The Tall Order Facing Seattle’s New City Council

We have a bumper crop of City Council candidates this year, notes Knute Berger. Are they likely to fare better than the current incumbents in solving the city’s problems?

By Knute Berger May 29, 2019


This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

I am looking at a group photo of the Seattle City Council in 2014, just before district elections were implemented in 2015. Of the nine council members, all elected as at-large members, there are only four who are still on the council today: Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant. Three of those four incumbents are not running for reelection in 2019. From an election campaign standpoint, Sawant is the last one standing. Who would have thought that the City Council’s most controversial and polarizing figure would be the only one competing in a political version of the reality-TV game Survivor?

As this year’s City Council races heat up (the primary is August 6, the general election is November 5), we can marvel at some of the changes of the past four years. Districts, for example, were brought back to Seattle City Council elections in 2015 after a 104-year absence. Seattle voters did away with the districts—then called wards—in 1911 because they feared what was then called “Hinky Dink” politics, which was shorthand for corrupt Chicago-style ward politics and politicians, like that city’s infamous Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who, in the late 19th century, came to personify the worst of powerful urban ward bosses. In Seattle, council members who were elected to represent the entire city were seen as less likely to be corrupted, people who would consider all residents of the city as their constituency. Getting rid of districts was a progressive reform.

According to news accounts, proponents of reinstating district representation wanted to give candidates a chance to run for office with an affordable grassroots campaign, and to promote more diversity in council elections. In other words, a century later, districts were being seen as progressive reform. Across the political spectrum, people in Seattle believed that City Hall was too beholden to big money and downtown interests (citywide campaigns are expensive). Plus, districts would make specific council members accountable to their local constituency. So the voters brought districts back in 2013; seven districts seats were created, and two citywide seats were retained. The first district election was in 2015.

 Seattle also instituted a “Democracy Voucher” program that allows people to donate as much as $100 in city money to candidates who choose to finance their campaign through the voucher program. Public voucher funds earmarked for this year’s council races: $4.2 million.

In 2019, all seven district seats are up for the vote; the two citywide seats are not. As of this writing in early spring, the races have attracted nearly 50 council candidates. Council turnover will be significant given that four incumbents are not seeking reelection.

All this change brings many new faces to the council, but will it fundamentally change this governing body? Seattle is at a very interesting moment, having ridden a boom and an infrastructure extravaganza: the downtown toll tunnel, ongoing waterfront makeover, demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, expansion of Link light rail, the State Route 520 expansion through the Montlake neighborhood to Interstate 5, the Washington State Convention Center expansion, to name a few of these projects. If we are in the “period of maximum constraint” regarding transportation, we have been in a period of maximum nonrestraint as far as development goes.

All that growth and it hasn’t solved many of our biggest challenges, and in some cases, it’s exacerbated them. Homelessness is terrible, housing affordability is elusive, traffic—even before our current “maximum constraint”—snarls our streets, our orcas are dying off, and the perception that political power is still unbalanced between the people and City Hall persists. And the affluence that has come with growth has led to gentrification, displacement and the furthering of income inequality.

Implementation of a long-debated major “upzone” of 27 neighborhood hubs (a plan approved by the City Council in March) is the great hope for creating more affordable housing through increased density and developer fees for building low-income units, but the plan has inflamed tensions in many neighborhoods, especially among homeowners. This issue has not been resolved by district representation or vouchers. It may come to a boil in some districts.

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