In 2021, Seattle elected City Council Member Sara Nelson, who fights on behalf of the average NextDoor user, landlords, and CEOs.
In her first two years, Nelson constantly concerned-trolled her colleagues, proposed bad amendment after bad amendment, and allied with Mayor Bruce Harrell to pass her most nefarious pet project: utterly useless hiring bonuses for cops. In private, some council members have called her “the Kshama Sawant of the Right,” which is a cutting insult coming from middle-of-the-road Democrats.
Now, with seven seats up for reelection in two weeks, Nelson holds a powerful position as the only council member guaranteed to survive another year. She and the Mayor allegedly recruited and certainly endorsed the most conservative candidates in every race, with the exception of the Mayor backing incumbent Council Member Dan Strauss in District 6. Given how much money big business poured into those candidates' campaigns, and given how little labor PACs have raised to even the playing field, Seattle may elect a council full of Nelsons, marking a huge swing to the right.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well….
Wrong on Renters' Rights
If voters elect Rob Saka in D1, Tanya Woo in D2, Joy Hollingsworth in D3, Maritza Rivera in D4, Cathy Moore in D5, Pete Hanning in D6, and Bob Kettle in D7, then the body would become little more than the landlord lobby that paid for their campaigns.
While the current council certainly watered-down its fair share of tenant protections, a few champions for renters—particularly Council Members Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold, and Tammy Morales—delivered wins that may not have happened under more conservative iterations of the Seattle City Council.
Tanya Moore from Be:Seattle, a nonprofit that lobbies the City on behalf of renters, said a conservative council would likely mean uphill battles for new renter protections and reduced funding to enforce current one, undercutting the struggles for a winter eviction moratorium, caps on late fees, and many other laws.
Renters saw how Nelson reacted to Sawant’s proposal to limit rental late fees at $10 earlier this year. Despite all the evidence advocates compiled to prove that late fees do nothing but punish already struggling renters, she still put up a fight for the landed gentry. If conservatives had one more vote in that fight, then she would have succeeded.
The most likely allies for Nelson’s pro-landlord agenda may be District 1 candidate Rob Saka and District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera, who both attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending from notorious Trump donors, CEOs, and corporate landlords.
Just Slap Some Green Paint on It
Ben Jones, a spokesperson for 350 Seattle, said environmental advocates already butt heads with the Mayor. Those headaches would only get worse if he and Nelson bring their friends to City Hall.
Most recently, 350 Seattle has focused on pressuring the Mayor to stop dragging his feet and implement first-of-its-kind legislation that would limit harmful emissions from buildings. Harrell promised to start up the new building emission performance standards (BEPS) in June, but Jones said advocates fear he plans to kill the already water-down legislation. Earlier this fall, Harrell’s office said they remain “committed” to the BEPS policy.
The Mayor’s inaction, while frustrating, makes sense to organizers. After all, the real estate industry, which opposes the proposal, paid for more than half of his campaign, buying an outsized influence in City Hall. The Mayor also received direct marching orders in a joint letter from the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Seattle Association, and the Commercial Real Estate Development Association (NAIPO) asking him to shut down the BEPS legislation so that big business can “recover” from the pandemic.
If the doomsday slate wins the election, Jones expects the City to prioritize even more the profits of big business over efforts to chip away at the climate catastrophe.
Please, Sir, a Crumb of Housing
The next City Council will vote on the comprehensive plan, which determines how much the City can grow over the next decade. City leaders severely and deliberately underprepared in the 1990s, leaving Seattle with too few homes to accommodate new residents, which produced the housing crisis we see today.
When it comes to density, council conservatives tend to take one of two forms. There are council members like Alex Pedersen, a standard NIMBY who will stand with wealthy neighborhood councils to stop apartment buildings. Then there are conservatives like Mayor Harrell, who only want to “cut red tape” so developers can more easily build and make money in concentrated pockets of the city but still maintain the "character" of extant single-family neighborhoods.
Harrell types will likely support the comprehensive plan known as Alternative 5. Though that plan amounts to the most ambitious one ever produced by the City, urbanists and housing advocates argue that it does not go nearly far enough.
City studies say Alternative 5 would allow for about 120,000 new units by 2044. To keep pace with the last ten years of housing growth, which only accommodated half of the new population growth during that same period, zoning would need to allow for the construction of 160,000 units, according to The Urbanist.
Alternative 6, a somewhat nebulous community-driven proposal that the City declined to study, seeks to add 200,000 units of housing. Unlike Alternative 5, the plan would spread that growth across the City rather than rely on the “urban village” model, which concentrates growth in specific areas in a way that some argue mimics redlining and racial covenants.
Council Members Teresa Mosqueda and Morales called on the City to study Alternative 6 to no avail. But incoming council members could push the issue again. According to questionnaires from The Urbanist, Maren Costa in D1, Morales in D2, Alex Hudson in D3, Ron Davis in D4, and ChrisTiana ObeySumner in D5 prefer Alternative 6. Cathy Moore in D5 and incumbent Andrew Lewis in D7 both said they prefer Alternative 5, but they think the City should study the grassroots option.
On the other hand, Saka in D1 told KUOW he would “maybe” support building more housing in every neighborhood, making him the only respondent to say anything but “yes” in that survey. Woo in D2 told The Stranger she supports “down-zones” in some areas. Hollingsworth in D3 once tried to stop development along a major arterial. Rivera in D4 said she would not support eliminating single-family zoning and preferred gradual growth to maintain the “character” of neighborhoods. Strauss in D6 won’t take a stance on the Comprehensive Plan despite leading the discussion as chair of the City’s land use committee. Bob Kettle in D7 sits on the Queen Anne Community Council, which fought against backyard cottages.
In the face of a severe housing shortage, urbanists argue we cannot fuck up zoning with NIMBY bullshit again.
Working for the Bosses
Joelle Craft, an organizer with Working Washington, a statewide organization that pushes pro-labor policy, has seen firsthand how happily conservative council members, led by Nelson, will betray their working class constituents.
Last year, Nelson surprised Working Washington and her own council colleagues with a slew of amendments watering down a bill to guarantee a minimum wage for gig workers as part of the "PayUp" package. Lewis, a sponsor of PayUp, cast the deciding vote to gut the policy, leaving out countless "marketplace" workers from the minimum wage ordinance and future PayUp-branded bills.
Craft, who works at Rover as a "marketplace" worker, fell victim to the council’s decision to gut the bill, and she's worried that the workers that the council did include will too if voters fill City Hall with a bunch of Nelsons.
Since big businesses such as GrubHub will not follow the rules if they can get away with it, Working Washington wants to add a 10-cent fee on gig economy orders to pay for the Office of Labor Standards to enforce the new rules. Craft said that Working Washington feels the pressure to get that fee on the books before the election because there's no way it would pass under a council full of corporate shills led by Mayor Harrell, who is not the biggest fan of the Office of Labor Standards.
With a conservative majority on council, Craft thinks advocates would need to spend more time defending the rights workers already won in Seattle, limiting their ability to pass new, much-needed legislation or to include workers such as herself in existing policy.
A Kiss on the Forehead for Every Cop
Well, some “workers” won’t need nearly as much advocacy under a conservative majority.
BJ Last, a Solidarity Budget organizer, said the City could cozy up even closer to cops if Mayor Harrell and Nelson secure a council majority–a process that’s already started.
A more conservative council would likely continue slow-rolling popular alternatives to cops and show its love for the Seattle Police Department by maintaining and/or expanding hiring bonuses. Though a study of that hiring incentives policy produced inconclusive results, last year Nelson and the Mayor joined forces again to win $30,000 bonuses for lateral hires and $7,500 bonuses for new recruits. The bonuses have apparently done little if anything, as SPD continues to fall short of quarterly hiring goals, perhaps because the force faces a national staffing shortage, and a bonus at hiring does nothing to keep existing employees.
The candidates most likely to continue supporting that kind of wasteful spending on a doomed quest to hire 1,400 cops at the expense of funding for alternatives and social services include the ones who the Mayor and Nelson endorsed. The Mayor endorsed Saka in D1, Hollingsworth in D3, Rivera in D4, Moore in D5, and Strauss in D6, though Hanning in D6 would probably support cops at about the same level as Strauss. Nelson joined Harrell in supporting Saka and Rivera, and she also endorsed Woo in D2 and Kettle in D7.
An "Injustice" of Nelsons
All these issues that advocates care about rely on revenue. The City needs money to enforce its labor laws and its renters protections, to set up the new social housing developer and pay for affordable housing, to execute Green New Deal proposals, and to reimagine community safety. But with a looming budget deficit of almost half a billion dollars, the City won’t be able to pay for any of that without new revenue.
Costa in D1, Morales in D2, Davis in D4, ObeySumner in D5, and Strauss in D6 represent the strongest supporters on the ballot for new progressive revenue.
If Seattle votes in a council full of Nelson wannabes and Mayoral stooges, consider that the death knell for any effort to make our tax system fairer. Earlier this month, the Mayor tried to force a conversation about turning the City’s payroll tax–which the council earmarked for affordable housing, Green New Deal priorities, and economic development–into a permanent slush fund, a quarter of which already goes to the cops.
Harrell’s move shows his allegiance to big business, who want to avoid new taxes on the wealthy and even pause existing ones. This time, Council Member Mosqueda intercepted, but she looks likely to win her bid to move up to the King County Council. Without strong advocates for more revenue on council, austerity will reign and jeopardize important programs.
With all these issues at stake, Jones from 350 Seattle said that if you call a group of crows a “murder” and a group of fish a “school,” we should call a plurality of Nelsons an “injustice.” Your vote on November 7 can help avoid an already disappointing council from becoming much, much worse.