By Erica C. Barnett
In early results that signaled a hard turn to the center for the Seattle City Council, three progressive city council incumbents were trailing their more conservative opponents Tuesday night, while moderates had strong leads over progressives in all four open seats.
The number-one issue this cycle was public safety—exemplified, a bit absurdly, by a vote to empower City Attorney Ann Davison to prosecute drug users—and voters were apparently convinced that a slate of more moderate newcomers will be better equipped than the current council to address the city’s problems.
Collectively, the candidates who were prevailing on election night support aggressive efforts to hire more police, aggressive crackdowns on people using drugs in public, and a harsher attitude toward unsheltered people, particularly those who are visible downtown and in the city’s business districts.
Although land use took a backseat to issues that lend themselves better to soundbites, it’s likely that the new council will be disinclined to adopt policies that would allow more apartments in Seattle’s historically single-family neighborhoods; Joy Hollingsworth, leading urbanist Alex Hudson by almost 17 points in District 3, talked fondly of “middle housing,” citing her family’s experience converting their large house into a triplex, but spoke warily about other forms of density, telling PubliCola she considered the level of density in District 3 “very extreme.”
It’s almost unprecedented for a city council candidate to come back from a double-digit deficit. In fact, the only person to do it in recent memory was Kshama Sawant, who gained 12 points on challenger Egan Orion in late returns in 2019, ultimately defeating him by more than 4 points.
The one council incumbent who’s almost certain to prevail, District 6 (Northwest Seattle) incumbent Dan Strauss, still ended the night two points behind Fremont business leader Pete Hanning, despite the fact that Hanning raised relatively little money and did not benefit from the kind of massive business-backed independent expenditure campaigns that fueled other candidates.
In other races, progressive candidates trailed their centrist opponents by double-digit margins, each representing thousands of votes. Later votes in Seattle usually skew heavily toward progressives, but the gaps many lefty candidates who were generally viewed as competitive are facing—Rob Saka’s 18-point lead over Maren Costa in West Seattle’s District 1, for instance—seem fairly insurmountable. (Up in North Seattle’s District 5, former judge Cathy Moore’s 41-point lead over social equity consultant ChrisTiana ObeySumner feels like a foregone conclusion, given ObeySumner’s 24-point second-place primary finish, but the lopsidedness of Moore’s lead is representative of Tuesday’s dramatic results.)
Some progressive candidates, such as Strauss and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda—narrowly leading Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon in her race for King County Council—will surge ahead to comfortable leads in late results. Others, like Lewis and District 2 incumbent Tammy Morales, who ended Election Night almost 9 points behind neighborhood advocate Tanya Woo, could still pull off a win as later, leftier votes come in.
That said, it’s almost unprecedented for a city council candidate to come back from a double-digit deficit—bad news not just for Lewis but for District 4 progressive Ron Davis, trailing centrist Maritza Rivera by 11 points. In fact, the only person to do it in recent memory was Kshama Sawant, who gained 12 points on challenger Egan Orion in late returns in 2019, ultimately defeating him by more than 4 points.
Next year’s council will have as many as seven new members, including one the council itself will appoint to replace Mosqueda when she leaves next year. Sara Nelson, the Position 8 incumbent who campaigned for Saka, Woo, Rivera, and Kettle, wants to be council president, and will likely have the votes. But if the current trend holds and most of the centrist slate prevails, the new majority will have no one to blame if they fail. These candidates promised they had solutions to crime, homelessness, and addiction, and now their supporters will expect them to deliver.
The election could also leave Mayor Bruce Harrell in the unfamiliar position of being in the absolute majority, with a council that fully supports his agenda. If the mayor and his supporters can no longer blame the city council for thwarting his plans for the city, who can they blame other than the mayor himself? This isn’t to say that Harrell himself is vulnerable (as my podcast cohost often tells me, the man is popular), but it’s always easier to point the finger at political opponents than admit that some problems are systemic, complex, and unsuited to quick political fixes.
The county will post outstanding election results every afternoon aroudn 4 for the next three weeks, and I’ll be posting regular updates on all the races in which no candidate has conceded.