The collegiality that has defined the Seattle City Council in recent years could be rattled by the passage of a ballot initiative that calls for some of the city’s legislators to be elected in district rather than citywide races.
The initiative, Charter Amendment 19, is slated to go into effect in 2015. During that election cycle, all nine council seats will be up for grabs, seven in district races and two in citywide “at-large” contests. Voters across Seattle currently elect all nine councilmembers. The city electorate showed strong approval for Charter Amendment 19, with more than 65 percent of ballots counted so far in favor of the initiative.
The new election system creates a near-term rub for six councilmembers that currently share districts. These councilmembers will have to decide whether to compete against colleagues in district races, run for an at-large seat, or retire. While they don’t need to officially make this choice until mid-May 2015 — when declarations of candidacy are due with King County Elections — some of the members have already begun signaling which type of seat they would prefer.
Voters in this year's election may have tossed the council another curveball in addition to the districts initiative. The ongoing vote count suggests that Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant could unseat Richard Conlin, one of the council’s longest serving members. The four-term councilman's comfy 7.5 percentage point lead on election night steadily eroded as King County Elections processed late-arriving ballots last week. And by last Friday the race was a squeaker, with Conlin leading by slightly less than 1 percentage point, with an advantage of just 1,237 votes.
Some councilmembers believe that once the new election system is in place, neighborhood politics will undermine citywide priorities and reduce cooperation within the council.
“One of my concerns is that we fragment our city, that the lines of poverty become clearer and more distinct and we stop thinking about regional solutions,” said Bruce Harrell, who shares the new District Two in southeast Seattle with Council President Sally Clark.
“I think turf wars become inevitable,” he said. “I don’t think the council will work as unified as it currently does.”
Tim Burgess, who shares District Seven with Sally Bagshaw, agreed. “I think it will be easy for councilmembers to focus on their district and to potentially lose sight of the needs of the city as a whole,” Burgess said. “Now hopefully that won’t happen, but it will be really tempting.”
The councilmembers who spoke about their future campaign plans emphasized that the first round of district elections is a long way off, and couched answers about how they would run with some uncertainty. But with only two at-large positions available, at least one of the three district-sharing pairs will need to square off in 2015 — barring a retirement or a member moving to the currently unrepresented District Five in north Seattle.
Nick Licata, who shares District Six with Mike O’Brien, said the vibe between council mates could change if they were suddenly competing for the same seat. “If you have two councilmembers, you know, and I’m running for your job, there’s going to be a little tension there,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine how it’s not going to impact attitude a little bit.”
Harrell and Burgess recently competed on the campaign trail, when they both ran in this year’s mayoral primary. Harrell was among the seven candidates beat out by mayor-elect Ed Murray and Mayor Mike McGinn. Burgess bowed out before the end of the race. Asked whether it would be uncomfortable competing against a colleague to keep his council seat, Harrell said, “It would be awkward I suppose, but this is politics, that’s nature of the business.”
Jokingly, Licata said of O’Brien: “I should ask him who’s going to move.” In seriousness, Licata said he’s inclined to run at-large. “I like Mike,” he said. “I wouldn’t run against someone who has done a good job; that doesn’t seem right.”
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