The November 3 election, if last night’s results hold, solidified the Seattle establishment, represented a modest and promising, though not unprecedented, increase in diversity on the city council, and proved that Seattle voters are willing to invest (not show their “generosity,” as one longtime local pundit grumbled) real money to maintain and upgrade our transportation system. It was a bad night, as usual, for my predictive capabilities (I was convinced Move Seattle would end the night a couple of points behind, and squeak through in later vote counts as more tax-happy liberal late votes were tallied), and for boosters of district elections, who expected less money and more non-“establishment” candidates in the election and got the exact opposite on both counts. And then there was former Tenants Union director and HALA antagonist Jon Grant, the great hope for those who hoped to establish a Sawant Bloc on the council, who still hasn’t conceded but was, as of tonight’s count, trailing council incumbent Tim Burgess by more than 15 points.
Here’s a look at some of the political players and phenomena that helped shape last night’s results.
The “business establishment“–code for the developers that are changing the face of the city and, some claim, driving up rents for ordinary people–can declare victory in at least six (and possibly seven) of the nine races, as a cautiously worded but victorious statement from Chamber president Maud Daudon last night attests. The Chamber endorsed Shannon Braddock, whose race against longtime Nick Licata aide Lisa Herbold is still very much up in the air, as well as Urban League CEO Pam Banks, who lost to popular Socialist Kshama Sawant in the 3rd. The Chamber issued no endorsement in District 6, where increasingly anti-development council incumbent Mike O’Brien was challenged unsuccessfully by neighborhood activist and Ballard encampment opponent Catherine Weatbrook. If Braddock maintains her lead (the 7:00pm, November 4 vote drop has Braddock at 52.23 percent to Herbold’s 47.23 percent, which is a wide but not insurmountable margin), the Chamber will effectively be 7 for 2–hardly the ideological shakeup districts opponents expected when they voted to upend the old at-large system back in 2012.
Which brings us to the question of Kshama’s coattails. As far back as the primary, sagging candidates attempted to latch on to the popular incumbent by parroting her views on rent control or appearing in the background at her frequent press conferences at City Hall. These sometimes cringeworthy efforts didn’t pay off for Jon Grant in Position 8, Bill Bradburd in Position 9, Tammy Morales in District 2, or Michael Maddux in District 4. All four candidates signed on when Sawant rallied her troops around legally dubious proposals for a “millionaires’ tax” and rent control, and against the nearly unanimous recommendations of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee, but none managed to “Me, too” themselves into office. It may be that Sawant is a phenomenon unto herself, and that her cult of personality, rather than an upswelling of support for the Socialist Alternative agenda, is the reason she (and not Jon Grant) is idealistic young renters’ candidate of choice.
District elections were supposed to mean big changes for Seattle, lowering the bar for entry to give obscure or neighborhood-based candidates a chance to challenge the established order on the council. Although several candidates, such as North Seattle’s Debora Juarez, said they wouldn’t have run if not for district elections, money (and, in races such as Juarez’s, money from outside the district) played a bigger role in this election than ever. This year saw unprecedented independent expenditures in many individual races (Shannon Braddock, Debora Juarez) and unprecedented plain old spending in others (Kshama Sawant). Partly because of all that money, and despite district backers’ insistence that neighborhood-based elections would elect leaders with fresh new perspectives, the “establishment” candidates and incumbents generally prevailed. Meanwhile, the candidates who raised traditional “neighborhood” specters–that homeless encampments would destroy property values, or that development is ruining Seattle’s prewar Craftsman character–didn’t convince voters to support their parochial self-interest over the concerns of the city as a whole.
But in general, if district elections proved one thing, it’s that you can’t get big money out of politics. This year’s election offered even more concrete evidence of that eternal truth, as Honest Elections Seattle raised unprecedented money, much of it from untraceable out-of-town sources, to back a campaign that promised, without a trace of irony, to “Get Big Money Out of Elections!” Yes, yes, it takes money to win elections, and sometimes you have to join ’em in order to beat ’em, but the larger problem here is that even with the modest reforms included in Initiative 122, “big money” will never be “out of politics” until super-PACs can no longer dominate elections with unlimited contributions of unknown provenance. Water finds its level, and any restrictions the city places on local elections ($500 contribution limits; no contributions by big city contractors) are going to have only limited impact until we seal the holes created by that ruling. Honest Elections will probably marginally improve campaign finance in Seattle (that’s why I voted for it), but it won’t make elections honest.
Move Seattle’s decisive victory–against all wagers, if the crowd of nervous tipplers at the party for the transportation levy was any indication–was a victory for several high-pro people, and one future initiative. The levy’s first, and most obvious, political beneficiary was Mayor Ed Murray, an unparalleled dealmaker who managed, unlike his predecessor Mike McGinn, to pass a large, somewhat unfocused transportation levy despite a massive campaign (including relentless negative coverage and editorials from the anti-tax Seattle Times) against the measure. The second was Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, a recent transplant who said last night that he had “no idea” how the levy would turn out but who had to know that his future in Seattle was riding, to some extent, on the outcome. And the third was Transportation Choices Coalition director Shefali Ranganathan, who played a key role in the campaign and who–educated guess–is the likely heir to current TCC director Rob Johnson, who conveniently happened to win his own race last night for council district 4.
Oh, and the final winner? Sound Transit, as last night’s vote once again proved Seattle’s appetite for big transportation levies. Sound Transit 3 will be on the ballot in exactly one year; the size and ambition of that measure will be determined, in part, by whether the Sound Transit board believes the region will vote to increase their taxes if those taxes pay for tangible, on-the-ground transportation improvements. Last night, in Seattle at least, the voters said yes.