Council member Mike OBrien, left, and challenger Catherine Weatbrook, right.
  • City of Seattle
  • Council member Mike O'Brien, left, and challenger Catherine Weatbrook, right.
Sick of hearing about city council elections yet? I don't care! We're just getting started! Council member Mike O'Brien got a new challenger this week and she's highlighting something important about the coming year. Challengers to popular incumbents are going to try to push those council members to get specific on neighborhood issues—stop lights, traffic patterns, pot holes—and if they're successful, that could fundamentally change the debates we're having leading up to Election Day and, ultimately, the makeup of the city council.

Let's refresh: Voters in 2013 approved a new city council election system that split the city into seven districts with one council member to represent each, plus two elected citywide. This year, all nine council members are up for reelection. Some of them are running in the district where they live (Bruce Harrell, Jean Godden, Kshama Sawant, Mike O'Brien, Sally Bagshaw), some are running citywide (Sally Clark, Tim Burgess) and some are bowing out (Tom Rasmussen, Nick Licata).

Those running in the districts will have fewer voters to sway and less money to raise, but they'll also have to get excited about street-level (literally) issues or risk getting painted as out of touch with the neighborhoods they want to represent.

We saw some of this when Rod Hearne announced his challenge to Council Member Kshama Sawant.

“I know the district very, very well," Hearne told me. "It’s the district I grew up in. ... She seems to be much more focused on sort of the broad-scale issues than the nitty gritty about some of the… issues involved in running the city." He offered building heights and street light timing as examples. "Citizens are going to want council members that respond to those issues and bring them to the council," he said.

And it was abundantly clear Monday morning when I spoke with the latest candidate to jump in against a sitting council member: Catherine Weatbrook, who’ll take on O’Brien for District 6, covering northwest Seattle including Ballard and Fremont.

Weatbrook, a 47-year-old facilities manager for a nonprofit-owned building, is active in the Ballard District Council, one of 13 neighborhood groups in the city.

“I think I am more deeply connected in the broader community of District 6 [than O’Brien],” Weatbrook told me.

She definitely likes to talk about neighborhood issues. Weatbrook credits the Ballard District Council with helping fix a 2011 rain garden project that turned into a swampy mess. She accuses the council of rezoning too much industrial land to allow non-industrial uses and of not making sure that so-called “complete streets” design (a policy that says streets should be designed with accommodations for all forms of transportation, including bikes and pedestrians) was used on Holman Road. She says recent micro-housing legislation should have included a requirement that micro-apartment buildings have space for a moving truck, because of their high rate of turnover and the inconvenience of moving trucks parked on neighborhood streets. She argues micro-housing buildings are too often built right to the edge of the property line, crowding the sidewalk and “decreasing walkability.” She also wants to improve transportation in part by working on the city’s Freight Master Plan and thinks bike thefts are higher than the Seattle Police Department is reporting, adding to a perception of rampant property crime.

"I’ve spent a lot of time talking with people in community and out there helping people file police reports to try to find their bike or trying to find the owner of the bike we found dumped in the ravine," Weatbrook said. "I want to spend some time in a place where I can affect some changes to make some of this basic stuff easier. I think it's the responsibility of city government to take some leadership on these issues."

Are these the kinds of things that are going to define district elections? Does it help/hurt that it’s an off-year election with no state or national offices on the ballot, one in which voters are likely to be older and maybe more interested in city wonk?

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O’Brien isn’t convinced. When I talked to him last month about his plans to run in the district, he said he thinks the issues he focuses on in this election “will be very similar” to those he's focused on in the past. To him, the things he cares about—linkage fees, coal and oil trains, expanding light rail, and fighting climate change among them—matter to the district as much as voters across the city.

But as Weatbrook's campaign materializes, expect her, and candidates like her, to push the conversation toward the smaller stuff.

“The point of districts is engagement," she said. "It’s listening. You can’t fix every problem or satisfy everyone—that’s not the point—but it’s making people feel heard and really understanding what the source of their frustration is.”