Well, before we'll be able to say for absolute sure what last night's election results mean, more Seattle ballots need to be counted. In two city council races—West Seattle's District 1 and south Seattle's District 2—the winner is still unclear.
But so far, this much is known: Seattle voters just passed a first-of-its-kind public campaign financing measure that went by the nickname "Honest Elections." They decided to tax themselves for the highest-ever city levy to fund transportation and transit improvements. And they reelected firebrand socialist Kshama Sawant to a city council that will now be majority women.
That could all be used as evidence of a leftward tilt in the electorate, except that in other council races voters leaned more moderate. In the citywide race for Position 8 they chose Tim Burgess, and in the race for northeast Seattle's District 4 they chose Rob Johnson—both safe bets who were facing lefty insurgents (Jon Grant in the race for Position 8, Michael Maddux in the race for District 4).
To slice it yet another way: four incumbents look guaranteed to head back to work on the council, which pushes against the idea of a radical shift in mood among local voters. Those incumbents are Burgess and Sawant, plus Sally Bagshaw (District 7, downtown) and Mike O'Brien (District 6, Northwest). If Bruce Harrell (District 2, Southeast) can keep his lead, that'll mean wins for all five incumbents who were up for reelection.
So which way will this reshuffled council tilt?
Before the election, there was a lot of talk about whether a Sawant majority would emerge after the voting was done. A group of candidates had joined with her on certain big issues, presenting a de facto slate on housing policies and progressive taxation. Considering Sawant's chilly relationship with the mayor, a victory for a Sawant-friendly council majority would have been a huge fucking deal.
But it didn't happen.
Grant was the candidate most closely aligned with Sawant and he's trailing Burgess with only about 42 percent of the vote. Barring shocking comebacks for him and Maddux, Sawant's views will remain in the council minority.
Here's what the makeup will look like instead: Sawant and O'Brien will remain the council's leftiest members. Burgess will remain the figurehead of the more moderate wing, which will now include Johnson, Bagshaw, and, if he holds his lead, Harrell. Two newbies—Lorena González (citywide Position 9) and Debora Juarez (District 5, North)—are "establishment" in some ways and "insurgent lefties" in other ways. They may replace Harrell and Bagshaw as the council's unpredictable swing votes, able to be pulled in one direction or the other.
The biggest question mark is West Seattle's District 1, where the business-backed Shannon Braddock leads progressive Lisa Herbold by only 733 votes. If our page-views are any indication, you progressives vote late and you're more likely to favor Herbold than Braddock. The outcome of the race could add to the ranks of either Sawant's camp (if Herbold wins) or Burgess's camp (if Braddock wins).
All of this means that progressive causes—like those we outlined here—will have champions in Sawant, O'Brien, and possibly a couple of the council's new members, but they'll still require a fight to get to five votes.
Wait, Weren't District Elections Supposed to Change Everything?
Yeah. But despite district elections, money still swung these council races—at least according to the first results. With the exception of Juarez, who was barely out-fundraised by her opponent Sandy Brown, everyone who won last night raised more money than their opponent. Braddock, Burgess, and Johnson also benefited from large outside spending efforts. (Other candidates benefitted from outside spending too, but at significantly lower levels.) That outside spending reached record levels this year, despite districts requiring fewer votes to win a seat than the previous citywide races.
"It is simply going to cost more for developers and downtown interests to have the sway they used to have with the city councils of the past," political consultant John Wyble, who worked on Jon Grant's campaign, told me last month. "I don't think it's any different, frankly, than when a harvest goes bad and the price goes up in the grocery store. The climate is not good for business as usual, so the price is going up."
Unfortunately for Wyble's candidates, developers and downtown interests had plenty of money to cover those increased costs.
Still, this city council will be more diverse. Right now it's guaranteed to have at least a 5-4 majority of women, including one Latina and one Native American. If Morales upsets Harrell, that majority could become 6-3.
In other local races, things mostly went the way progressives hoped they would. Like I mentioned, the Let's Move Seattle levy and the Honest Elections measure are both leading.
Environmentalist Fred Felleman is leading for a seat on the port commission. King County's Best Starts for Kids levy to fund upstream social services is leading, as is a county proposal for more law enforcement oversight. Democrat Claudia Balducci has a sizable lead over Republican Jane Hague for a spot on the King County Council. Statewide, a measure about endangered animals has won 77 percent of the vote so far.
So, all in all, a decent night for local progressives. One major exception: Tim Eyman's weirdo measure trying to force the state legislature into requiring a 2/3 majority for tax increases is leading with about 54 percent statewide. If late returns can't kill that measure, count on opponents to try to defeat it in court.
Look for more ballots to be counted in the close city council races this afternoon. That could shed some more light on which way the balance of council power is really shifting.