In 1967, a state legislator by the name Sam Smith ran for the Seattle City Council and won, becoming the first black council member in the history of this city. It had taken nearly 100 years, but the city’s African American community finally had one of their own helping write the city’s laws.
Smith ended up serving on the council for 24 years, pushing for the city to hire more black firefighters and cops, reducing utility rates for poor people, and promoting direct engagement with city residents. The tradition of black representation that Smith began continued long after he left office in 1991. For the last 51 years, ever since Smith was elected, at least one black person has sat on the city council.
That streak may soon come to an end.
As Seattle’s demographics shift and gentrification pushes thousands of black families out of the city, this year’s crowded city council election could end up being the one that halts the long run of representation launched by Sam Smith. Bruce Harrell, the only black member of the current council, isn't running for reelection. And while a number of black people are running in this year’s races, they're a small minority among the 56 other people vying for the seven council seats that are up for grabs.
With no black incumbent running, and three of the black candidates running against each other south Seattle's District 2, there’s no guarantee that the next Seattle City Council will have any black representation at all.
Five Candidates Among 56
The last time the council lacked an African American was in 1966, when the Space needle was just five years old and still the tallest building in the city. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive and a man had yet to walk on the moon.
Drew Dambreville, a chair of the Seattle King County NAACP, said a city council without a black person would be a step back for the city.
“If, in 2019, in Martin Luther King County, in the state of Washington that prides itself as being liberal and inclusive, we can’t find one African American candidate to sit on the Seattle City Council we are moving in the wrong direction,” Dambreville said.
Five candidates are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen, with three of this year’s black candidates running against each other in the District 2 primary.
They are Phyllis Porter, a longtime Seattle resident and greenways advocate; Omari Tahir-Garrett, a longtime Central District activist; and Mark Solomon, a 29-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department. But they're just three of seven people running in District 2, and one of those other people, Tammy Morales, came within a few hundred votes of beating Harrell in 2015 and has been endorsed in this year's race by Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.
Up in north Seattle's District 4, Shaun Scott, a Democratic Socialist of America organizer, is one of ten people running.
And in District 7—which covers downtown, Queen Anne, and Magnolia—James Donaldson, a former professional basketball player with 14 seasons in the NBA (including three with the Sonics), is one of ten people running.
King County Council Member Larry Gossett, who is black and has sat on the county council since 1994, said the local African American community is worried that a black person may not be on the next city council.
“We don’t know who if anyone is going to win," Gossett said. "So yes, it’s a problem. Yes, a lot of black community, political activists are conscious and think about these things and have talked to me about it.”
The 56 people running for City Council this year will be whittled down to just 14 in a primary election on August 6, when only the top two vote-getters in each of the seven districts will advance to the November 5 general election. That vote will decide if, for the first time in half a century, Seattle will be left without a black person serving in its local legislative body.
A Seat At The Table
Larry Gossett can still remember what it felt like to see Sam Smith become the first black person elected to the Seattle City Council. Gossett was 22 years old at the time and, just four years after graduating from Franklin High School, he was already politically active, attending the founding meeting of Seattle’s black Panther Party.
But for the politically involved young man, seeing a black person elected to the Seattle City Council actually made Gossett decide not to run for office—for the moment.
“To me, elected politicians was bourgeoisie,” Gossett said. “I had no desire to be no bourgeoisie politician at that time.”
That changed as Gossett continued to stay politically active, organizing a black Student Union at the University of Washington and then slowly getting more directly involved in Seattle’s politics. By the 1970s Gossett was formally organizing black voters in Seattle and saw an opportunity in the 1977 mayoral election.
“Two liberal, white men were running for mayor and our communities were mostly concentrated in central and southeast Seattle,” Gossett said. “We thought that maybe if we got kind of organized we could influence these cats.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Gossett helped organize around Charlie Royer, a mayoral candidate, and Gossett can still remember what happened when Royer won.
“The first thing that Charlie Royer said when he won the mayoral race that night,” Gosett remembered, “was that 'I want to thank the activists and the people of color communities for giving me a great victory in south Seattle, the area where I won most impressively.' By him saying that, we said, ‘We are on the map. We are going to be less invisible in electoral politics in this community from this day forward.’”
By 1978, Sam Smith was joined by another black person, Council Member Norm B. Rice, who served three full terms on the council before running for mayor in 1989 and winning, serving as the city’s first black mayor until 1998.
Seeing these black politicians win office showed the community that, in Gossett's words, they could have a “seat at the table.” I've heard that same phrase repeatedly from black candidates running in this year’s election.
Phyllis Porter, who is running in District 2, said having black people on the council shows African Americans that their community is creating strong leaders they can trust.
“I think by having a black person in power, I think for me it shows that we are getting somewhere and I can listen to them because she knows my struggle, she knows where I came from,” Porter said.
Mark Solomon, who is also running in District 2, said trust in government increases for any community when their elected leaders include people from their own background.
“You want your council, you want your elected leaders to reflect your community, and if folks are looking at the council and don’t see folks that look like that, then I would feel, 'Is my voice being heard? Am I being represented?'” Solomon said.
Shaun Scott, who is running in District 4, said he's already seen how his own background as a black person is creating differences on the campaign trail, like when he was at a recent candidate forum and was asked if he would have supported the new Seattle Police Department union contract.
Police reform advocates decried the contract as a step backward for police accountability, yet the sitting council voted for it and some of the other white candidates running against Scott said at the forum that they would also have supported the contract.
“So just realizing that as someone who wouldn’t support this contract, as someone who entered into public life as a Black Lives Matter activist, there’s just a sense of rage around police matters,” Scott said. “I have the real embodied experience of being a black person that has to live under police violence in the district where Charleena Lyles was killed, and to see a white person not see that perspective... I think was really triggering to see.”
Omari Tahir-Garrett, who has been an activist in the Central District for his entire life while also running into controversery over racially insensitive remarks, told me he doesn't think it's necessary for the next council to have a black person on it. His reasoning, which included claiming Rice was not a black person, was unclear to me. Tahir-Garrett spent 21 months in jail after assaulting former Mayor Paul Schell in 2001.
Bruce Harrell, the only black member of the current council, did not respond to two weeks of repeated interview requests for this story.
Council Diversity Still Exists
Even if no African American is elected to the next council, it's guaranteed not to be an all-white body. The two council positions that are not up for reelection—Council Member Lorena Gonzalez’s seat and Council Member Teresa Mosqueda’s seat—are both held by women of color.
But Porter said each race and ethnicity within the umbrella term “person of color” includes valuable and different experiences.
“I think using the term POC is trying to group all of our lived experiences into one, and that’s just not the way it is," Porter said. "Each one of those people of color have lived different experiences."
Gossett, 74, is now nearing the end of his seventh term in office. He said he'd considered retiring but the prospect of losing another local elected black leader convinced him to run again.
“To be frank, it was one of the motivating reasons for me to run for elected office at the county level one more time,” Gosett said. “Because so many people were saying, ‘Really, Gossett? If you don’t run, who will we have to go to?’ And that’s a very relevant question, and one difficult to answer.”
Gossett is facing two challengers, including Girmay Zahilay, who is black.
A Changing City
Though black representation in city politics was missing for too much of Seattle's history, the success of some black politicians over the last half-century tracks with significant growth in Seattle’s black population.
In 1960, the federal census showed that only 4.8 percent of the city’s population was African American. But the proportion of black people grew over the next few decades, increasing to 7.13 percent by 1970, then 9.5 percent by 1980, and then 10.1 percent in 1990, according to census figures.
The total number of black Seattleites has slowly grown in the new century but, as Seattle's overall population increased, the proportion of the city that is black has started to decline. The black proportion of the city’s population dropped from that 10.1 percent high in 1990 to 8.4 percent in 2000, then 7.9 percent in 2010, and then 7.7 percent in 2016, according to the most recent federal figures available.
Nowhere has this demographic change been felt more strongly than in the Central District, a neighborhood that at one point was one of the only places in Seattle where banks would give mortgages to black people. But the neighborhood's proximity to downtown amid a boom in Seattle’s population has rapidly gentrified the area. In 1970, the redlined neighborhood was 73 percent black. By 2014, just 19 percent of the neighborhood was black, according to Gene Balk of the Seattle Times. Balk’s analysis projected that the neighborhood could be under 10 percent black in less than a decade.
Scott said these demographic changes are directly affecting local politics.
“In a lot of ways, it’s kind of the last phase of the project of gentrification,” Scott said. “The first part has to do with a tremendous amount of displacement, the destruction of black wealth and communities that took generations to build up during segregation. The second part is the lack of political and cultural representation. I think the last domino to fall in that, in a lot of ways, is what’s going on in our political representation.”
Porter said having a black person on the council would equip the lawmaking body to better fight the effects of gentrification in the city.
“How can we fight gentrification on the ground if we cannot fight gentrification of the council?” Porter said. “I think some people really don’t understand what gentrification is. I think it’s hard to stop practices if you really don’t know what it is.”
Porter, Scott, and Solomon all said they're not expecting to win their races simply because they are black.
“I’m not trying to win this race as a black person, I’m trying to win this race by out fundraising, and out door-knocking everyone else,” Scott said.
Solomon, for his part, said he isn't sure if gentrification is exactly what's behind a potential swing in black political representation.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily because of the changing of the city or because of the demographics necessarily,” Solomon said. “I think people are still willing to step up, and step forward, and be in service, and there are those African Americans, myself included, that are stepping up to be part of the leadership of this city. Are Phyllis, Scott, or James Donaldson the best ones to ensure that our voices are heard? To make sure that our communities are represented? It will up to the voters to decide, and we have to make our case.”