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Cozy no more: Districts could end tranquil era for City Council

The current Seattle City Council. Credit:

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.”

“Maybe I need a better ego,” he added.

“I’m sure we’ll have a conversation in the next month or so,” said O’Brien, who is on track to win re-election in this year’s race by a roughly 30 percentage-point margin. “I haven’t really thought through it.”

Another reason Licata is considering an at-large run is that he’s unsure whether he wants to stick around the council for six more years. “I don’t necessarily want to run for a four-year term two years from now,” he said. Licata was re-elected to his fifth term this week, with results last Friday showing him with roughly 88 percent of the vote.

The current council term is four years, but under the charter amendment’s rules, at-large members elected in 2015 will serve two years, while those elected to district seats will serve four. Starting in 2017, at-large members will also serve four-year terms.

Two other district-sharing councilmembers, Burgess and Bagshaw, have voiced compatible preferences for 2015.

“I intend to run for District Seven,” Bagshaw said. “We’ve been talking about who wants to do what. Initially we both said we prefer at-large. We still believe that at-large is the better thing for the city.”

Burgess said, “I probably, right now, would lean toward running at-large.” Burgess also said that whispers among Seattle politicos that he might bail from the council and take a job in Mayor-elect Ed Murray’s administration are false. “I’m very happy staying at the council,” Burgess said, adding that in 2015, “I’ll either retire or run for re-election.”

With Licata and Burgess eyeing at-large seats, the future is less certain for Harrell and Clark. While Clark did not return calls for comment, Harrell said that he would be inclined to run in District Two.

“It’s premature for me to speculate about my plans,” he said. “But I see no reason to not run in the district I live in… I’ve lived there for over 40 years and I’m quite familiar with my district.”

Faye Garneau, the north Seattle businesswoman who bankrolled much of the Charter Amendment 19 campaign, insists that the initiative’s backers always intended to help the councilmembers. Garneau shelled out $232,447 of the roughly $262,690 that was contributed to the campaign, according to finance reports filed with the city at the end of October. She and other supporters contend that Seattle is too large for citywide council representation, and that currently councilmembers are overworked and don’t have enough time to learn about and understand neighborhood-level needs.

“I don’t even know if they have any home life for heaven’s sake,” she said.

Asked about concerns that horse-trading between district representatives could undermine the overall good of the city, Garneau said, “You think that doesn’t happen now?”

“Horse-trading is part of America,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a big deal.”

Councilmembers seemed resigned to dealing with the new system.

“We’ll make the best of it,” Burgess said.

Licata looked for an upside. “I would hope that some communities who think they’re being ignored,” he said, “will not feel ignored anymore.”

Burgess and Licata also both expressed concerns that district elections would concentrate more power in the mayor’s office. 

O’Brien, meanwhile, suggested that district elections might improve the council. “It’s here now,” he said, “and it’s going to shake things up and I think shaking things up is a potential opportunity.”

Among the members who live in unshared districts are Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen and Conlin.

Conlin said last week that he’d retire after his next term. If the vote count doesn’t start trending in his favor, he might end up retiring at the end of next month. Like Conlin, Sawant currently lives in District Three. On election night she expressed interest in running again, even if defeated. But Sawant has not decided whether to seek a district position or an at-large seat in 2015, her campaign manger, Ramy Khalil, said on Sunday. Referring to the decision, Khalil said, "We need a clearer sense of what the terrain looks like."

Christian Sinderman, a consultant who has worked on past council races, said the district system would change the character of future campaigns. “Candidates will spend more time knocking on doors, in addition to appearing at events and raising funds,” he said. He also said that the current batch of councilmembers were all top-notch contenders. “They’ve all proven they can run aggressive campaigns,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of vulnerability with any of them.”

Future campaigns and election system changes aside, O’Brien remains optimistic about the future of the council. “My hope is that we’ll do what’s best for the city,” he said. “What’s good for the city is good for people in my neighborhood.”

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