Tag: district elections

Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy

By Seattle City Council Member Andrew Lewis 

I am a strong supporter of district elections for Seattle City Council. I have been ever since managing former council member Nick Licata’s re-election campaign in 2009 and seeing the deficiencies of the old city-wide alternative. 

So I read with great interest a September 2nd article by former Councilmember Jean Godden reporting on an effort to revisit districts and potentially go back to an at-large system or add more citywide positions to the council. Anonymous critics quoted in the piece raised several concerns about the current system.

First, they claimed districts enhance the power of “interest groups”. Second, they argued districts are fragmented and include neighborhoods without perceived commonality, citing examples such as Magnolia and Belltown in District 7 and Mount Baker and Rainier Beach in District 2. And third, they claimed districts result in less diversity in government and are unfair to poor and minority voters. 

In every respect, these claims are unfounded. Districts, along with democracy vouchers, have considerably enhanced our democracy in Seattle by reducing special interest influence, encouraging accountability to community concerns, and increasing diversity of representation.

Districts Diminish Special Interest Influence

Former Boston Mayor Kevin White once famously said “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.” Missing from the criticism of district elections is any comparison to the old exclusively at-large system. This is probably because on every purported critique of districts, an exclusively at-large system scores far worse.   

First, a close analysis of interest group influence reveals the old at-large system was far more susceptible. I was struck, while managing Licata’s campaign in 2009, by the incentives the at-large system created for candidates to choose donors over voters. Running citywide requires raising enough resources to buy advertising and build name familiarity in a city of nearly 750,000 people, essentially as big as a congressional district. Under the old system, locking down a few dozen big donors early was essential to be competitive.

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.   

Under districts, candidates go door-to-door and talk to voters directly. I personally knocked on more than 8,500 doors last year, and I know most of my colleagues did the same. On hundreds of occasions, voters told me that no candidate for city office had ever knocked on their door. I learned about chronically ignored neighborhood issues that have shaped my priorities in office. Indeed, my successful efforts to save the UpGarden P-Patch started as a doorbell conversation. These interactions cannot happen at scale under an at-large system. The only viable strategy is dialing for dollars—which, in turn, gives more access to big donors, and by extension special interests.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that “special interests” are benefiting from districts. If special interests equate to big money, then districts have considerably mitigated their advantage in Seattle elections. Of all the candidates who won last year I had the most independent money spent on my behalf, $409,887 from UNITE HERE Local 8, a union representing hospitality workers. Even so, the aggregate of support from the Chamber of Commerce, big hotel owners, and other business-aligned PACs in independent expenditures for my opponent totaled $586,456, a disparity of $176,569. 

I suspect what is really happening is that the coalition that was largely unsuccessful in the 2019 council elections thinks an at-large system would benefit them electorally.

This trend was consistent across council races: In five out of seven districts, the candidate with the least special interest money spent on their behalf went on to win. My colleague Dan Strauss was outspent by an unprecedented $747,538. That result implies districts are far less susceptible to the influence of big money, and therefore the influence of interest groups is considerably diminished.

A Return to At-Large Does Nothing to Mitigate “Fragmentation”

Another issue district critics raise is the grouping of neighborhoods perceived to have different priorities into the same district, creating a fragmentation of interests. 

The fragmentation argument is perhaps the strangest one for abolishing districts. If districts are so large that neighborhoods with divergent interests are being lumped together, isn’t that an argument for more districts? 

It also assumes a council member is incapable of attending to the various needs of different neighborhoods within their district. My staff and I have a regular presence in community council meetings in all the neighborhoods of District 7. In the case of the small Cascade Neighborhood Council, I was the first city council member to ever attend one of their meetings.

Under an at-large system, such sustained engagement with neighborhood organizations is difficult and accountability to the community is diffuse. After every census districts are redrawn, and if there truly are issues related to fragmentation they can be dealt with through that process. Reverting to an at-large system would do nothing to address it.          

Districts Have Led to a More Diverse Council

The argument that the at-large system leads to a more diverse council ignores the fact that the current council is 5-4 people of color and 6-3 women—far more diverse than the preceding 20 years of councils under the at-large system. It also ignores the fact that at-large representation has historically been used to disempower minority voters.    Continue reading “Andrew Lewis: Ditching District Elections Would Be Bad for Democracy”

Dozens of Candidates Line Up in First Test of District System: Part 3

This piece originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

This is the second in a series about the Seattle City Council candidates running in the August primary election—the first true test of Seattle’s new district election system. Here’s a quick look at who’s running in Districts 6 and 7.

District 6 (Northwest Seattle)

Mike O’Brien

The two-term council incumbent and national Sierra Club board member is under fire from neighborhood activists who say he has done too little to address homeless encampments, RVs, and drugs while focusing on national issues like climate change. Opponents also disagree with O’Brien’s work to implement the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, including legislation he sponsored to make it easier for homeowners to add basement apartments and backyard cottages. O’Brien has said he is taking the next month or two to decide whether he plans to seek reelection. If he doesn’t run, this race could get crowded.

Kate Martin
Neighborhood activist and 2013 mayoral candidate who also ran an unsuccessful campaign for a ballot measure that would have preserved the Alaskan Way Viaduct and turned it into an aerial park.

Jonathan Lisbin
A business owner and activist with Seattle Fair Growth, which led efforts to stop the city’s proposed Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, Lisbin is seeking the District 6 seat for a second time; the first time he ran, in 2015, he was knocked out in the primary with 13 percent of the vote.

District 7 (Pioneer Square, Downtown, Queen Anne, Magnolia)

Jim Pugel
He’s a former interim police chief and department veteran who advocated for police reform and harm-reduction strategies (like the successful Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which provides alternatives to prosecution for low-level offenders) during a time when the city was under a federal consent decree for excessive use of force and allegations of racially biased policing. Pugel, who has been endorsed by several prominent police-reform advocates, is the best-known contender in the race so far and a likely frontrunner for this position.

Elizabeth Campbell
Magnolia activist and 2009 mayoral candidate best known for challenging city policies in court. Most recently, Campbell sought to prevent a “tiny house village” homeless encampment in Interbay and to thwart plans for affordable housing at Fort Lawton, near Discovery Park.

Michael George
Senior project manager at commercial real estate firm Kidder Matthews and first-time candidate who is raising a family in downtown Seattle and started the Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle nonprofit several years ago, after his first child was born, to advocate for “family-oriented infrastructure” downtown. He says the city needs to do a better job of supporting the work of the Seattle school district by funding early childhood education and wraparound services for families struggling to stay in the city.

Naveed Jamali
Navy reserve intelligence officer and TV news analyst whose platform includes hiring more police officers, implementing “good government” strategies, and better growth management. Jamali, who lives in Queen Anne, also opposes supervised drug consumption sites.

Andrew Lewis
Lewis, who managed campaigns for former city council member Nick Licata and now works as a deputy city attorney for Seattle, says he would commit to building 5,000 new units of affordable housing in three years and would work to expand and reform the city’s Navigation Teams. Lewis also says he’d advocate for a complete replacement of the unsound Magnolia Bridge and for moving Sound Transit’s planned light rail line to Ballard closer to Magnolia.

Daniela Eng
A Magnolia resident who was “born and raised” in the neighborhood, Eng says she decided to run because “property crime continues to go unaddressed in the city, with small business and law-abiding citizens bearing the cost.”

Isabel Kerner
A Queen Anne resident and former Garfield High School student who is currently suing the Seattle Police Department for allegedly mishandling a police report she filed about an assault she experienced on Capitol Hill. She’s promoting the use of shipping containers as a solution to homelessness


Dozens of Candidates Line Up in First Test of District System: Part 2

This piece originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

This is the second in a series about the Seattle City Council candidates running in the August primary election—the first true test of Seattle’s new district election system. Here’s a quick look at who’s running in Districts 3, 4 and 5. Check back Friday for the update on who’s running in the remaining districts.

Missed part one? Read it here.

District 3 (Capitol Hill, Central District, Montlake, South Lake Union, North Beacon Hill)

Kshama Sawant
Incumbent and member of Socialist Alternative (SA). (Seattle Business magazine contributor Kevin Schofield wrote about the relationship between Sawant and SA here.) Sawant’s challengers will likely zero in on the perception that she is focused on national issues and party-building efforts rather than the concerns of her district. On the council, Sawant has fought for taxes on large businesses (the “head tax,” which the council passed but ultimately overturned), protections for renters such as limitations on move-in costs (which passed), and legislation that “saved” the Showbox by adding the downtown club to the Pike Place Market Historical District, preventing a planned development.

Logan Bowers
Capitol Hill resident and owner of Hashtag Cannabis in Fremont who says he’s running to “bring responsibility and achieve real progress” in the district.

Pat Murakami
Longtime Mount Baker neighborhood activist who challenged citywide Position 9 council member Lorena Gonzalez in 2017 and received 29 percent of the vote.

Beto Yarce
A onetime undocumented immigrant from Mexico and founder of Ventures, a nonprofit that specializes in developing small and immigrant-owned businesses, Yarce has criticized Sawant for being too divisive and not focusing on her district. A member of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Small Business Advisory Council, Yarce supports reducing the business and occupation tax for low-income businesses and has said he would support a version the “head tax,” which would have raised up to $200 million for housing and homeless services, that had business buy-in a detailed spending plan. So far, he is widely considered the front-running challenger.

District 4 (Northeast Seattle)

Ethan Hunter
Hunter is a 19-year-old Seattle Central College student whose platform focuses on higher education and ending the gender and racial pay gaps.

Alex Pedersen
A former aide to former city council member Tim Burgess who went on to become a financial analyst for CBRE Affordable Housing, Pedersen is running on an “accountability” platform. In his neighborhood newsletter, he argued against the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, against the Move Seattle transportation levy, and against a plan to increase density in the University District. Pedersen says he would bring his experience in the private sector to craft “fiscally responsible” solutions to the city’s affordable housing shortfall.

Shaun Scott
Democratic Socialist member and onetime Pramila Jayapal campaign organizer who supports local “eco-taxes” on polluters, wants the city to fund municipal broadband, and wants to allow undocumented immigrants to vote in municipal elections.

Sasha Anderson

A renter in the Roosevelt/Ravenna area who works as the director of a high school mentoring program, Anderson says she’s running to bring her “deep knowledge of consensus building and commitment to social justice to the Seattle City Council.”

Emily Myers
University of Washington PhD. Candidate in pharmacology and organizer with UAW 4121, the postdoc and student employees’ union. Myers says she will bring an “evidence-based” approach to issues as a council member.

District 5 (North Seattle)

Debora Juarez
Incumbent and enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, Juarez is well-known for her almost hypervigilant focus on her district, particularly during the council’s annual budget deliberations. She has fought for the expansion of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which provides alternatives to prosecution for low-level offenders; worked to secure funding for the pedestrian bridge connecting neighborhoods west of I-5 to the new Northgate light rail station; and oversaw KeyArena redevelopment negotiations last year.

John Lombard
Activist with the group Thornton Creek Alliance, an environmental group that has sought the removal of homeless encampments on the grounds that they pollute the North Seattle creek. He says homeowners were left out of the deliberations that led to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which includes higher densities on some land that is currently zoned single-family

Alex Tsimerman
Perennial public commenter who refers to city council members as Nazis (while giving the Nazi salute) and has run unsuccessfully for several local offices.

Ann Davison Sattler
Attorney and former Seattle Supersonics employee who has said she’s running because homelessness has gotten out of control and current laws aren’t being enforced. Sattler recently told Saul Spady, the Dick’s Burgers scion turned conservative-radio DJ, that she would focus on mental health, substance abuse, and cleaning up the streets by ramping up criminal prosecutions.

Dozens of Candidates Line Up in First Test of District System: Part 1

This piece—an early roundup of candidates for the seven open city council seats—originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website; parts 2 and 3 will be out later this week. 

Six years ago, Seattle voters decided they wanted to elect seven of their nine city council members by geographical district, leading to the city’s first district elections in almost 100 years, in 2015.

It was a dramatic change in the way Seattle voters choose their representatives. Switching to districts, supporters argued, meant that candidates would have to reach fewer voters, which would in turn lower the financial barriers to entry and lead to more geographically focused campaigns—and a council more focused on specific neighborhood concerns than citywide issues.

It didn’t quite work out that way. In 2015, most of the “district” candidates were incumbents who were originally elected citywide, and the majority of those incumbents won. (Jean Godden, notably, lost in the primary in an election that ultimately went to District 4 newcomer Rob Johnson, and both Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez—District 1 and District 5, respectively, won in new district seats where no incumbents were running.)

This year is different. Of the seven district races on the ballot, just one district council member who was originally elected citywide—Kshama Sawant, of District 3—will be on the August ballot. Two others from that group—Bruce Harrell (District 2) and Sally Bagshaw (District 7) are not running for reelection, and another, Mike O’Brien (District 6) has not declared his intent but is reportedly trying to recruit someone he can support to step into the race after some less-than-encouraging poll results.

Johnson, meanwhile, is bowing out after just one term. That means that at least three, and possibly four, of the seven districts are truly up for grabs. And nearly every district is in play, either because the seat is open or because the incumbent is embattled. (Lisa Herbold (District 1) and Deborah Juarez (District 5) are widely assumed to be running for reelection, with better-than-even odds to win.)

Here’s a quick look at who’s running in Districts 1, 2 and 3. Check back Thursday and next Monday for an update on who’s running in the remaining districts. The filing deadline for the August 6 primary election is May 17.

District 1 (West Seattle, South Park)

Lisa Herbold
Incumbent; former longtime aide to lefty city council member Nick Licata. Herbold is an idiosyncratic part of the council’s left wing, advocating strongly for renters and against gentrification while supporting policies that preserve single-family zoning and getting deep into the weeds on behalf of little-known West Seattle issues.

Brendan Kolding
Seattle Police Department officer who has sought office unsuccessfully several times before, running against state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon in 2014 and state Sen. Eileen Cody in 2016 (both D-34); also sought appointment to open seat vacated by Tim Burgess in 2017.

Philip Tavel
Video game developer-turned-attorney who ran for this seat in 2015 and finished third in the primary; endorsed that year by The Seattle Times for his refreshing, pragmatic sense of analytical thinking and intellectual curiosity” and his skepticism about local tax levies.

Isaiah T. Willoughby
District 1 resident with a lengthy criminal record whose organizational title on the Seattle elections website is “Promoting Healthy Minds and Spirits.”

District 2 (Southeast Seattle, Georgetown, Chinatown/International District)

Ari Hoffman
Businessman who last year demanded $230,000 from the city for “homeless-related damages” to two North Seattle Jewish cemeteries on behalf of the cemetery board. Hoffman’s platform promotes deregulation, lower taxes, and strict law enforcement against drug users and homeless people who “who have no interest in helping themselves,” according to his campaign website.

Tammy Morales
Morales, a community organizer and member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, came close to beating incumbent Bruce Harrell in 2015. Since then, she has become a vocal member of the Democratic Socialists of America with a platform that highlights racial equity, preventing displacement, and focusing on housing rather than “criminalizing homelessness.”

Phyllis Porter
A longtime safe-streets advocate, former Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board member and leader of Rainier Neighborhood Greenways, Porter organized a protest on Rainier Avenue S. in 2015 that galvanized efforts to improve safety on one of Seattle’s most dangerous streets for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Matthew Perkins
Pioneer Square resident who opposes supervised drug consumption sites, would end funding for homeless housing providers until they submit to city-run audits, and says he will “work to lower property taxes” in the city.

Christopher Peguero
A Seattle City Light employee who is running as a Democratic Socialist, Peguero says his top priority will be “working with community to foster transparency, equity, and cultural accessibility in government.” His platform calls for additional 24/7 low-barrier encampments for people experiencing homelessness, allowing multifamily housing in more of the city and repurposing the King County juvenile justice center instead of building a new jail for youth.

Henry Dennison
Socialist Workers’ Party candidate who, according to the SWP paper The Militant, is a rail worker who “has been active supporting farmworkers in the Skagit Valley who fought and won union recognition and a contract with one of the largest berry growers in the state.”

Council: Smaller Districts Require Larger Staffs

UPDATE on Tuesday, April 26: By an 8-1 vote, the council approved one new staffer for each council member yesterday, with only budget chair Tim Burgess voting “no.” The staffers will be funded this year with approximately $375,000 left over from 2015; the next full year of funding, which Burgess estimated at about half a million dollars (less than my back-of-the-envelope estimate of $1 million, below), will be funded through the budget process in November.
Calling the 33 percent staffing increase a merely “administrative” proposal yesterday, council president Bruce Harrell said the “higher level of expectation on constituent services” under the new district system justified the additional spending.
Freshman council member Lisa Herbold (D1), who staffed former council member Nick Licata for 17 years, added that while requesting more staff for a smaller geographical area (previously, council members served the entire city) might seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense because council members have to be more directly responsive to constituents. “In the past, when a constituent would write to a council member about an issue that was not in that particular council member’s committee’s bailiwick, the council member could refer that constituent inquiry to the council member who was chair of that committee,” Herbold said. “We can’t do that now. … So we’re really doing sort of triage to get the public good answers on many many more issues than we previously have.” Herbold’s fellow freshman council member Deborah Juarez (D5) echoed that sentiment, rattling off 20 or so issues she had to deal with as a representative of North Seattle.
Contacted after the vote yesterday, Burgess pointed to a 2014 city audit of similar-size cities with district systems, including Austin and San Francisco, finding that most district council members elsewhere get by with two or three staffers. And, he noted that when district elections were on the ballot, proponents said it would not result in additional cost to the city–an expense that, he notes, may not be sustainable in thin budget years, which are cyclical and inevitable.

“That’s the primary reason I opposed this: I don’t think it’s sustainable and I don’t think it’s needed,” Burgess told me. “We’re four months into our new district system, and making a significant decision like this based on just four months of experience is not wise. I think that’s why the city auditor’s report of 2014 is so insightful–these are cities that have been doing this for a while, and they recognized that they didn’t need extra staff or in-district offices.”

 Burgess says that when the staffing proposal comes to his committee, he’ll attempt to send the money for council staff back to the general fund or “repurpose it to spend on something else,” like the United Way’s Parent-Child Home Program, which supports childhood literacy for two- and-three-year-olds. Burgess acknowledges, however, that his quixotic push to repurpose the money now is “a losing battle.”
Tomorrow, the city council plans to pass legislation creating positions for nine new legislative assistants, one for each council member, bringing the total number of legislative assistant salaries for each office to four. (Council members can divide up those salaries however they want, for example by hiring multiple part-time aides, but council members’ budgets will increase to add the new full-time equivalent position.)
The reason for the change, according to a staff report, is that council members have more work to do now that they represent districts, instead of the entire city. (This is the first council under the new system, in which seven council members represent geographic districts, and two are elected at large). “The additional
staff support provided by the new positions in this ordinance will be used to address the increased workload resulting from this switch to district elections,” the staff report says.
The legislation doesn’t identify how much money it will cost to hire nine new aides; that will be addressed in the budget process this fall. A quick back-of-the-napkin tally, based on current legislative assistant compensation and benefits (say, $80,000 each plus $40,000 each for benefits), puts the cost of these new positions at roughly a million dollars.
The council will discuss this proposal in its meeting on Monday, where I think they should consider two important questions. First, since district representatives serve a fraction of the population each council member served when all nine seats were elected at large, what justification is there for bumping up staff sizes by a third? Why does representing one-seventh of the population require a larger staff than representing the entire city?
And second, if the point of adding money in the budget for nine new legislative staffers is to deal with the increased workload under the district system, why do the two at-large positions, currently filled by Lorena González and Tim Burgess, also require additional staffers? Why would the people who don’t even represent districts need more staff to deal with districts?
The council will take up the proposal at its full council meeting on Monday at 2pm.

Union, Landlord Spending Contribute to Unprecedented PAC Influence in Local Races

UPDATE: As of Friday afternoon, July 24, the total amount spent by independent expenditure groups on six city council candidates–in order of amount spent, Shannon Braddock, Rob Johnson, Kris Lethin, Debora Juarez, Halei Watkins, and Jon Grant–is $215,720, more than Seattle Ethics and Elections director Wayne Barnett said he had seen in council races during his 11 years at the commission. 

A new independent expenditure group has brought the total amount of IE dollars–spending unlimited by state election law–to nearly $200,000, most of it supporting two candidates, Shannon Braddock in the 1st District and Rob Johnson in the 4th. The outsize expenditures from outside groups puncture the notion that switching to district elections would reduce the influence of moneyed interests over local elections. If anything, reducing the number of voters a district candidate needs to win over has only made it easier for big money to target voters: Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett says “it does seem like with fewer voters to influence, $48,000 might have a larger impact in a district race than it does in a citywide race.”

In addition to business-backed PACs, the unions have started putting money behind their endorsements. According to reports filed with the SEEC today, the Service Employees International Union Local 925–which represents child-care and education workers–just spent around $3,000 doorbelling and distributing literature for Seattle City Council candidates Jon Grant (running for citywide Position 8) and Rob Johnson (running in Northeast Seattle’s District 4).

The two men seem like incongruous picks for a single doorbelling drive. Grant is former head of the Tenants’ Union, a lefty group in line with the union’s working-class interests, while Transportation Choices Coalition director Rob Johnson is a middle-of-the-road liberal with a strong interest in progressive transportation policies. I have a call out to SEIU to find out why they chose to focus on these two candidates in particular, but the union backing definitely contradicts the framing by Johnson’s opponents that he is a shill for developers or in the pocket of big business.

As I first reported last week, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), the Seattle Chamber’s PAC, spent $44,000 on TV ads for Johnson. (They also dropped a similar amount on Shannon Braddock, who’s a frontrunner in the eight-way race in West Seattle’s District 1). In addition, the Rental Housing Association PAC just contributed $10,000 to both People for Shannon and People for Rob, and the Washington Restaurant Association’s Hospitality PAC has contributed $20,000 to the pro-Johnson campaign.

The new IEs are interesting not just politically but because they disprove a central claim by proponents of district elections (which just went into effect this year): The idea that elections by district would push “big money” out of council races. This year so far, various IE campaigns backed by the Chamber, Realtors landlords, hotels, and tribes have collectively given nearly $200,000 to back local candidates, most of that to boost Braddock and Johnson. In the past, according to Barnett, IEs in all local campaigns have totaled just around $212,000, spread over three campaigns in 2007 and 2009.

The Chamber, restaurant, and hotel PAC contributions to Johnson also represent a big blow to Johnson opponent and council incumbent Jean Godden, who has historically enjoyed the support of Seattle business interests. This time, those folks are all-in for Johnson, who currently seems like the leading contender to take Godden’s seat on the council dais in the newly created District 4 position.

Chamber Spends $88,000 on Braddock, Johnson


This post has been updated.

Two new Seattle Chamber of Commerce-funded independent expenditure groups, People for Shannon and People for Rob, have spent $44,000 each on media buys (presumably cable TV ads) for Shannon Braddock​ and Rob Johnson​. The $88,000 total spend comes on top of the $48,000 the national Realtors Association dropped on long-shot North Seattle candidate Kris Kris M. Lethin​ a few days ago. (Read Lethin’s reaction when I told him about that surprise gift here.) Johnson is also, as of 5:00 this evening, the beneficiary of a $20,000 spend by the Washington Restaurant Association PAC.

Additionally, a group calling itself “NW Tribes for Debora,” funded by the Northwest Tribal PAC, has reported spending $15,000 to support Debora Juarez, a frontrunner in North Seattle’s District 5.

The ad buys, both funded by the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), which endorsed both Braddock and Johnson, make one thing abundantly clear: The influence of money in Seattle elections isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting more explicit and more potent.

One argument for district elections was that smaller geographical districts would reduce the need for candidates to raise so much money (in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars) to communicate with voters and get elected. While this is somewhat true for individual candidates (so far, Johnson has raised $77,000 so far and Braddock has raised $59,000, though those numbers are difficult to compare to previous campaigns because of the sheer number of candidates and the unprecedented nature of this election), the independent expenditures more than make up for any fundraising disparity between, say, 2013 and now.

In fact, it’s likely that big IEs like these will become more common under the district system. With fewer eyeballs to purchase, a targeted IE can go further in a district than it could under the previous citywide system, giving moneyed interests more bang for their buck than they ever had trying to influence elections citywide. Seattle’s election laws allow unlimited independent expenditures.

Also worth noting: Both Screen Strategies Media, the East Coast film company that’s doing the ads, and Blue Wave Partners, the fundraising firm associated with both IE groups, are closely affiliated with Mayor Ed Murray. Screen Strategies did several cable TV ads for Murray back in 2013, and Blue Wave is Murray’s longtime fundraising firm. Murray has endorsed Johnson’s opponent, incumbent council member Jean Godden, so it’s interesting to see two firms associated with the mayor doing work for one of Godden’s top opponents.

March Money Madness

Among many other goals (neighborhood representation, “a voice for the people” at City Hall, closer council contact with constituents), one of the aims of district elections, in which every citizen has a council member from their general geographic area, was to reduce the role of money in local politics, by removing some of the barriers to entry that blocked ordinary citizens from running for city council. If candidates have to reach fewer people, the logic went, they shouldn’t have to spend as much money on fancy consultants, citywide mailings, and TV, radio, and print ads.

Did it work? With the filing deadline still more than a month away, it’s obviously too soon to say whether money will cease being the defining characteristic of successful council candidates, but it is clear that in races where incumbents are seeking reelection, challengers are finding it much harder to woo contributors. Chalk that up to the power of incumbency or the desire for some institutional knowledge on a council that will soon be filled with first-timers and political novices.

What’s also clear is that district elections have lowered the barriers to entry at least somewhat: Four years ago, when five incumbents were up for reelection, they drew a total of eight challengers. This year, six council incumbents (excluding the three open seats) have drawn 14 challengers.

(The total often cited as proof that districts shake up the system—40 candidates running in all—ignores the fact that there are open seats, although three of those seats arguably might not be open if it weren’t for district elections.)

Overall, the candidates, including both challengers and incumbents, are generally on par with where comparable contenders were at this time four years ago

I’ll go district by district, look at the money so far, and say what I think the numbers might indicate at this early stage. I’ll point out in advance that I’ve excluded candidates who aren’t likely to go far or raise much money; Alex Tsimerman fans, you can stop reading now.

In District 1, West Seattle, the hasty departure of three-term incumbent Tom Rasmussen has created a vacuum that ten candidates (previously 11) have volunteered to fill, more than a couple of them credible.

Screen shot 2015-04-13 at 3.59.32 PM
West Seattle’s District 1 has drawn 10 candidates … so far.

Shannon Braddock, a legislative aide to West Seattle’s representative on the King County Council, Joe McDermott, brought in $10,880 this month, for a total raised of $19,993, with $8,103 on hand. Lisa Herbold (who—full disclosure—is a longtime friend whom I’m supporting) brought in a comparable $10,324, for a total of $23,273 on hand. Brianna Thomas, a lefty housing advocate who worked on the $15 minimum wage campaign in SeaTac, raised $5,111 in March for a total of $16,034, with $11,576 on hand. And Charles (Chaz) Redmond, the first candidate to declare his intentions, back in late 2013), raised just $900 in March, for a total of $4,134 with $2,679 on hand.

Herbold and Braddock seem like the top contenders in this race, now that business owner Dave Montoure—owner of the West 5 bar and opponent of the $15 minimum—has dropped out.

In Southeast Seattle’s second district, incumbent Bruce Harrell has, as expected, far outraised challenger Tammy Morales, a food-systems advocate and principal at Urban Food Link. This past month, Harrell brought in $17,565, for a total of $96,421 raised with $75,662 on hand. In comparison, Morales raised $4,323 in March, for a total of $28,653 but with just $4,115 on hand. For Morales, success will be a strong showing against fundraising juggernaut Harrell, positioning her to run for an open seat in the future.

Screen shot 2015-04-13 at 4.02.12 PM
In Seattle’s District 3, three are challenging popular incumbent Kshama Sawant.

Over in Capitol Hill and central Seattle’s District 3, the realm of internationally popular Socialist council member Kshama Sawant, challenger Pamela Banks, formerly of the Urban League, raised $17,785 in March—her first month of fundraising—and has $6,460 on hand. Fellow challenger Rod Hearne, former director of the gay-rights group Equal Rights Washington, brought in $9,180 for a total of $30,295, with $14,536 on hand, while self-proclaimed women’s rights advocate Morgan Beach raised $2,587 in March, for a total of $8,406 with $5,340 on hand.

Incumbent Sawant, meanwhile, brought in more money than any of her challengers—$26,998, for a total of $51,329 with $7,677 on hand. Expect Banks to quickly catch up on Sawant in the money race, but remember that even big spending and an endorsement from Sawant’s turncoat colleague Harrell may not be enough to combat Sawant’s cult of personality.

Up in Northeast Seattle’s District 4, incumbent Jean Godden continue to spend money as fast as she raised it, bringing in $15,329 for a total of $63,152, but with just $21,451 on hand. (This month alone, more than $5,100 went to consultant Cathy Allen’s Connections Group, including $3,000 for consulting and thousands more for miscellaneous expenses. Godden spent another $2,000 on a fundraising consultant, McKenna Hartman).

Challenger Rob Johnson, longtime director of Transportation Choices Coalition, raised a comparatively meager $7,901, for a total of $38,293, but had almost as much as Godden—$18,497—on hand. Democratic Party activist and parks advocate Michael Maddux brought in $2,605 for a total of $9,845, with $5,619 on hand.

Further north in District 5, the only district in which no sitting city council members lives, no candidate has massively outraised any other (making the case, I suppose, that districts suppress the influence of money in this one, very specific, instance), four of the seven candidates raised any significant amount of cash.

Sandy Brown, former director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, raised $7,015 this month for a total of $42,768 with $8,846 on hand. Former mayor Norm Rice’s son, Port of Seattle manager Mian Rice, raised $9,191 in March, for a total of $35,340 with $9,701 on hand. Low-income housing advocate Mercedes Elizalde, meanwhile, raised just $381 this month, for a total of $3,106 with $2,975 on hand; and Planned Parenthood organizer Halei Watkins had the unlucky distinction of being the only person in the race (and one of just a few in all nine races) with a negative balance: $1,770 raised in March, for a total of $9,704 raised, and negative $1,535 on hand.

Mike O’Brien, the incumbent council member and Fremont resident now running in District 6, started raising money in earnest this month after a quiet January and February, raising $21,805 in March to bring his total to $23,814, with $19,702 on hand. His opponent, City Neighborhood Council co-chair Catherine Weatbrook, brought in $8,641, for a total of $9,903, with $6,342 on hand.

In the downtown-to-Magnolia seventh district, council incumbent Sally Bagshaw continues, inexplicably, to draw no opponents, but also continues to raise money at a slow but respectable pace. In March, the downtown resident raised $$8,796, for a total of $52,247, with $24,043 on hand.

In the first of the two citywide council seats, council incumbent Tim Burgess, a formidable fundraiser in his previous, at-large, races, brought in $36,004 this month—more than any other candidate in any race—for  total of $115,449, with a whopping $96,493 on hand. (Last time, when he ran at large and did not have a credible opponent, Burgess raised $253,964.) Tenants Union director Jonathan Grant, who is running on an affordable-housing platform, raised a fraction of Burgess’ haul, bringing in $2,485 for a total of $21,127 with $19,358 on hand. John Persak, a lefty longshoreman’s union member, raised $3,160 for a total of $20,690, with $16,024 on hand, and Long Winters frontman John Roderick, who just announced his candidacy early this month, had raised a nominal $300, for a total of $1,000 with $209 on hand.

Finally, in the completely open race for the second at-large seat nine (council member Sally Clark withdrew from the race and subsequently resigned from the council), Mayor Ed Murray’s legal counsel, Lorena Gonzalez, raised more than her two leading opponents, though both will likely give her a run for her money. In March, Gonzalez raised $21,003, for a total of $42,108 with $36,108 on hand, while neighborhood gadfly and density opponent Bill Bradburd raised $13,175 for a total of $36,878, with a very competitive $32,268 on hand. EDITED TO ADD: And James Keblas, former director of the city’s office of film and music, has dropped out of the race after just two weeks in it.

None of those numbers count liabilities (debts and obligations that candidates can either repay or forgive by the end of their campaigns), and the candidate rankings are obviously subject to change in the coming months. New candidates may emerge before the May 15 filing deadline, throwing off the dynamics of still-fluid races, and some single-issue candidates may hit their natural fundraising limit. Stay tuned; we still have four months to go before the first city Election Day.