On election night Seattle ripped off its barely-there mask and proved the activists right: this town thinks of itself as a bunch of data-driven, "compassionate" progressives, but really it's a lot of people who think they pay too much in property taxes to have to deal with poor people clogging up their running routes with tents. Just look at the post-ballot-drop reaction from Guy Palumbo, the Amazon lobbyist and former state senator who tried to buy the Seattle elections in 2019 (he's the guy in the gray shirt with his mask pulled down):
Crowd reacts at Bruce Harrell’s lead in the Seattle mayoral race at Block 41 in Belltown Tuesday evening in Seattle. #WAelex pic.twitter.com/BQ4nu35ZRl
— Erika J. Schultz (@ErikaJSchultz) November 3, 2021
With Bruce Harrell, Ann Davison, and Sara Nelson running way ahead of their progressive rivals, Seattle almost certainly chose four more years of acrimony and inaction in City Hall, four more years of ineffective and inhumane encampment sweeps, and four more years of treating jails as a housing strategy. Of course, the exact intensity of those feelings among this off-year electorate remains to be determined. Assuming the gaps narrow but the results remain the same, here are five takeaways from election night:
The Stranger is a bunch of radical bratz
Some well-off operatives and lobbyists are passing around this cringey analysis that dunks on The Stranger for supposedly "openly admitting" that we aimed to pick "the most electable left lane candidates this time" but ran our "electability calculus through the prism of ActiRad zealotry" and so confused the most progressive candidates with the most electable candidates.
Even if that were true —which it's not — our job isn't to pick the most progressive candidate a Laurelhurst retiree could vote for. Us "kidz" on the Stranger Election Control Board picked the candidates who proposed the correct answers to the problems the city faces rather than the candidates who had trouble keeping track of their own triangulations. We rightly saw little difference between a Harrell administration and a Jessyn Farrell or Colleen Echohawk administration. Farrell barely stood up for upzones and backed the sweeps initiative. Echohawk equivocated on criminal justice reforms and nearly everything else, for that matter. Those exact sorts of concessions led to the problems the conservatives are falsely blaming on the city council's progressive majority, which, by the way, managed to pass a tax that made the city financially solvent in the middle of the pandemic despite spending much of its time dealing with a mayor determined to undermine its every move.
The person who "effectively elected Republican Ann Davison" was the three-term incumbent who apparently spent more time sipping wine and watching the Olympics than running a meaningful primary campaign. And if backing Nikkita Oliver was a dumb move, then we'll probably make that dumb move again, and again, and again until they win — if they're ever interested in running again.
Though we spent plenty of time thinking about the horse race, we ultimately backed the candidates who fed us the least amount of bullshit and who steadfastly refused to back policies that don't work. We'll keep doing that without apology, especially if it prompts condescension and derision from Lyft lobbyists and idle geezers.
Big business beat labor
In the last couple of mayoral elections, MLK Labor and big business backed the same mayor. This time the labor council and big business split, and now the labor-backed mayoral candidate is losing badly. Though labor organized an impressively large canvassing campaign for some of its preferred candidates, and though unions spent plenty of PAC money, in general the results suggest that labor's political power in town can't overcome the business interest right now, when voters say they're thinking about homelessness and crime more than they're thinking about how to actually solve those problems—i.e., by supporting candidates who want to build more homes, protect workers from precarious employment, and not bonk so many poor people over the head and haul them off to jail.
That said, that doesn't mean labor won't exercise plenty of power in policy discussions. In a direct message, UFCW 21 Secretary-Treasurer Joe Mizrahi put the point well: "I don't regret a thing about who we endorsed because our members backed candidates who stood with essential workers. Seattle is still a labor town. Even the candidates we didn't endorse tried to claim the mantle of labor support, so we expect whoever wins to listen to workers."
Seattle will keep sweeping
Though the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will control much of the region’s homelessness response, the conservatives will likely sweep the election, which means they’ll likely be sweeping more encampments, too.
Bruce Harrell said homeless people should face “consequences” if they refuse services, which isn’t the real problem here, though TV news did successfully make it the real problem. Harrell proposes a 2,000-unit shelter-first strategy rather than a housing-first strategy, which, if he even gets it done, will only maybe hide some of the people sleeping on the streets.
Meanwhile, Sara Nelson illegally fortified her brewing company's production facility with eco blocks, a form of hostile architecture often used to ward off people who live in their vehicles. Ann Davison thinks Seattle is worse than a Cambodian refugee camp and literally wants to warehouse the homeless. This is what passes for “compassion” in Seattle.
To the extent that Seattle officials will have a say in the homelessness crisis, it appears the approach will be more punitive and less effective.
It’s going to be much harder to touch police budgets in Seattle
In the summer of 2020, the movement for Black lives centered the “fringe” idea of abolishing the criminal punishment system as we know it. The police tear-gassed those activists until the council was finally convinced to give the department’s budget a 17% cut, which it achieved mostly by taking a bunch of work off the department’s plate.
Though the council didn’t actually “defund the police,” the majority did refuse to kowtow to a department that still engages in racist policing, which prompted a bunch of officers to leave for cities that want to hold cops less accountable. Then some corporations came along and dumped a lot of money into campaigns that blamed the council for doing something they didn’t actually do, and now voters are likely to install three politicians who want to hire more cops.
With Nelson on the council, the anti-defund contingent grows to three, including Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Debora Jaurez. Given that a well-funded anti-defund campaign swept the local elections, there’s a risk that power might compel Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis, whose recent votes seem amicable to cops, to align more closely with the pro-cop camp, especially if they hope to defend their seats in the 2023 election, when Harrell ends up not solving the homeless crisis with sweeps and Davison ends up not solving the petty crime problem with more jail.
In the meantime, though they make overtures about investing in alternatives to policing, expect Seattle politicians to waste more money on gadgets and dubious training regimes.
Hard to say which way the wind will blow in the Sawant Recall
Conservatives leading in last night’s citywide elections produced both headwinds and tailwinds in the effort to recall councilperson and lone socialist Kshama Sawant in December, but it’s hard to say which wind might win out.
Before the elections, Sawant regularly pissed off her fellow council members by calling them out for being corporate Democrats, so they probably won't rally around her. She recently pissed off labor leadership by siding with some rank-and-file carpenters during the carpenter strikes, so she'll likely get less help there. And, of course, the “parks over people” crowd might feel a pep in their step and start organizing harder for the recall.
That said, Sawant’s team is seizing on the backlash as an opportunity to circle wagons around a sure thing.
“With the political establishment and Chamber of Commerce emboldened to assert dominance in City Hall, it is more important than ever to keep Kshama Sawant on City Council,” a spokesperson from Sawant’s campaign said. “Since the right-wing recall engineered the most undemocratic Seattle election possible, we always knew turnout would be key for us to win. The unfortunate election night results show that we'll need to build the biggest get-out-the-vote operation this city's ever seen. We plan to do exactly that.“
Also, what’s true of citywide elections might not be true of district elections. Against all odds, money could not buy her seat in 2019. If big business’ influence in the 2021 election pisses off progressives enough, District 3’s tenants could come out in droves.