With a slate of pro-business candidates prevailing in Seattle’s more high-profile races, last week was rough for Seattle progressives. But those toward the left end of the political spectrum can look to South King County for a few spots of good news.
Though results from city council and mayoral races in Burien, SeaTac, Renton, and Kent were mixed, reform-minded candidates made impressive gains in those areas, and most of the winners were people of color.
“Straight-up Republican incumbents in cities that had a history of electing Republicans elected several strong progressive candidates,” noted political consultant Crystal Fincher. “Yes, it was a mixed bag, but it’s better than we normally have in South King County. There’s definitely justification for feeling hopeful and optimistic.”
The demographics of South King County dramatically shifted during the past two decades, which may have led to some of the political shifts. People of color make up the majority of residents in Burien, Renton, and Kent, and an analysis published in the South Seattle Emerald earlier this year showed that nearly 70% of residents in SeaTac and Tukwila were Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Historically, city councils and mayoral offices haven’t reflected those demographic proportions.
This year, SeaTac showed the most dramatic change in political power, with three candidates backed by the progressive Working Families Party flipping seats held by conservative or centrist candidates. Union organizer Jake Simpson and two social workers — Iris Guzmán and Mohamed Egal — will join current council member and Working Families activist Takele Gobena in a progressive majority. Gobena, who was elected in 2019, said the new slate will push legislation promoting more affordable housing, support for small and immigrant-owned businesses, and increased funding for human services and rental assistance.
“We knocked on about 15,000 doors,” Gobena said of the WFP’s volunteer efforts. “In a traditional campaign, candidates only talk to people who reliably vote. But we changed that narrative and actually talked to people who don’t usually vote.” He added that some canvassers targeted residents who hadn’t voted since Obama’s first election in 2008, and sometimes returned four or five times to ensure that those voters returned their ballots.
Though the city council lost its progressive majority in Burien, one progressive Latino candidate, Hugo Garcia, won a seat thanks to tireless door knocking, community fundraising, and a savvy social media presence. He’ll be joined by current mayor and progressive Jimmy Matta, who retained a seat on the council. Talking about gains for candidates of color, Garcia said: “We have the lived experience to represent and speak for our communities, especially those in South King County that have historically not been heard.”
During his campaign, Garcia posted weekly live video updates to Instagram and Twitter, and tapped into support from both labor unions and a personal network of Sounders fans to raise funds. He said his priorities on the council include improvements for two historically underserved neighborhoods that will soon get increased transit service — Ambaum and Boulevard Park. “My main priority is to make sure the city has an anti-displacement strategy for both of these neighborhoods that are getting infrastructure support, to make sure the current residents and commercial businesses have an opportunity to stay in Burien.”
Garcia is also not shy about advocating for police accountability and reform, noting that less than 4% of Burien’s budget goes to human services while more than 40% covers police contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office. “We should be investing in things related to the root cause of crime, including diversion services like LEAD,” he said.
To the east, Carmen Rivera will likely add another solidly progressive vote on Renton’s council. Rivera grew up in Renton and lived there most of her life.
The 32-year-old lecturer in the criminal justice program at Seattle University said the council’s 5-2 vote to evict homeless people from the Red Lion hotel in December partly spurred her run. Increasing funding for human services will be her number one priority on council. “We need to make sure we’re robustly and correctly allocating funds for social services,” she said, noting that she’ll continue Renton’s boost for social services (it bumped from $800,000 to $3 million last year).
Some opponents, including current council member Ruth Pérez, tried to paint Rivera as the “defund” candidate. But even after embracing the idea of using some police funds to stand up police alternatives, she still won a seat. “If we’re going to see criminal justice reform, we need to be extreme, we need to think radically, and that means attacking things at the root,” she said.
In Kent, which is home to more Black residents than any other city in the county, progressives and candidates of color didn’t fare well, though incumbent council member Brenda Fincher (who is Crystal Fincher’s mother) retained her seat. Longtime Kent resident Dawn Bennett, who is Black, failed to unseat incumbent Mayor Dana Ralph. Cliff Cawthon, a progressive who is also backed by the Working Families party, fell short of unseating council president Toni Troutner, a vocal supporter of pumping more money into policing.
“Cliff Cawthon ran a really good campaign,” Fincher said. “For someone who wasn’t known to residents — who had never run for office before — to walk away with 40% is huge. I’m really excited about his future.”
Part of the struggle for progressives and candidates of color is the city’s at-large council system. Considering Kent has 130,000 residents and is the state’s sixth-largest city, Fincher believes it's crazy and inequitable that it doesn’t have a district-based council. “You can’t doorbell the entire city, it’s too big,” she said, noting that name recognition and paid campaign mailers have an outsized influence as a result. Also, she added, there’s an almost complete lack of media coverage in South King County, with few local outlets other than a handful of tiny neighborhood papers that mostly focus on the concerns of white homeowners.
On top of that, the local Democratic party apparatus has largely ignored South King County, Fincher said. “There’s been a lack of institutional support for BIPOC candidates in races outside of Seattle.”
That lack didn’t stop Hugo Garcia from being creative in his fundraising efforts and endlessly knocking on doors and doing the person-to-person politics necessary to win his seat. It comes as no surprise that Garcia says he’s a big fan of the hashtag #LFG. “It’s been my cry for years, even before Megan Rapinoe started using it,” he said. “And I wasn’t shy about using it on social media. Let’s Fucking Go. You need to put in the work.”