By Erica C. Barnett
With reporting by Paul Kiefer and Clara Coyote
Even before election results appeared on the big screen at presumptive mayor-elect Bruce Harrell’s campaign party Tuesday night, the mood in the room—a cavernous upstairs event space overlooking Second Avenue downtown—was jubilant. The campaign for mayor has been unusually ugly, and the candidates’ dislike for each other has been palpable.
A late-breaking dispute over a González ad that the Harrell campaign denounced as “racist” didn’t help González’s campaign, but it’s hard to attribute a blowout margin of almost 30 percent to a single event. Instead, it looks like Seattle voters went hard for a slate of candidates who promised to return Seattle to the time before last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, when there was no question that the city’s job was to hire more police, remove encampments, and make Seattle a business-friendly climate with parks activated by giant Connect-4 sets and jazz trios, not marred by the visible evidence of the homelessness crisis.
Besides Harrell, the leading candidates in last night’s city of Seattle races were Republican city attorney candidate Ann Davison (leading public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy 58 to 41 percent) and Fremont Brewing owner and Position 9 candidate Sara Nelson (leading attorney and activist Nikkita Oliver 60 to 39 percent). Even Kenneth Wilson, the Position 8 candidate whose campaign against incumbent Teresa Mosqueda boiled down to “reopen the West Seattle Bridge,” tallied almost 60,000 early votes, trailing Mosqueda by just 47 to 52 percent. This wasn’t a long-tail election; it was three separate blowouts, plus a warning: Candidates who (like Mosqueda) are seen as progressive can’t count on their seats anymore, not even in Seattle.
The undercurrent of backlash was evident at Tuesday’s Harrell celebration, attended by a long list of current and former Seattle power brokers who no longer wield the influence they once did at city hall. Current deputy mayor and former mayoral candidate Casey Sixkiller was there, as were ex-council member (and “Compassion Seattle” founder) Tim Burgess, former Murray public safety advisor-turned-pro-police quote machine Scott Lindsay, former city council member Jan Drago, and the CEOs of both the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Rachel Smith, and the Downtown Seattle Association, Jon Scholes.
The current mayor, Jenny Durkan, was in Glasgow for the C40 climate conference. She did not endorse any candidates in this year’s elections.
Surrounded onstage by family members and former Seattle mayor Norm Rice—the city’s first Black mayor—Harrell said he and his team were “going to put Seattle on fire with our love. … We’re going to have a new conversation on homelessness, a new conversation on education, on transportation, on climate change… rooted in the love we have for each other and the love we have for the city.”
Support for Harrell’s campaign came largely from business and real estate interests, which poured more than $1.3 million into an independent expenditure effort on his behalf. (Harrell’s own campaign raised about $1.2 million, making the campaign the most expensive in Seattle’s history).
Over at González HQ—for election night, Hill City Tap House in Hillman City—the mood was less dour than one might expect, oddly, even jovial, given the immense hill González would have to climb to reverse the night’s results. (Officially, neither mayoral candidate declared victory or conceded). Campaign staff and supporters passed around pints of beer, union members and a large group city council staffers packed together under the outdoor awning, and a who’s-who of progressive political figures, including 37th District state Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley and former mayoral candidate Andrew Grant Houston gestured at one another with slices of pizza. Gonzalez’s sister and nephew flew in from Kansas City.
Speaking to the crowd, González said it was still too early to concede. “We are used to being underdog in every which way, and this is no exception,” she said. “The fact that so many of the votes of our voters, who tend to vote at the very end, means that we may not know who will be the next mayor until later this week.” Her own longtime staffers, however, looked visibly shaken.
James Fackler, a shop steward for PROTEC17, one of the City of Seattle’s largest unions, called the Durkan administration “a complete disaster from a labor perspective,” and worried that a Harrell administration would mean more of the same.
“We’ve seen a lack of communication, a lack of collaboration, and a lack of direction. It’s been a listless ship. We have deep concerns because Harrell doesn’t have strong union support, and we’re concerned that his administration doesn’t spell good things for repairing the relationship between management and labor,” Fackler said.
Across town in Northeast Seattle, city attorney candidate Davison held her campaign party in a decommissioned historic firehouse, where a small crowd of supporters, some wearing green-and-yellow “Neighbors for Ann” masks, celebrated her apparent victory. Cliff Mass, a controversial meteorologist and University of Washington professor who has expressed the view that extreme weather in the Pacific Northwest is not caused by climate-change, wrote a blog post supporting Davison last month.
“I think she will win and it won’t even be close,” Mass told PubliCola. “We will send the message that the experiment in Seattle went too far.”
Another supporter, Lee Hess, described himself as a “raging moderate” who believes Davison is “serious about the homeless crisis.”
After learning she held a commanding lead over Thomas-Kennedy, Davison told supporters, “We are all connected. This is the city that leads our region and we can focus on what connects as a human beings. This is about all of us.” When a PubliCola reporter attempted to talk to Davison, she pointedly ignored our questions. Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign canceled our scheduled post-results interview.
On election night, it seemed unlikely that any of the three contested Seattle races would flip, although every losing candidate left open the possibility that late ballots—those filed close to or on election—would skew so heavily toward left-leaning candidates that they could erase typical vote spreads of 30 percent. (The Seattle Times crunched the numbers and estimated that González would need to get about 63 percent of the outstanding votes to win—compared to an election-night 35 percent.) A huge number of ballots are still outstanding, and late ballots tend to close conservative leads, but the current totals are the kind of races that used to be called on election night.
As usual, turnout is low and young people aren’t voting. Early returns show that only around 15,000 King County residents between 18 and 24 returned their ballots before election day, compared to 154,245 of those over 65—a ten-to-one margin. When pundits talk about low turnout, what they really mean is that young people don’t vote—a trend that has held steady across decades, even in places like King County where voting is as easy as dropping a ballot in the mail.