By Erica C. Barnett
A majority of Seattle’s primary election voters cast their votes Tuesday night for city council candidates who favor encampment sweeps, claim they’ll improve public safety by hiring hundreds of cops, and support arresting people for drug possession and public use.
The results are a proxy endorsement for the Harrell Administration—and a sign of how difficult it may be for progressives to maintain voices on the council who won’t rubber-stamp the mayor’s agenda. Unless the left-leaning underdog candidates who did come through—including experienced urbanist Alex Hudson in District 3—can overcome the odds, Harrell’s popular sweeps agenda could soon face minimal council opposition.
Although the most progressive candidate received a plurality of votes in several races—urbanist Ron Davis, for example, finished the night with 41 percent in Northeast Seattle’s District 4—that result was usually offset by a group of candidates splitting the conservative/centrist vote.
What this means for November is that nearly every council race will feature a progressive or progressive-ish candidate fighting for votes against a centrist candidate who didn’t command a majority in the primary but will scoop up all the more conservative votes when just two candidates are on the ballot.
And unlike progressives, the latter group will be lavishly funded; independent expenditure campaigns backed by big business and real estate interests have already spent tens of thousands of dollars on misleading ads supporting Harrell Administration staffer Maritza Rivera in District 4 and Meta attorney Rob Saka in District 1 (West Seattle), a template that helped propel one-term District 4 Councilmember Alex Pedersen to victory in 2019. (In notable contrast to similar candidates, Saka got just 25 percent of the vote despite relentlessly parroting Harrell-adjacent talking points.)
This assessment comes with a couple of significant caveats. So far, King County Elections has only counted the ballots of about 23 percent of eligible voters, a total that will continue to rise as later—generally more progressive—ballots are counted. In 2019, the last time all seven districted council seats were up for grabs, about 40 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the primary.
Although Lewis did an immediate about-face and said he would support criminalizing drugs at the local level, the Seattle Times and Lewis’ opponents have treated the initial vote as a critical litmus test, putting Lewis on the back foot against his more conservative opponent, Bob Kettle.
The other thing to keep in mind when reading results is that people who vote in August, a time when many voters are out of town or not paying attention to local elections, trend more conservative than the larger group that votes in November.
Despite these caveats, the vote often skewed conservative even in races where the most progressive candidate took first place. Take Davis, who had a strong lead against runner-up Rivera last night with 41 percent of the vote. Rivera, the candidate of choice for Seattle’s business establishment, had a weak showing with 34 percent, but the second and third runners-up, Republican George Artem and two-time candidate Kenneth Wilson, shared a combined 25 percent (most of that, 23 percent, coming from Wilson)—a 59 percent majority for a centrist-to-conservative vision.
Already, Davis seems to be walking back some of his early progressive pronouncements; in a recent campaign mailer, he echoed Rivera’s promise to reduce 911 response times to five minutes, an utterly unrealistic goal that goes far beyond the police department’s own seven-minute goal.
District 5 (North Seattle) offers another good example. Thanks in part to an endorsement from the Stranger, equity consultant Christiana Obeysumner is currently defeating community advocate Nilu Jenks for second place by 21 to 19 percent. That puts former judge Cathy Moore in the lead with a weak 32 percent that could grow significantly if voters fail to respond to Obeysumner’s lefty housing justice agenda.
And even in the district that has repeatedly elected socialist Kshama Sawant, District 3 (Central District, Capitol Hill), progressive former Transportation Choices Coalition director Alex Hudson trailed Harrell-endorsed candidate Joy Hollingsworth, 40 to 32 percent.
Incumbents will face an uphill battle, too, including one—District 7 candidate Andrew Lewis—who has been pilloried by opponents over a single vote, against a drug criminalization bill sought by City Attorney Ann Davison. Although Lewis did an immediate about-face and said he would support the bill, the Seattle Times and Lewis’ opponents have treated the initial vote as a critical litmus test, putting Lewis on the back foot against opponent Bob Kettle, a Navy veteran who has focused on Lewis’ 2020 support for police defunding, who got 33 percent of the vote Tuesday night to Lewis’ 41 percent. On its own, a result in the low 40s is alarming for an incumbent, and Kettle will scoop up votes from people who voted for SPD officer Aaron Marshall and Piroshky Piroshky owner Olga Sagan, a favorite of the “Seattle Is Dying” crowd. Together, those three candidates currently share 54 percent of the vote.
In District 2, Morales is looking a little stronger against Chinatown-International District neighborhood advocate Woo, who led the battle against an expansion of a Salvation Army shelter in SoDo, a few blocks from the CID. As of Tuesday, Morales had 48 percent to Woo’s 45.
Dan Strauss, in District 6 (Northwest Seattle), is the only incumbent who ended election night with more than 50 percent, to former Red Door bar owner Pete Hanning’s surprisingly weak showing of 29 percent. Earlier this year, Strauss’ district shifted boundaries to include wealthy, conservative west Magnolia, which used to be in Lewis’ district; Strauss’ pitch to voters has shifted too, as he’s disavowed his previous support for reducing police funding and replacing some cops with civilian first responders.
Meanwhile, a similar scenario is playing out in Burien, where incumbent Cydney Moore is currently trailing two challengers, Linda Akey and Rut Perez-Studer. Moore has been a vocal supporter of people living unsheltered in the city, telling residents of an encampment the city swept earlier this year about another location where they were legally allowed and voting to accept funding from King County for a temporary shelter in the city. Akey is a frequent presence at Burien council meetings, arguing that the council needs to ban encampments and punish “disruptive behaviors” like drinking and using drugs in public. As of Tuesday, Moore had 26 percent to Akey’s 32 percent and Perez-Studer’s 28 percent.
Votes will continue to roll in over the next few days, with results landing on the county elections page around 4:00 every day.