo would complete the centrist clean sweep of the seven seats up for grabs in 2023. Mosqueda’s departure upon winning election to the King County Council in November is what created the council vacancy.
Wrinkles in the centrist realignment do exist. For example, how aligned is District 6 Councilmember Dan Strauss with the centrist pack after it was labor and a progressive wave that propelled him to victory in 2019?
And will Councilmembers Joy Hollingsworth (District 3) and Cathy Moore (District 5) betray an independent streak rather than lining up in lockstep with the newly installed Council President Sara Nelson, who endorsed and campaigned hard for the centrist slate, Woo included. While Councilmembers Bob Kettle (District 7) and Maritza Rivera (District 4) won by thin margins and arguably may not have won without Nelson’s help, Moore’s victory was so lopsided that she clearly didn’t need outside help, and Hollingsworth’s margin was also comfortable.
Kettle, Moore, and Rivera said Woo was their first pick on Friday. With Kettle already putting Woo into the final eight, Moore nominated her second choice, Neha Nariya, and Rivera nominated Juan Cotto. While not stating she was his top pick, Saka did express admiration for Woo.
Nelson did not endorse Strauss, but Mayor Bruce Harrell did, so Strauss’s allegiances likely lie with the mayor. Likewise, Harrell endorsed Hollingsworth, Moore, and District 1’s Rob Saka, likely providing a bigger boost compared to a first-term councilmember. Where Nelson and Harrell diverge, centrists may side with the mayor rather than the council president.
“Tanya ran a phenomenal race. She’s an outstanding community leader. It’s the council’s decision,” Harrell said at a November press conference where he took a victory lap with the newcomers. “So, they will, I’m sure, they’ll get dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of people come out. And again, I’m just looking for a person that is much aligned with, I think, where the voters want us to go.”
Seeking workhorse for big policy votes
Technically speaking, voters were more aligned with Morales than Woo, given the election result. Morales, who is taking over as land use chair under new committee assignments, cited a desire for a candidate that understands the comprehensive planning process and housing issues in her comments at the swearing in ceremony on January 2nd. In an interview with The Urbanist, she also noted the importance of someone with real budget solutions.
“I am still really hoping we begin conversation soon about progressive revenue, because we cannot as a city serve the most vulnerable in our community, address the homelessness crisis, [and] address the housing crisis, if we plan to just make $250 million worth of cuts in the budget,” Morales said. “Cutting services, cutting contracts is not the way to address the things that we’ve been talking about in this last election cycle. So I think having somebody who understands that understands the critical conversations and decisions that we have to make this year is going to be important.”
Morales nominated Mari Sugiyama on Friday. With lineage going back four generations, Sugiyama has deep ties in Seattle’s Japanese American community and support from South Seattle leaders like former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett. She also is a longtime civil servant who currently works for the City’s human service department. Morales argued the learning curve would be much less for Sugiyama.
The Seattle City Council is set to interview the eight remaining candidates in a public hearing on January 22 and vote to appoint the new member on January 23.
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.