Fueled by Unprecedented Spending, Seattle City Council Elections Defy Easy Interpretation

Another glamorous campaign forum in the election Amazon and other companies spent millions to influence.

So was it an anti-incumbent election? An Amazon backlash election? A pro-“accountability” election? A status quo election?


Although only a fraction of the ballots were counted Tuesday night, two out of three incumbents running for reelection appeared headed for victory, the other incumbent seemed likely (though not yet certain) to lose, and voters appeared to be supporting a mix of other council candidates from across Seattle’s ideological spectrum‚ only one of them backed by the Amazon-funded Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s PAC, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, spent unprecedented millions on independent expenditures to influence Seattle’s local elections this year, including nearly $1.5 million from Amazon, a company that earlier this year threatened to disinvest in the city over a tax that would have amounted to a rounding error in the company’s budget. (Amazon has been valued as high as $1 trillion; the tax would have cost them $20 million a year.).

The results defied easy interpretation. The incumbents who appear to be headed for victory—Lisa Herbold in District 1 (West Seattle) and Debora Juarez in District 5 (North Seattle)—vote differently on many issues and were not supported by the same factions. CASE spent around $300,000 to defeat Herbold—backing attorney Phil Tavel, who also ran in 2015 and lost in the primary— but came up short. However, the Chamber also backed Juarez against a more conservative candidate, Ann Davison Sattler, and helped push her to reelection. Both Herbold and Juarez were probably helped by their reputations as good retail politicians who pay attention to their districts. It’s hard to believe the worst about your district council member when you see her at meetings around the neighborhood and can easily get her on the phone.

The same can’t be said of District 3 incumbent Kshama Sawant, who doesn’t have a district office and is the subject of frequent complaints from district residents about her inaccessibility and focus on national issues—criticisms that would have followed her even if the Chamber, backed by $1.5 million from Amazon, had not poured an unprecedented $750,000 (and counting) into the effort to defeat the socialist firebrand. After the first ballot drop, Sawant was trailing Orion by 8.4 percent—more than the margin she made up during the August primary, when she gained more than 6 points over Orion between election night and the final ballot count.

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In District 2 (Southeast Seattle), Seattle Police Department crime prevention coordinator Mark Solomon’s Chamber-backed campaign wasn’t enough to quash the momentum of popular second-time candidate Tammy Morales, who nearly beat incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015. In District 4 (NortheastSeattle), which includes the University of Washington but also some of the city’s wealthiest and least diverse single-family areas, neighborhood activist and former Tim Burgess aide Alex Pedersen’s lead over Democratic Socialists of America candidate Shaun Scott was boosted by about $66,000 from the Chamber and more than $105,000 from Burgess’ People for Seattle PAC.

In District 6 (Northwest Seattle), where Chamber-backed former city council member Heidi Wills was running against Dan Strauss, an aide to retiring District 7 city council member Sally Bagshaw, the gloves really came off in the final week, when Strauss’ campaign sent out mailers accusing Wills of “still selling out” and reminding voters about Strippergate, the 16-year-old zoning scandal that led to Wills’ ouster in 2003. Wills was trailing Strauss by more than 5 points at the end of the night despite half a million dollars in Chamber support. Given that late voters tend to support candidates who are perceived as more liberal (Strauss is backed by a number of lefty groups and the Stranger), Strauss looks like the winner.

Finally, in District 7 (Magnolia, Queen Anne, downtown) former police chief Jim Pugel narrowly led assistant city attorney Andrew Lewis on election night, but that lead is unlikely to hold as late ballots come in. Pugel may have actually been hurt by the more than $325,000 the Chamber spent boosting his campaign, given that neither Pugel nor Lewis was obviously a “Chamber candidate” and that both campaigns were respectful, cordial, and generally positive, unlike those in Districts 3 and 6.

This was Amazon’s election to win or lose, not only in District 3 but in all the other council districts where CASE distributed the anti-tax behemoth’s garish $1.45 million contribution. One lesson from this election may end up being that the big spend backfired with voters who were offended at the idea that a huge, widely reviled company could thought it could waltz in and buy Seattle’s city council. On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that Amazon and the other companies filling CASE’s coffers will look at this year’s local election results and decide that they just didn’t spend enough to get the results they wanted.

Election results will be updated again on Wednesday between 4 and 4:30 pm.

One thought on “Fueled by Unprecedented Spending, Seattle City Council Elections Defy Easy Interpretation”

  1. Those mail pieces that my firm did were really fucking good! Thanks for reporting.

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