Last month, a decisive 58% of voters in Renton approved a grassroots initiative to raise the local minimum wage from $16.28 to $20.09, which will be one of the highest minimum wages in the country when it goes into effect in July. The left can add Raise the Wage Renton (RTWR) to its growing list of recent success stories, in which working class people around the region use the tools of direct democracy to circumvent City governments that refuse to adopt popular policy for fear of upsetting the wealthy and powerful donors who bought their seats in the halls of power. 

“These small city councils don’t want to make waves, they don’t want to be too progressive,” said Juilanna Dauble, RTWR board treasurer. “They really don’t want to be the Seattle City Council.” 

But it seems as if the Seattle City Council doesn’t even want to be the “Seattle City Council” anymore. While some Seattle-supremacists tout the Emerald City as a leader of progressive momentum in Washington state, a new, more conservative council may increase the grade of the left’s uphill battle to pass local policy. But the clipboard brigades that brought higher wages, stronger worker protections, and social housing to the region say they are living proof that the left doesn’t need any friends on the council—they need their neighbors. 

“We're long overdue for working folks of all backgrounds having a sense of their own power and agency rather than relying on elected officials,” said Tacoma for All (T4A) organizer Devin Rydel Kelly.

As If It Weren’t Tough Enough

In its first two months in office, the new Seattle City Council has already created a hostile environment for the left and for supporters of democracy more broadly. 

Outcast-turned-council-president Sara Nelson kicked off her tenure by firing head of central staff Esther Handy. City insiders said the unusual move suggested Nelson was exercising a political vendetta against Handy for having worked in progressive organizations. Just days before Nelson spoke in favor of status quo voter suppression, the council then usurped the will of the voters by appointing failed council candidate Tanya Woo to a vacant seat, much to the delight of big business lobbyists. Most recently, Nelson restricted public comment for people expressing concern about refugee families on the verge of homelessness. The Seattle Police Department arrested six protesters that day, and Council Member Cathy Moore called on cops to cuff even more of them.

Advocates backing a variety of issues rang the alarm bell even before the 2023 election, saying a conservative council would force progressives to devote more of their time playing defense rather than pushing issues forward. 

An organizer from Services Not Sweeps said they’re already feeling stronger resistance from the new council. Lefties started lobbying the City for a ban on sweeps in winter and extreme weather early last year, launching a public pressure campaign in June. They had a few allies on the old council, including Council Member Tammy Morales, but the organizer said their coalition has so far only met with the offices of Council Members Joy Hollingsworth and Cathy Moore to broadly discuss their policy. While they want to meet with every office, some seem completely closed off.

If Services Not Sweeps or any downtrodden lefty group decides they need to change up their approach, then they can see plenty of examples of success across Western Washington. 

Ballot Measure Blitz

In a phone interview with The Stranger, Raise the Wage Treasurer Juilanna Dauble said lefty initiatives are spreading around the region like wildfire. Of course, progressive initiatives to legalize gay marriage or recreational marijuana in the state passed long ago, but right now campaigns describe a new, energetic phase in the left’s use of initiatives in smaller cities.

Katie Wilson, campaign coordinator for Raise the Wage Tukwila (RTWT), said the recent craze caught on in 2019 when 55% of Federal Way voters approved Washington Community Action Network’s “good cause” eviction rules. 

Inspired by their strong campaign, Wilson and her coalition ran a ballot measure in Tukwila to hike the minimum wage in 2022. They won 82% of the vote. Another people-powered campaign, Tacoma for All, stuck it to their landlord-loving City government and passed a sweeping renters’ rights package last November. That same night, Bellingham passed a minimum wage increase and its own renters’ bill of rights, both initiatives brought forward by the people.

The campaigns won more than their policy, according to Kelly from T4A and Dauble from RTWR. The wins showed regular people their own power to enact change even when the deck seems stacked against them. 

Organizers outside of Seattle may have more experience with whacko conservative councils—successful lefty pressure campaigns inside Seattle, such as the Fight For $15 and former Council Member Kshama Sawant’s unrelenting quest to tax Amazon, both led to council legislation. But still, Seattle organizers have also taken up the quest of bypassing unfriendly bodies. 

House Our Neighbors! (HON) decided not to go through the lobbying process to win a social housing developer. With crickets from Seattle City Council on its initiative, the campaign won over 57% of voters in the 2023 February special election. 

Who’s City Hall’s Daddy?

HON recently launched its next initiative, I-137, to establish a permanent, progressive funding source for the social housing developer they won last year. HON Policy & Advocacy Director Tiffani McCoy said they didn’t even consider taking the legislative route. 

While she and Wilson agree that Seattle lefties should not give up on lobbying elected officials completely, McCoy sees a lot of drawbacks to the inside strategy.

For one, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce runs City Hall. 

Even though the Chamber swore off openly buying elections after they paid for a bunch of losers in 2019, the same corporate donors who used to fund their now-retired PAC still pool their money to buy business-friendly candidates. In the most recent Seattle election, these big business PACs spent $1 million on the right-most council candidates. So if the Chamber doesn’t like an idea—and they don’t like I-137—then organizers face a major disadvantage when lobbying council members beholden to big business. 

RTWR ran into this problem. When the campaign gathered enough signatures to land on the special election ballot, organizers attempted to pressure the council to use its power to pass their initiative outright. Instead, bootstraps Republicans—er, I mean, nonpartisan elected officials on the council—threw out every anti-worker argument in the book to excuse their inaction. The biggest opponent, Council Member James Alberson Jr., received campaign donations from the usual conservative suspects, such as the Affordable Housing Council and the Washington Association of Realtors. He also chaired the Renton Chamber of Commerce for nine years. 

But when running an initiative, organizers don’t have to win over the Chamber or their proxies. Sure, that means corporations will probably pump a bunch of money into an opposition campaign, but even though the Renton Chamber of Commerce and its allied organizations blew $156,000 on mailers and TV ads, Dauble said they couldn’t buy the human connection RTWR made with voters. 

Making the Sausage

Another reason the lobbying process sucks so bad: concessions. 

When advocates ask a city council member to champion their policy, they sometimes make compromises before ever writing a bill. Then a council committee will pick at the legislation again, likely after hearing an earful from opposition during public comment. And the full council could water down the bill even more before the final vote.

“We would have gotten a shell of I-135 if we went through the council,” McCoy said, speculating that their allied politicians might have sacrificed details such as the Passivhaus standards or the union-built requirements to win deciding votes. 

Tacoma for All tried to lobby the Tacoma City Council and the Mayor to pass their Tenant Bill of Rights outright. T4A campaign manager Ty Moore told The Stranger in a phone interview last year that the Mayor tried to hash out a compromise with the campaign, but the campaign knew it already had a popular policy on its hands, so they refused. The City passed their own milquetoast version of a Tenants of Bill of Rights and then put the already-passed package on the ballot as a competing measure. A Pierce County judge kicked the false competitor off the ballot before it went to voters. T4A won their election with a little more than 50% of the vote.

Even if coalitions get through all the “horse-trading” behind the scenes, as McCoy called it, the City could still fumble the execution. For example, Real Change, the newspaper that used to house HON, ran a campaign called “Everybody Poos” in 2019 to get more public bathrooms and hygiene stations. At the time, only six public bathrooms stayed open 24 hours in all of Seattle. That November, the Seattle City Council allocated $1.9 million to pay for Real Change’s mobile pit stop program. But then the City transferred that money from the Human Services Department (HSD) to Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to pay for portable toilets instead of the mobile pit stops, which would have included two toilets each, sinks, pet waste disposal, needle disposal, and a staffer in transition from jail to the workforce. Not the same thing. 

That’s not to say the City government cannot thwart an initiative; it’s just a little harder and a little less appealing. The City must wait two years after an initiative's passage to amend or repeal it, but optically, McCoy said, it looks much worse for the council to retroactively usurp the will of the people by editing an initiative than it does to water down a policy during the legislative process. 

Better Bang for Your Buck

On top of that, McCoy, Dauble, and Kelly agreed that advocates get better returns on investments when running issues instead of candidates on the ballot. 

The campaigns argued they have an easier time selling a single, very clear policy to voters than a whole person. Wilson said that people often consider a candidate’s vibe more than their platform when casting a ballot. Plus, if a candidate doesn’t earn a big newspaper endorsement or the financial backing of the city’s power-players, then they'll likely lose. 

Even if a candidate ran on the perfect platform, they probably could not actualize those policies unless they made four allies on council. And that’s assuming they don’t totally sell out once elected. 

But the ballot measure campaigners said that voters often hold a romanticized view of a single savior—Dauble blames Ronald Reagan—so sometimes voters and organizers put more stock into candidate races.

McCoy said it's a mistake to put too much faith into elected officials. She so often sees progressives try to “work from inside” the Democratic party, hoping to build the right relationships that push it left. She would much rather build those relationships with normal people and push left from the outside. 


Despite its benefits, all the ballot measure campaigners agreed that running initiatives comes at a great cost.

“Don’t underestimate how hard it is,” Wilson said. 

A winning initiative in Seattle can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, innumerable volunteer hours, and your sanity. All the campaigners who spoke to The Stranger agreed that it would be much less work to pass something through the City’s legislative process.  

The initiative strategy also does not work for every issue. For example, a court struck down Charter Amendment 29 (not a cool lefty campaign, btw) because it usurped the City’s authority to determine its own homelessness and land-use rules.

Even if a coalition proposes a perfectly legal initiative, Wilson said not every progressive policy would perform well at the ballot box. For instance, renters rights and wage increases sometimes find broad appeal among average working people across political lines, but a new tax, particularly one that targets normal voters, may not go over well in Renton or Tukwila. Seattle voters usually approve new taxes, so she won’t rule it out here. 

With all of that in mind, the left cannot totally abandon the other avenues of change. The ballot measure campaigners still think the left should care who gets elected. Dauble wants to run a slate for Renton City Council, and Kelly just launched his own challenge against Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) to represent the 27th Legislative District in the State House. Wilson still thinks lobbying the City is a “perfectly legitimate strategy.”

But for anyone who wants to run an initiative, do your research, get a good lawyer, and build a coalition. Your predecessors not only think it's possible to run winning, progressive initiatives–they think it's necessary.