“In This House,” Seattle Votes for the Status Quo

Bruce Harrell campaign sign with extra sign reading "MODERATE."

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, less than 18 months after nationwide protests against police violence prompted Seattle leaders to consider new approaches to public safety, Seattle voters endorsed a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, electing a slate of candidates who promised to hire more cops, crack down on crimes associated with poverty and addiction, and remove more unsheltered people from public spaces, with “consequences” for those who refuse to go.

Longtime former city council member Bruce Harrell will be mayor;  longtime city council aide-turned-“take back Seattle” brewery owner Sara Nelson will replace Lorena González on the city council, and Republican (and three-time candidate) Ann Davison will be city attorney.

The new regime is a significant win for the business and political leaders who have been shouting for the past year and a half that Seattle Is Dying because the city’s mushy progressivism has gone too far. What’s ironic about that view is that “the left”—that is, people on Twitter who have the unique ability to send mainstream pundits into fits of derangement—has essentially no power in Seattle city government.

Yes, there are a few more progressive faces on the council than there were a dozen years ago. But that doesn’t mean they’ve had much luck changing city policy (and on many issues, the council is still sharply divided). Under Seattle’s form of government, the mayor controls almost every city department and has the authority to ignore or reverse the council’s policy and spending directives, meaning that even if the council were to tell the mayor to, say, cut the police department by 50 percent, the mayor could and probably would just ignore them—as Seattle’s current moderate mayor, Jenny Durkan, has done with policy after policy. If the council’s progressive bloc could spend money or establish policy by fiat, you would see a whole lot more hotel-based shelters, public restrooms, and handwashing sinks around the city.

Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created.

For the past several years—the period when centrist pundits claim that Seattle was controlled by a far-left progressive bloc—the city has stayed the course on any number of policies that previously failed to address the city’s problems—pouring money into downtown Seattle at the expense of other neighborhoods, offering huge hiring bonuses to new police officers, and ramping up encampment sweeps to pre-pandemic levels. (Prior to the current administration, encampment residents generally got 72 hours’ notice before a sweep.)  Progress on Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, has not only stalled but reversed, with more people killed by traffic violence last year than in any year since 2006. Exclusionary zoning laws continue to prohibit new housing except in tiny strips of land along major arterial roads. And overdose deaths have increased dramatically, an outcome that could have been mitigated by opening the supervised consumption site King County recommended in 2016, and which Durkan has consistently (and successfully) opposed.

The claim that Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, and Ann Davison represent a set of “fresh new faces” with “new ideas” may be the most confusing piece of conventional wisdom being pushed by Seattle’s pundit class. Harrell served on the council for 12 years before stepping down at the end of 2019. His homelessness policy, a copy-and-paste of the failed Compassion Seattle charter amendment, was drafted by 12-year council veteran Tim Burgess. And Nelson’s old boss, Richard Conlin, was a 16-year incumbent.

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As mayor, Harrell’s campaign promises sound pretty much the same as Durkan’s when she came into office: More, better, reformed police, lots of new shelter beds, and a “pragmatic” approach to the city’s basic issues, like transportation. (Cycling advocates have considered Durkan particularly hostile to their requests for safer infrastructure; at a recent campaign forum, Harrell made a point of mocking bikes as a viable transportation option.) Durkan never did build all 1,000 tiny houses she promised to complete by the end of her first year, and the police department is so far from “reform” that it remains under a federal consent decree, after Durkan and outgoing city attorney Pete Holmes prematurely tried to terminate the agreement in 2020. At the beginning of her term, Durkan vowed to apply a compassionate but tough approach to the city’s most pressing issues. Now that her four years are up, Harrell is proposing more of the same.

Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.

Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created. For people who are well represented by the current status quo, it can feel like oppression to listen to how people talk about you and your political allies in an online space that you chose to enter. But look around: Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.

Davison, admittedly, is a special case—one Seattle’s center left may soon regret supporting as gleefully as they backed moderates Nelson and Harrell. On election night, several Davison supporters at Harrell’s party referred to her, somewhat apologetically, as “Republican-Lite,” but there’s little question about the views she has expressed in public. When Davison ran against city council incumbent Debora Juarez (one of those moderate council members the pundits who scream about the “far-left council” never mention) in 2019, she proposed fixing homelessness by rounding up unsheltered people and busing them to warehouses on the outskirts of the city, where they would somehow be kept alive for less than $1,500 a year. A year later, she declared herself a proud Republican and ran for lieutenant governor on the Donald Trump/Loren Culp ticket. Her plans for that office were even easier to fit on an index card: If elected, she said, she would abolish the office.

Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue.

And there is considerable overlap between Harrell’s supporters and Davison’s (they even share some of the same consultants). On election night, after Harrell made his celebratory speech, a number of people from Harrell’s party piled into their cars and headed over to Davison’s celebration party. One was former Ed Murray public safety advisor (and Davison endorser, Chris Gregoire’s son-in-law) Scott Lindsay, who could hold a high-ranking position in the Davison city attorney’s office. Although most of the work of the office is in the civil division, Davison has said her top priority would be prosecuting misdemeanors—a radical reversal of the policies Holmes has put in place over the past 12 years, and a retreat into the zero-tolerance, broken-windows approach Lindsay has advocated.

Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue. “In this house,” Seattle votes for the status quo.

21 thoughts on ““In This House,” Seattle Votes for the Status Quo”

  1. Brilliant! Thanks for the essay.

    It is important to remember that voters are largely intellectually lazy. This is why campaigns spend so much money on TV and radio ads (the easiest to consume). Very few people even bother reading a candidates profile on Wikipedia, let alone digging into the details.

    It didn’t help that the general election contained not one, but two horrible candidates running under the progressive banner. Thomas-Kennedy was a self-professed protest candidate. She never imagined she would get past the primary. Her comments on Twitter were horrible, and her defense for them consisted, essentially, that she never would have written them if she thought she would run for public office.

    Then you have Oliver, who sits at the other extreme. She had the arrogance to believe she would make a good mayor, despite having no experience in city government (or any other government for that matter). She didn’t even vote half the time! Unlike Thomas-Kennedy, who figured people wouldn’t vote for her, Oliver is enough of a narcissist to believe they would become mayor. Oliver would do far less damage on the city council, but it still suggests a lot of grandstanding, and very little of what any public council does, which is pass legislation that helps achieve your goal.

    Holmes and Thomas would not only have been better candidates, but better at their respective jobs. A significant number of people just want competence. When they don’t know who is more competent, they read the newspaper. If you have two “big” papers (which we do) you go with the more reasonable one. For the first time in a long while, The Seattle Times editorial board seemed more reasonable than the Stranger.

    This hurt Gonzalez. But she also ran a terrible campaign. She was able to allow Harrell to control the narrative, as you wrote. Supporters of Harrell ran a hard hitting ad about police and homelessness. She could have easily attacked him back on the homeless issue, given his record, proposals, and endorsements. But instead she attacked him for his response to the Murray allegations. At best no one cared; at worst they thought it was racist. Harrell is a fundamentally strong candidate (more qualified to be mayor than the last four elected). He was going to be hard to beat, and running a terrible campaign (and being dragged down by the rest of the ballot) didn’t help.

    Put it altogether and have a victory for the two conservatives and the reactionary. (I mean “conservative” in the classic sense, as opposed to right wing.)

  2. As your average Joe Seattle, I really think there was a point I realized when they say no sweeps ever from anywhere for any reason, they actually meant it. Unless you’re gullible enough to think the city of Seattle is going to solve the entire nation’s homeless issue, I would never be able to safely use a park again.

    1. Seattle has over 489 parks, covering about 6441 acres, which comprises about 12% of Seattle. It seems like it might work out for you.

      Yes, no sweeping. Getting people on benefits and into housing, even at a slower pace, is a huge advantage over traumatic upheaval and destruction of one’s property.

      1. JenMoon: A defect inside your brain causes you to believe that those who specifically seek free stuff won’t gather wherever they can get the best free stuff (San Francisco, Portland, Eugene, Seattle, etc.). They are here for the free stuff yet you think more free stuff is the solution ??. Quite comical actually. Don’t ever change.

      2. actually, i’ve had my brain examined and it comes out looking good. maybe check yours and while you’re at it, ask the docs what they did with your heart.

        since you don’t seem to know anyone who has ever become homeless, you seem to think they are all bad people, traveling the U.S. looking for free stuff. most of the folks here are from here. they stay here because of support systems, not the free stuff. and why would they? we have one of the crappiest mental health systems in the U.S. good thing i had my brain checked elsewhere.

    2. Matthew Scott: Seattle is such a great place to be homeless. You can get 30 different types of free stuff and don’t need to get a job. Approximately 50% could get a job. Free stuff is easier. On top of that, “do-good-ers” actually deliver the free stuff directly to your tent. Its like door-dash but you don’t have to pay. Productive Joe’s don’t need to use parks, libraries, or sidewalks anyways because those are reserved for the homeless. Excuse me: “unhoused neighbors”. HA HA, just step over their needles and shit in the grass.

      1. There are over 4,000 homeless children in Seattle Public Schools. They must be here for the free stuff.

        Or maybe, just maybe, there is a very strong correspondence with homelessness and the cost of housing. This has been confirmed by many studies. It is well known by experts in the field. This would also explain why the number of homeless in Seattle went up just as the cost of housing went up.

        Naahh — it must be the free stuff.

    3. Matthew Scott, the statistics show that Seattle is not a homeless magnet. There is no swath of homeless people moving to Seattle for free stuff. The vast majority of Seattle’s homeless come from Seattle and King County, and nowhere else.

  3. A remarkably bad analysis. Take the issue of homelessness: the Mayor has consistently demanded more accountability from providers even as the council has doubled the money going to homeless providers in the last five years to over $100 million. Was that ever done? Absolutely not. The council wouldn’t permit it. Same with the Navigation Team – why can’t the city remove hazardous encampments? Because the Council literally defunded it.

    Your analysis of police reform is bordering on dishonest. Hundreds of police officers quit because a supermajority of the council promised to lay them off, followed by the homicide rate climbing 60% in one year. The consensus view in criminology is that police prevent crime, the council has studiously ignored this fact. [1]. The consent decree is what *blocked* the council from further cutting the police budget further cuts and from implement terribly ill-conceived crowd control policies that even OPA and the IG opposed. And Thomas-Kennedy actively *campaigned* on her desire to eliminate the consent decree, because she knew it was preventing the city from finishing off the police department. So to portray her and the council establishment as the police reform slate is remarkbly dishonest.

    And then there’s the failure of basic governance. Ken Wilson was a bridge nerd but it should come as no surprise he got 40% of the vote when the city council consistently refuses to fund bridge maitenence [2] and 1/5th of the city is now cut off from the rest of Seattle until who knows when.

    Durkan is no hero. But the City Council with a 7-2 supermajority of progressives were not powerless babies. They just didn’t do their jobs. And when you refuse to hold them accountable, you’re not doing your job.

    [1] https://cjexpertpanel.org/surveys/reducing-gun-violence/

    [2] https://sccinsight.com/2020/09/21/audit-on-sdots-bridge-maintenance-finds-program-vastly-underfunded-lack-of-strategic-plan/

    1. Rick Smith: You make a major mistake in thinking that Progressives care about the truth. So you have this lengthy comment they could not care less about. Making fun of their stupidity is much easier. Please make a donation to keep the fun rolling. Steve Willie.

    2. You are missing the point. Harrell was on the council while the number of homeless skyrocketed[1]. What did he do? Nothing. Furthermore, there is a direct connection between high housing costs and homelessness[2]. There is also a connection between restrictive zoning and the high cost of housing (the connection is rather obvious, but studies have confirmed it [3]). Thus one of the big things Seattle can do to reduce homelessness is to change the zoning laws. Gonzalez and Oliver want to do that; their opponents do not. This is a vote for the policies that have been in place while Seattle has seen a huge — quite predictable — rise in homelessness.

      At best they will nibble around the edges, and get more accountability with homeless agencies which could lead to a more effective system. But sweeps won’t help — the outcomes are terrible if you don’t provide immediate housing. Those being swept just move to another park, making it tough to track them. There is no attempt to deal with the root of the problem, which is the very high housing costs, that went up alongside the number of homeless [4]. Despite all the ads to the contrary, it is Harrell that really has no plan to deal with homelessness.

      [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_Seattle
      [2] https://dupagehomeless.org/research-demonstrates-connection-between-housing-affordability-homelessness/
      [3] https://www.lewis.ucla.edu/research/market-rate-development-impacts/
      [4] https://www.self.inc/blog/cities-biggest-increase-rental-prices

      1. RossB: Correction: “Harrell was on the Council while the FREE STUFF skyrocketed, which attracted the homeless”. FACT: They can just move somewhere else like I did (because Seattle is too expensive). They can move to Idaho and Texas like everyone else I know in Seattle did. Progressives own this problem.

    3. A few other points. Yes, the consensus view in criminology is that police reduce crime. But it is not the most cost effective way to reduce crime. The justice system is extremely expensive. It is cheaper to go out the sources of crime. Doing so requires shifting money from the police to social services, like Scandinavian countries have done over the years [1].

      Second, we have no idea why so many police officers quit. Please cite a study to support your theory, that they quit before being laid off. I find that theory far fetched. If you are laid off, you get severance. Most people I know would much rather wait until they receive the severance, and then switch jobs.

      It is possible that some of the cops were abusive, and they got tired of the courts breathing down their necks, stopping them from policing like they always have. It is possible that many were good cops, who simply lost faith in a department that has failed to reform (despite some reform minded chiefs). Maybe they got tired of riot duty (it can’t be fun). Or maybe they felt disrespected by the community, given the large number of people out protesting, and “Black Lives Matter” signs. Who knows?

      What is clear is that the end of the day, the city council decided to not lay off anyone. They hired new officers to replace the old ones. There will be fewer police, but much of the change will be due to police duties (e. g. parking enforcement) simply shifting to another department[2].

      Finally, while it is true that the homicide rate went up in Seattle, it went up in almost every city — including those that didn’t reduce their police force[3].

      [1] https://theweek.com/articles/918143/what-america-learn-from-nordic-police
      [2] https://crosscut.com/news/2020/11/seattle-cuts-doesnt-defund-police-budget-2021
      [3] https://majorcitieschiefs.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/MCCA-Violent-Crime-Report-2020-and-2019-Year-End-Final.pdf

      1. “But it is not the most cost effective way to reduce crime. The justice system is extremely expensive.”

        All the more so in Seattle – the OP links to data on specific police activities – hotspot and carrot and stick policing – reducing gun violence.

        SPD mostly does not do these things, because the department is run like a 911 hamster wheel with officers running around handling lots of calls that aren’t crimes at all or where a rapid response isn’t relevant (such as crimes reported well after the fact).

        One way to look at it is that every dollar we invest in getting police activities that actually reduce gun violence passes through an “SPD tax” because of its inefficient and ineffective practices.

        SPD could choose to be more efficient and effective, but it consistently refuses to.

  4. Right now I’m just pissed. I’m sure I’ll get back to “ok, but what do we do?” but right now i’m just so pissed that the “fresh new faces” framing stuck, that we’ve got more of the car & SFH oriented centrists in power, and that Harrell & Davison in particular are going to make this town hell for our unhoused neighbors.

    1. jacobmovingfwd: Many of your “unhoused neighbors” are from outside the area. Now they are your neighbors because they came to Seattle for the 30-40 types of free stuff they can get. I hope they stay your neighbors. In the future, please insure that the free comes from your pockets and not mine.

      1. RossB: Guess what ?? 100% of the homeless have the option of moving to where housing is cheaper (just about anywhere other than Seattle). What part of “MOVE” are Progressives too dumb to understand? Why is it that whenever Progressives are about to lose an argument they bring in bullshit, Naziis, or children ?? Save the children ?? You won’t save them by giving away more free stuff to their addicted parents. You might want to ditch the fake stats and come up with a real plan.

      2. Steve, it would be great if in any one comment, you presented actual facts with backup data. The free stuff you are talking about doesn’t even begin to cover people. Including those gosh darn kids, many of whom do not have addicted parents. And even if they do, they deserve bad things happening to them because of it? This is why we are a nation full of people with high ACE (adverse childhood experience) scores. /smh

  5. Erica: It looks like our election endorsements failed (yours and mine). As a result of this election, Seattle will take longer to become a shit-hole city. This will not be nearly as entertaining as it could have been. With slightly-better law enforcement, less crime, fewer tents blocking the sidewalk, less shit and garbage dumps in public parks, where is the fun in that? True excellent shit-hole status appears to have been delayed, but there is always the next election. Lets keep our spirits up. Steve Willie.

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