The top five Seattle mayoral candidates have raised over $2.1 million this primary season, not counting the independent expenditure committees. That's more money than the top four 2017 mayoral candidates raised throughout the primary and the general combined.
Candidates have used a lot of that money—much of which they scooped up from the city's campaign financing program—to stuff your mailbox with flyers, blow up your phone with texts, flood your airwaves with goofy TV spots, and invade your digital sidebar with bright ads.
But despite all this money floating around, recent polling shows most of the city backs candidate "Not Sure" in every municipal race.
Meanwhile, with only a few days left until voters thin the herds, the usual prognosticators are all over the blogs—even the ones in D.C.!—talking the same old shit from their well-appointed seats among the commentariat.
We know who we think should make it through the primaries, but, to get out of our heads for a minute, I asked a couple political consultants and observers, plus a random person on a light rail platform, who they think will take the top two positions in each city race. (Except for City Council Position 8, where incumbent Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda faces no serious threat.)
All expressed some trepidation about the utility of predictions, all recognized the limitations of the available polling, all rightly excoriated this sort of horse race bullshit, but all were kind enough to offer some interesting insights into the races in a way that sharpened my thinking on the state of Seattle politics.
Here's what they said:
"There's no coherent narrative"
Political consultant Dujie Tahat sees the Seattle primaries as a test of whether "people are ready to really commit to what it means to rethink not just public safety and policing, but also the role of city government and county governments." This is the year Seattle and the County decide whether their budgets really are moral documents, or whether they want to continue to fund a pilot program here and shuffle a department around over there.
Though the stakes seem clear to him, the mood of the electorate seems less so. Tahat pointed to recent polling from the Northwest Progressive Institute, which showed candidate "Not Sure" leading every city race. "There’s no coherent narrative," he said. "People are wary of the 'Seattle Is Dying' narrative, which could capture the confusion people are experiencing, but I think people are savvier than that at the moment."
People are undecided, he feels, because they’re undecided about life. "People are overloaded with information, there’s so much changing. Two or three weeks ago it looked like we were going to party and make out in the street, but now it’s looking like maybe we’ll lockdown," he said.
As for the current conversation around crime and cops, he doesn't see a city split between defunding the police or "turning police into supersoldiers," but rather a city with a plurality of older, whiter, wealthier, landed primary election voters pissed off at activists.
Tahat doesn't think that former class of people, who typically play an outsize role in primaries, harbors a principled stance against the Defund movement but rather a reflexive dismissal of whoever's on their lawn. "I think this is people who would say something like, 'Sure, the police aren't perfect, but you can't legislate by tweet!' And it's like, no one is making that argument. It's just intellectually dishonest."
Put all that together and what do you get? All signs point to former Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell getting the top spot "given his history with the electorate, his history on City Council, and given the constellation of support he has," Tahat said. A PAC full of downtown real estate and developer money supports Harrell's candidacy, and more people have had the funds to max out to his campaign than to any other mayoral campaign, according to a recent report from KUOW.
Tahat sees Seattle City Council President Lorena González pulling in second, citing her earlier citywide victories and the relative strength of the coalition she's pulled together. She's picked up endorsements from the MLK Labor council, The Stranger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, and former HUD director Julián Castro. A union PAC dropped $450,000 to support her campaign, the most in the race so far.
That said, Tahat hasn't fully counted out former Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk. "She had a pretty low profile a couple months ago, and the fact that she's widely considered number three, or even a tossup between her and Lorena suggests she’s run a good campaign. But I'd say the tie goes to the person who has done it before," he said.
As for City Council Position 9, he thinks "Nikkita [Oliver] will run away with it." He's not sure who Oliver will face in the general, assuming they get through, but he's hoping for Fremont Brewery co-owner Sara Nelson. "She’s definitely a socially liberal fiscal conservative," which is "as close as someone can get to calling themselves a Republican" in Seattle, Tahat said. He likes Oliver's odds against that profile.
There is an admitted Republican running for city office, though. Ann Davison, who ran failed bids for city council in 2019 and for Lt. Governor in 2020, faces off against three-term incumbent Pete Holmes and former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy in the race for City Attorney. Though the Seattle Times endorsed Davison, Tahat thinks the weight of that endorsement will falter here. "I want to say Pete won’t make it past the primary, but, again, I think the tie goes to the person who's done it before," he said.
The other races around the state he's watching include Spokane City Council bids from Naghmana Sherazi and Lacrecia Hill. They're both running for open seats, and they're both centering police reform and housing. "That’s telling of how much has changed in the last year," he said. "If you told me a Pakistani woman was going to run on police reform in Spokane two years ago, I would have said no," he added, referring to Sherazi.
All eyes on Position 9
Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who hosts the excellent local politics podcast, Hacks & Wonks, also expressed her general aversion to prediction-making. As she often says on her show, she feels people should "vote their conscience" in primaries, and not worry about what a bunch of insiders and hacks think about the horse race. But she was willing to share some insights about the race based on the extensive interviews she's done with the candidates.
In general, like Tahat, Fincher also worries about the weight of the "Seattle voter who is hella comfortable, who wants to feel good and feel progressive, and who wants to live in a city labeled 'super-progressive,' but who is tired of all this activism and just wants to write a check to someone who claims they want to 'make it better' and move on."
With those voters in mind, Fincher thinks the mayoral race could break any number of ways, but, ultimately, she thinks Harrell will take the top spot, with González or Echohawk coming in second. "But a ton of people are still undecided," she stressed, pointing to the recent polling, "and—completely anecdotally—I still know a lot of people trying to make up their minds between two or three candidates."
When the mayoral results drop next week, the most interesting questions for her relate to their implications for other races in November. Will the pro-Compassion Seattle candidates take a higher share of the vote than the candidates who have stood firmly against the unfunded sweeps mandate? What will the results have to say about the Kshama Sawant recall election?
The race that worries Fincher "more than any other" is the open seat for city council. She argues that Oliver and González's chief of staff, Brianna Thomas, "are lightyears better" than Fremont Brewing co-owner Sara Nelson "in terms of their desire for public service and their understanding of what the position is and what it demands," but she thinks those comfortable Seattleites may gloss over Nelson's profile and check her box without doing their research.
Fincher described her discussion with Nelson as "probably the most contentious interview I’ve ever done on Hacks & Wonks," and said picking her in the primary would amount to "a dangerous choice." Her interview with Nelson revealed that the candidate, who once served as a legislative aide to a Seattle City Councilmember, "had no idea what her talking points were based on." (The SECB came to the same conclusion.) She hopes Nelson doesn't get through, but wouldn't be surprised if she did.
Fincher also thinks Holmes will be "a tough takedown" given the power of incumbency. That said, she wouldn't be surprised if he ended up falling. "If we look at the areas where people are dissatisfied, they land squarely in his lap," she said, mentioning public safety and possible solutions to homelessness. "I think his strategy is to be invisible and get reelected because he’s an incumbent. We’ll see if his cloak of invisibility works this time."
As the Seattle Times and Crosscut noted this morning, Holmes had been running a quiet campaign, but the recent polling showing him in a three-way tie with lesser-known candidates prompted him to launch a late-breaking negative communications push literally the day after my interview with Fincher. We'll see how that goes.
Other races Fincher has her eye on include the municipal contests in SeaTac and Burien, and also Cliff Cawthon's Kent City Council campaign against incumbent Toni Troutner, though that race won't happen until November.
The ballot-placement race
Cathy Tuttle, a former city council candidate and a current Seattle Neighborhood Greenways board member, offered up her personal endorsements and also what she called her "cynical" analysis based on ballot placement and name recognition.
She's backing González for mayor for her "strength and vision," and Thomas for City Council Pos. 9 for her "experience, drive, and ability to mediate and resolve complex problems."
But who's going to get through?
For mayor, Tuttle also thinks Harrell will come out on top, but she thinks González's ballot placement (she's third) and her name recognition will push her into second place."Obviously she’s my favorite, but once she's faced against Harrell, I think she’s got the grit and the gumption to actually win the general," she added.
Tuttle sees "a big push for Sara Nelson" in the open city council race, so she thinks she'll get through. Though Thomas came in third in that recent NPI poll, Tuttle thinks she'll pull out a second-place finish because "she's the top of the stack of a long list of names." Though she admits Oliver "probably has more citywide name recognition," which can nuke the advantage of ballot placement, she thinks voters outside Oliver's base might get lost in the other names on the list.
As for city attorney? She thinks Holmes and Thomas-Kennedy will get through. "Ann Davison is such a nutjob that I don’t even think people who are supporting her will vote for her," she said.
What about some rando?
On Wednesday I witnessed a light rail train strike a man who'd fallen into the tracks. As we watched firefighters extract the man from underneath the train, I asked the person next to me if they'd also seen what had happened. They said no. Perhaps as some kind of coping mechanism, and perhaps because I'm an insane person, I asked them who they thought would win in the municipal elections.
They told me they hadn't looked into the people running for elected office in town yet, but they did plan to vote for the Best Starts for Kids levy, a $0.19 property tax renewal and expansion that will raise around $873 million on county programs that support poor kids at every stage of their development.
After talking about the levy for a while, we both looked at a cop who was taking photos of a man who'd been struck by the train. The person asked me why the cop was taking photos. I said I didn't know. Then they said, "Probably to get the guy in trouble. That's what cops do."
If nothing else, King County Executive Dow Constantine, the primary champion for the levy, can rest easy knowing that Best Starts will get the antifa bump.