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How they won: Optimistic message helped most Seattle City Council victors

After last week’s election, one thing is certain: this election meant something. But as always, the specifics depend on who you’re asking.

The Seattle Times had a few different takes. Columnist Danny Westneat argued that Seattle’s “increasingly liberal voters” are saying ‘bring it on.’” Political reporter Daniel Beekman identified urbanists as the big winners. Here at Crosscut, our own Knute Berger called the batch of results “oddly familiar.” David Kroman said it was a “big win for Seattle normal.”

I’ll leave the punditing to the pundits, but to me, the results show a clear duality. Political opinions are driven by two things — let’s call one the political climate, and the other the political weather. The political climate is about fundamental, long-term attitudes toward government, reform and ideology. It shifts slowly, rarely driven by individual news events, instead coming from demographic changes and socioeconomic trends. Political weather, in contrast, is about today. It’s about the news stories that drive passions and frame individual candidates.

Last week’s election shows that Seattle’s political climate remains progressive and reform-friendly, but our political weather was rather calm. Candidates who warned of approaching stormclouds got little traction. The populist liberals who held their own largely did so on positive grounds. With a strong economy and little organized anger at government, last week was mostly light breezes and fair skies.

To get a better sense of the forecast, let’s take a look at the races, and drill down to the neighborhood level to find out how each candidate won.

District 1: Too close to call in West Seattle

Well, this is a close one. As of press time, Shannon Braddock is bracing for a likely upset by Lisa Herbold, the latest challenger affiliated with Seattle’s left bloc to surge in later vote counts.

This summer, in my post-Primary review, I wrote that this was a highly polarized race, with Herbold prevailing in Seattle’s more working-class interior neighborhoods like Delridge, and Braddock winning upper-class precincts closer to the water, with areas like the Junction being battlegrounds. The elimination of more overtly bloc-oriented candidates, like moderate Seattle Times favorite Phillip Tavel, actually made this race less polarized in the General. On Election Night, Herbold was winning several wealthy waterfront precincts. Braddock had made inroads in the interior. South Park, where Braddock received a terrible 8 percent in the Primary, was giving her 39 percent in early results Tuesday.

How did Herbold possibly prevail? First, higher turnout helped her, bringing out demographics (younger, lower-income voters) that favored her. Second, the de-polarization helped her. Braddock had more to gain in votes from eliminated Primary candidates than Herbold did. However, it appears from precinct results that Herbold actually picked up some support in moderate-leaning areas where Tavel did well in the Primary. In the end, voters clearly saw less ideological distinction between Braddock and Herbold than the political class did. Like the other successful left bloc candidates, Herbold succeeded because she also appealed to voter groups who are generally moderate and relatively less populist, not in spite of it.

District 2: A surprise nail-biter

I would venture to guess that there was one group of the electorate that was angry this year, and it was readers of the Stranger. And they were angry at Bruce Harrell. The venerable weekly newspaper gave Harrell a backhanded endorsement in the Primary (complaining that he wasn’t aggressive enough about police reform and other issues close to its heart), and then revoked the endorsement big time for the General Election. At press time, Harrell is narrowly leading Tammy Morales, with late ballots skewing toward Morales. While the Stranger may not have accounted for Harrell’s entire decline, precinct results suggest it’s the paper’s core demographics that are giving Harrell a big scare.

In the Primary, Harrell received a strong 62-25 percent victory districtwide. It appears that, between the Primary and the General, Harrell will have cratered about 28 percentage points in Georgetown, and about 16 points in Columbia City, both areas with high levels of younger, progressive white voters, and historically bastions for Stranger-supported candidates. These sorts of losses almost never happen. In contrast, Harrell held steady in Brighton, the District’s most heavily minority neighborhood. While Harrell’s strongest group was always poorer, non-white voters in neighborhoods like Rainier Beach and South Beacon Hill, his big losses among liberal whites might have taken him out. 

District 3: Kshama Sawant defeats Pamela Banks

Like many liberal candidates, Kshama Sawant has gained significantly since Election Night. Despite that, District 3 is so polarized that it’s unlikely to change the fundamentals of what happened. Again, younger, urban neighborhoods were Sawant strongholds. In the wealthy single-family neighborhoods north of Roy Street and east of 31st  Avenue, Banks won heavily. Elsewhere, with the exception of a few senior-heavy precincts on First Hill, it was all Sawant. The extremes were typically amusing: Sawant maxed-out at 79.4 percent at a Capitol Hill precinct (around the Biltmore Apartments), but only managed 7.1 percent at Broadmoor Golf & Country Club, where exposure has definitely not dulled wealthy voters’ allergic reactions to her. (Check out local consultant Phil Gardner’s eye-pleasing map of the results.)

How does this fit into my narrative about Seattle voters being inclined toward progressivism and reformism, but not pessimistic populism? Isn’t Sawant the ultimate anti-establishment populist, with her focus on sharp-tongued criticism of prevailing forces? Sure. But the story here is not about how Sawant won, but to what extent she did. Sawant won, but I do not count this as a big win for aggressively lefty populism. More on that another time. 

District 4: Rob Johnson bests Michael Maddux

In this year’s most adorably friendly City Council race, transportation wonk Rob Johnson ultimately defeated local government wonk Michael Maddux by a fairly thin margin. From the beginning, this was a remarkably polarized race for being so darn friendly. Although their politics are largely similar, the candidates’ temperaments and political approach divided organizational endorsements. Johnson was favored by more moderate groups, business groups, and the Seattle Times; Maddux had the nod from more progressive and activist-oriented groups and the Stranger.

The election results are falling similarly. On Election Night, when Johnson had a larger 55-45 percent lead, he was easily winning moderate, affluent neighborhoods like Laurelhurst (74 percent), Hawthorne Hills (71 percent), View Ridge (71 percent), and Windermere (68 percent). Maddux’s support was typical for left bloc candidates, with good showings in his home of Eastlake (60 percent), the U-District (60 percent), Fremont (59 percent), and Wallingford (56 percent), which is a lot more left-wing than its prosperous reputation might suggest.

This was, by the way, an impressive performance for Maddux. More even than Lisa Herbold in District 1, Maddux was confronted with a tough electorate – eliminated candidates Jean Godden and Tony Provine received support from electorates where he received few Primary votes – and made substantial inroads. In the end, it wasn’t quite enough against Johnson’s broad support base, but Maddux was another example of a left bloc candidate who did well through a positive, optimistic campaign. The joint press release from Maddux and Johnson at the race’s end was an especially nice touch.

District 5: Debora Juarez keeps the magic

I’m going to keep my District 5 review brief, not because of Debora Juarez’s impressive 65-35 percent victory margin, but because of how uniform it was. Election Night results had Juarez leading just about everywhere. With little ideological division (Juarez was endorsed by both the Times and the Stranger), she simply had few electoral weak spots. Opponent Sandy Brown had pockets of support in his home neighborhood, as well as some established neighborhoods with older residents, especially near the water. Elsewhere, Juarez did exceptionally. Brown’s best showing was in the Cedar Park neighborhood, where he did some work to secure a public beach access point. He won the beachfront precinct, and got 43 percent overall. Juarez’s best showing was in Little Brook, a diverse and decidedly working-class Lake City neighborhood, where she received 77 percent.

 District 6: Neighborhood concerns can’t oust O’Brien

Neighborhood activist Catherine Weatbrook is the sort of candidate who had a tough year. Although she was not necessarily a left bloc candidate (incumbent Mike O’Brien is seen as a progressive champion in most voters’ eyes), she was certainly running on a populist message with a negativist bent – heavily critical of O’Brien’s handling of neighborhood growth and the local maritime industry. It was a good test of the hyper-local, populist approach some suggested could triumph under the new districts system.

Weatbrook ultimately lost 61 to 38 percent, but did her approach help? Only very locally, it looks like. While the renter-heavy West Ballard precincts immediately adjacent to a proposed test camp on city property for the homeless actually voted for O’Brien, the wealthy nearby single-family precincts were downright wrathful. One voted Weatbrook by an over 3-to-1 margin after supporting O’Brien in the primary. The effect faded quickly, though. O’Brien broke 60 percent in precincts mere blocks away. All politics is local, but some politics is more local than others.

Besides that, Weatbrook’s neighborhoods-focused, critical campaign didn’t spark with the more macro-minded, upbeat electorate. O’Brien landslided in Fremont (71 percent), Meridian/Tangletown (71 percent), Greenwood (68 percent), and Phinney Ridge (66 percent), and won many single-family areas embattled by growth issues. This race is another sign that the electorate is mostly seeing sunshine, even while some candidates talk clouds.

District 7: Sally Bagshaw in a walk

As in the Primary, the District 7 results ranged from Sally Bagshaw landslides to Sally Bagshaw mega-landslides. Bagshaw’s best areas were more urban, led by South Lake Union (89 percent), Downtown (88 percent), and Denny Triangle (88 percent). Her “worst” neighborhood was Magnolia’s moderate, single-family Briarcliff (68 percent), where her skepticism over growth and bikes struck a chord with some voters. It seems unfair to hold this non-competitive race as another indication of our good-weather electorate, but it’s certainly consistent.

Position 8: Tim Burgess defeats Jon Grant

Another tough race for the populist wing of the left bloc, Jon Grant’s Election Night showing of 42 percent has edged up to 44 percent. Still, the former Tenants Union head saw a tough performance that mostly limited him to lefty bastions. Burgess, who has always been popular among downscale voters in places like Rainier Valley (who are very different than similar-income voters in Capitol Hill), also did well in affluent suburbs and with the middle class, and appears to have won every City Council district. Grant’s Capitol Hill win was strong, 58-42 percent on Election Night, but simply not enough. At least 1-in-7 of Cap Hill voters split their tickets between Tim Burgess and Kshama Sawant, and Grant narrowly lost Sawant’s District 3. This is yet another indication that, for people not named Kshama, this was a tough year to be an insurgent left-wing populist.

District 9: Lorena Gonzalez landslides Bill Bradburd

Like Weatbrook, neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd ran a sharply critical campaign. Even more than Weatbrook, Bradburd focused on critiquing local government’s approach to growth, both in housing and the economy. Ultimately, this message found little traction. On Election Night, Gonzalez led Bradburd 3-to-1, and the margin has expanded since. Gonzalez was winning 952 of Seattle’s 955 precincts, but Bradburd found some support, especially in single-family neighborhoods with established residents and/or economic strife. He topped out in older homeowner-heavy Cedar Park (35 percent) and Arbor Heights (33 percent), and downscale South Park (33 percent) and Rainier View (33 percent). By contrast, Gonzalez triumphed with urban renters and the very wealthy. She did best in super-wealthy Washington Park (88 percent), as well as Capitol Hill (86 percent) and Madrona (85 percent).

Move Seattle and Honest Elections

The optimistically progressive climate was perhaps most evident in ballot measures. Despite criticisms of government inefficiency and the regressive tax strain of the massive $930 million transportation package, Move Seattle is leading with a strong 59 percent. Honest Elections, an intriguing voucher system that institutes public financing, is pulling a great 63 percent, deflecting concern that it was too experimental.

Yet again, we see a Seattle electorate that’s progressive and open-minded, and not easily swayed by negative or pessimistic messaging. There were a few neighborhood-level differences between the two measures. Working-class areas liked Honest Elections more than Move Seattle; urbanites and the ultra-wealthy liked Move Seattle more than Honest Elections. Lefty neighborhoods liked both more than moderate neighborhoods. No surprises here.

With no signs of storm clouds on the horizon, it’s business as usual. No sign of a tax revolt, a populist uprising, an economic backlash, or much of anything. At least for now, Seattle’s political forecast is in a familiar holding pattern: up for the new, but comfortable with the same.

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