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The brave new world of Seattle city council districts

A map developed by the districts initiative supporters in 2013.

Seattle didn’t get any snow to speak of this year, but we’re seeing an avalanche now — of City Council candidates.

Like a snowboarder shredding a back country shelf, the new election process — choosing seven of our nine council members by district, and two at large — has loosened heretofore unknown mountains of political ambition. Forty-seven Seattleites, suddenly discovering their inner candidate, officially declared their intentions to run for City Council by last Friday’s filing deadline. Artists, entrepreneurs, paralegals, small business owners, advocates for housing, transportation and immigrants’ rights, a retired postal worker, military veteran and NASA employee and five of the current eight sitting Council members. The race is a full-on, come-one, come-all casting call.

Supporters of the switch to a district election model, approved by voters in 2013, list lots of pluses: The new district emphasis will lead to a more racially, ideologically diverse council that’s more responsive to the needs of regular voters; end downtown’s supposed stranglehold on City Hall; and give neighborhoods a new voice and more power in city government. Skeptics predict a Balkanized council that focuses on potholes rather than policy and can’t see the forest (Seattle) for the trees (neighborhoods).

It will likely take an election cycle or two before we find out who’s right. Crosscut will cover all the candidates and the issues from now through the August 4 primary and on into November’s general election.

Meantime, here’s a Crosscut primer that will help orient you to Seattle’s changing political landscape:

Meet the Districts: Shortly after voters approved the districts’ initiative, Crosscut’s Knute Berger and Benjamin Anderstone (with help from renowned demographer Richard Morrill, who drew up the district boundaries) took what remains the definitive look at the new power centers, their demographics and attitudes. A few highlights: District 1 (West Seattle, South Park) is the most suburban of all the new districts, and has some of the more conservative — relatively speaking, of course — voting tendencies. Its race will be wide open, since no incumbent is running. District 3, where socialist Kshama Sawant is seeking re-election, is the most progressive, but Sawant faces opposition from four other candidates.

Seattle City Council district politics come knocking: Knute Berger looked at the history of reform movements in the city and rising concerns that district council members may divert more city dollars to pet projects that benefit their own neighborhoods.

Voters wanted change and they are getting it: By early this year, as Berger wrote, it was clear that the prospect of district elections was already a disruptive force on the council.

Seattle as liberal bastion? Think again: Ben Anderstone looked at the limits of liberalism in Seattle and how it has played out over a series of elections. “For a town whose national reputation is defined by a progressive agenda, Seattle’s electorate is complex and oftentimes conflicted,” he concluded. In the new district system, that spells surprises ahead, in at least some of the districts.

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