I’ve spent the last seven weeks hanging out with people running for Seattle’s new city council districts. Those races are filled with candidates whose energy is largely being spent on mundane and often ignored issues: potholes, sidewalks, storm-water runoff. After all, giving attention to these issues was one of the main reasons for switching to district elections.
But two seats on the nine-member city council will remain citywide positions, and those campaigns are drawing out bigger ideas about how the city should grow and what we should be asking of our politicians. Nowhere is this happening in a more dramatic fashion than in the race to unseat incumbent Council President Tim Burgess. Let's take a look.
John Roderick knows he's not supposed to be running for city council. Lawyers, activists, government nerds—those are the people who run for local office. Not artists. But Roderick, former frontman of indie rock band the Long Winters, is deliberately playing his cards as an outsider to try to unseat one of the most powerful politicians in Seattle.
Part of the reason Roderick believes this is possible is because of the new districting system. With only two citywide seats left on the council, those spots are now “a chance for there to be somebody advocating for kind of a bigger picture, a broader scope,” Roderick told me when he launched his campaign in April. He sees Burgess as an example of the kind of incrementalism and lack of vision that's holding Seattle back.
Roderick has racked up an impressive fundraising haul and an even more impressive number of campaign contributors—more than 1,000, second only to Kshama Sawant. He's been endorsed by former mayor Mike McGinn and the Sierra Club. That group predicts he'll bring "visionary yet practical leadership to shake the city council out of its climate complacency."
He's also stumbled. Roderick can come off as an indecisive Sally Clark redux when he's unfamiliar or noncommittal on certain issues, particularly housing policy. Roderick says that's not a mistake, but politically useful open-mindedness. Roderick says voters should be asking, "Would I want to negotiate with this person? Do I believe I could find common ground with this person on something I disagree with them on?"
"That is harder to test," Roderick says, "but much more important than, 'Do we agree 100 percent with this person?'"
Roderick articulates his candidacy in a way that is fundamentally different from any of the other 40-plus candidates in this year's election. He speaks broadly about the need for more imagination in city government and he's openly frustrated with the process of getting elected. Forums and endorsement interviews that ask for one- or two-minute answers to complex questions about issues like housing affordability and transportation encourage political insiders who can commit a script to memory and appear predictable, Roderick says.
"Everybody wants to reform the political process," Roderick continues. "Then when it comes down to doing it, all of a sudden everyone's a pragmatist and a realist and then they re-impanel the same group of people and they spend four more years kvetching about how we should reform the political process. One of the best ways to reform the political process is to really change those presuppositions, to change the playbook."
What exactly this means on the ground remains unclear. Roderick says he's now comfortable in the realm of city policy, but he's still asking voters—and the whole political process—to assess him more on vision and character than on specific policies. If Roderick makes it through the general election, vision and character, more than policy differences, will be the foil to the fiercely on-message Burgess machine.
"Tim Burgess has done a great job doing what the people of Seattle have asked him to do," Roderick says. "It’s the people of Seattle that need to ask more of their elected officials, and that requires that they take a little bit of a risk. You don’t get to ask more of your public officials and then also have them be exactly as predictable as they have in the past."
In contrast to Roderick's calls for negotiation, Jon Grant sees a city divided and a council that should be more willing to openly take sides.
Grant is not a socialist and he hasn't been formally endorsed by Sawant, but his rhetoric and policies often line up with hers, and he's likely to be her ally in trying to pull the council leftward if elected. And like Sawant, Grant wants blood from the city's developers.
As a member of the mayor's housing affordability committee (HALA), Grant criticized the group early on for "a real lack of urgency," then said he didn't think rent control (which he supports) was given enough consideration in the committee. When it came time for the committee to release its report, he released his own saying the group should have gone further.
Grant is the former head of the Tenants Union of Washington State, and says in that role he became comfortable fighting the city's monied interests on behalf of tenants facing eviction or rent increases. (One ongoing case he's a part of accuses the city of giving developers preferential treatment by extending their permits.) Grant says his experience applies to issues across the city, including police and campaign-finance reform.
"At the citywide level, you cannot have someone who just keeps the seat warm," Grant says. "I have proven that I'm not just a housing advocate. I'm a fighter."
Grant's experience on tenants' issues and his calls for policies like rent control and higher fees on developers have put him at odds with Burgess, Roderick, and the city's supply-side-focused urbanists. Among the buildings Grant has worked to preserve as affordable housing is a complex in Ballard formerly known as the Lockhaven, where rents were between $650 and $1,050 and then increased to $1,700 to $1,900. Tenants engaged in a lengthy legal battle with developer John Goodman and took to the street. But they lost. The building is now called the "Cadence." It advertises a game room and fitness center, and rents range from $1,500 to $2,400.
Grant believes this is a case study in what's happening all over the city and why he supports policies that promote preservation of current housing instead of just development of new housing. Among his proposals: rent stabilization to limit rent increases and giving the city the right of first refusal to buy buildings like the Lockhaven before they go to the private market.
"Roger Valdez and the Josh Feits of the world—the urbanists—would say you can’t have rent control because it hurts supply and that’s why it’s a bad thing," Grant says, referring to the developer lobbyist and the longtime local journalist. "Well, did we get greater density at the Lockhaven? Did we get more supply? No, people’s rents just tripled. How is that good for the city?"
Near the Lockhaven sits Goodman's private marina: the Golden Tides.
"I don’t care that John Goodman’s wealthy," Grant says as we drive past the gated facility. "What I’m saying is how much is enough? At what point is it reasonable for the city to say the amount of profit you’re making off of working-class people is harmful to the public good and that, while you should be able to make profit off of building, there needs to be some sort of reasonable limit?"
The target of Grant and Roderick is Burgess, a data-obsessed, slow-and-steady former cop and ad man. His signature accomplishment in office was last year's public preschool ballot measure, which was bogged down by infighting but ultimately successful. This year, Burgess has introduced a set of renter protections his opponent Grant had been working on with former council member Sally Clark.
Burgess's campaign couldn't find time for an interview for this piece—I wonder why—but he is running largely on his council record and looks guaranteed to make it through to the general election.
Burgess is calculating and confident, proposing progressive legislation that goes just far enough to place him on the right side of history but not far enough to risk alienating Seattle's mainstream left. His supporters say that's the most effective way to get things done. His opponents, including Grant, say it's timid and not progressive enough to keep up with the direction Seattle is headed.
Burgess has been fighting this criticism about his progressive cred since early in his political career. He was pro-tunnel and pro-cracking-down-on-homeless-people. Before that, he was under fire for work his ad agency did for a conservative women's group and an op-ed he wrote in the Seattle Times about "faith-driven values voters."
Push Burgess on all this these days—or on more recent criticisms, like those from Grant—and you'll get this line, time and again: "I'm comfortable in my political skin."
Also in this race: longshoreman John Persak, who has raised $30,000, putting him behind Grant's $40,000 and way behind Burgess's $237,000 and Roderick's $107,000.
Persak has been endorsed by Equal Rights Washington and the King County Labor Council. While he has at some points seemed to hold his own in the race, advocating for traffic improvements and job creation, his campaign has mostly dealt in the vague. Take this line, from his website: "When there is a choice between what is expedient and what is right, I will look to our values."
Most recently, Persak opposed the piece of HALA's recommendations that would allow limited new density in single-family zones.
"This proposal," Persak writes, "rolls back 30 years of community involvement and planning in our neighborhoods, and short-circuits future community involvement."
The other citywide race, with no incumbent, is likely to come down to a standoff between an accomplished—but some say "establishment"—lawyer and a longtime neighborhood activist advocating for "gentler" growth. (It also features an interesting density-friendly, transit-focused urban planner. More on him in a second.)
Bill Bradburd has, like Grant, built a campaign railing against developers. "Take back Seattle" is his campaign slogan. But his opposition to the way the city is growing is tinged with sentiments about neighborhood character that often get him labeled a NIMBY.
Bradburd is a former chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition who made one of his first big stands in the city fighting big box development. He advocated for the new districts system, is calling for a municipal bank, and supports campaign-finance reform.
His number one issue, though, is land use. Bradburd is an unabashed opponent of some of the density recommendations made by HALA, which he says were "written by a very narrow group of interests." He has cheered this week's news that, to the dismay of density advocates, the mayor is backing off plans to allow certain new types of density in single-family zones. (Bradburd has also objected to the connection the mayor and HALA made between historical racism and single-family zoning.)
Bradburd was part of a coalition of candidates who called on the mayor this week to revisit the idea of a linkage fee on commercial and residential development. He says he's promoting slower growth but not a full halt to development. "Young urbanists," Bradburd says, motioning air quotes around "urbanists," have moved into Seattle with a "TV romanticism of cities" they got from shows like "Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother."
What they don't realize, Bradburd says, is that dense areas of cities have traditionally been "playgrounds for the rich" and that's what Seattle is becoming. Rather than up-zoning like HALA recommended, Bradburd says the city should treat growth "like a balloon." Slow growth in Capitol Hill, he says, and you'll push it to areas of the city in need of more development. Or, as he put it to the Urbanist: “Put a tarp on Capitol Hill and Ballard and let those areas become areas of stability."
How do you do that while simultaneously pushing against modest up-zones in the 65 percent of the city that's zoned only for single-family residences? Bradburd believes city incentives encouraging homeowners to build backyard cottages should be a priority. He says that focus, combined with city-owned affordable housing, will produce affordability while guarding against what he describes as "out-of-place infill that detracts from our streetscape, causes undue impacts, or promotes gentrification of our neighborhoods."
Part of Bradburd's antiestablishment fervor has been directed at Lorena González. Since joining the race immediately after former council member Sally Clark dropped out and while still working as legal counsel to Mayor Ed Murray, González has been facing criticism that she's a handpicked Murray disciple.
When asked to demonstrate independence, González says she believes Murray's administration should impose tougher penalties for employers who violate city labor laws. She also supported the Community Police Commission bypassing the mayor's office and going to the city council when they couldn't reach agreement with the mayor's office on police reforms. (The CPC went around the mayor, then backtracked, then got scuttled by a federal judge.)
González has also been emphasizing her personal story to try to prove she's not from the political "establishment." González says she grew up in a Central Washington migrant farmworker household. She earned her first paycheck at 8 years old. She went to law school knowing she wanted to work on civil rights cases.
Since, she has worked on police brutality cases throughout the region, including against Seattle police in the well-known "Mexican piss" case. Before that, one of her first cases involved a group of Latino students who had allegedly been discriminated against by the Brewster School District. In one instance, a high-school principal rounded up a group of Latino students to tell them they were worse behaved and more likely to fail than white students.
"I saw so much of myself in them," González says of the students. "I heard so many of the things people told me when I went to school. 'You don’t go to college' is what I was told when I asked, 'How do I go to college?'"
Talk about growth and density is where she clashes with Bradburd most clearly. González agrees with much of HALA's report and doesn't believe increasing the number of backyard cottages will be a sufficient "solution to our problem."
"The reality is we need density," González says. "Folks need to understand that, yeah, the city, within reasonable limits, needs to take their perspective into consideration in terms of the feedback of how that's going to look, but... the only way we're going to deal with housing affordability is by building. I'm a big proponent of making sure those housing options are mixed-income use."
The third viable contender in the open citywide race is urban planner Alon Bassok. He's lagging in fundraising and endorsements, but has tried to separate himself as a transit- and density-focused progressive.
Bassok supports more up-zoning and has been supportive of HALA, taking Bradburd to task for his opposition.
Bassok supports full funding for the bike master plan within 10 years and partnered with Roderick on that municipal rail plan. When some criticized the plan as something that would cost more than Bassok and Roderick claimed, Bassok was the one who defended the cost estimates, arguing the system would be more bare-bones than expensive light rail and could receive matching state or federal funds.
He has introduced plans for lifting certain building height restrictions and supports mandatory inclusionary zoning that would require developers to set aside 20 percent of new development in the city's urban centers as affordable for people making the minimum wage. In the meantime, he's pitching a voucher program to help people get into affordable housing now.
"We need to decide what we want Seattle to be when it grows up," Bassok writes on his website. "I want Seattle to be the city that people who don't live here already think it is—socially progressive and compassionate."
Ballots are due Tuesday! Mail them in or drop 'em here.