Bellevue elections: A city at a turning point

The city is growing in stature internationally but council campaigns reflect tensions between downtown and neighborhoods that want change.
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Bellevue at night

The city is growing in stature internationally but council campaigns reflect tensions between downtown and neighborhoods that want change.

Bellevue is maturing from a suburb to a global center, mixing old with new, neighborhoods with urban development and Eastside natives with almost one in three foreign-born. Its city council will undergo its own evolution of sorts, in this fall’s election contests for three seats.

The six-candidate ballot features three immigrants and a cast of political newcomers frustrated with the uneven growth of Bellevue, which has produced a thriving downtown core but left neighborhoods feeling overshadowed by the rising skyline.

The most sharply drawn of the races pits incumbent Kevin Wallace, a prominent Bellevue developer with big business clout, against Steve Kasner, a substitute teacher and member of the East Bellevue Community Council.

Political newcomers Lynne Robinson and Vandana Slatter face off in the race for council position 6 after elbowing out long-time conservative incumbent Don Davidson in the primary. The two also present a race of contrasts. Robinson, a physical therapist, draws on years of service on Bellevue’s Network on Aging and the Parks Board; Slatter, a biotech employee has ties to a global industry with big implications for a city of 130,000, but lacks experience on city boards and commissions. In position 2, Mayor Conrad Lee faces Lyndon Heywood, though the race has mostly been dismissed as a shoe in. Few consider Heywood, who has vowed not to raise campaign funds, a serious contender but he’s proven colorful.  “I love the English chocolate bars that they sell in Cost Plus,” he said when asked what he liked best about downtown Bellevue.

Bellevue has rapidly built a reputation as a burgeoning tech hub — Microsoft, Expedia, PACCAR and T-Mobile all have a strong presence — but the so-called city in a park still faces its own set of growing pains as its business profile rises regionally and even internationally. While downtown flourishes, having earlier this month witnessed the $88 million sale of a site one block west of the downtown transit center, many of Bellevue’s neighborhoods are feeling the strain. Local shopping centers have withered in the face of chain-store competition; single-family homes are being converted to informal dorms in the wake of Bellevue College’s expansion; and congestion now stretches beyond I-405 and the main downtown arterials.

Among the items facing the next council will be implementing light rail, promoting growth in corridors like Bel-Red, negotiating a comprehensive plan update and assessing what capital projects are feasible given Bellevue’s budget and development goals.

“Bellevue 1.0 has been great. I think there’s a Bellevue 2.0 out there,” said candidate Slatter. “If we’re going to be a global city competing with Hyderabad and Beijing, it’s important to have that perspective at the table.”

Candidates agree on imperatives like improving transportation and infrastructure, but differ in how to accomplish it and what should take priority. Heywood and Kasner have frankly questioned whether the city is living within its means. And while incumbents Lee and Wallace take every opportunity to remind voters of the city’s unanimous vote on light rail, their challengers claim East Link light-rail discussions have obscured other issues.

“People are afraid that the city will put too much emphasis on development and not remember the value of neighborhoods,” said Robinson. “When downtown does well, neighborhoods do well.”

Robinson, who cemented a comfortable lead over Slatter in the primary, has accused her opponent of merely using the office as a stepping stone to other political ambitions. Slatter raised eyebrows for a record-breaking $76,000 in personal funds contributed to her campaign (including her own in-kind contributions and two $900 payments by her husband).  An Indian-American who emigrated from Canada, Slatter has campaigned under the banner of diversity, calling herself “the new face of Bellevue.” Defeated incumbent Davidson — whose primary defeat was seen as breaking up a solid conservative majority — endorsed the biotech employee. She has promoted her work in the private and public sector as advantageous to Bellevue’s business climate and critical to regional partnerships on transportation.

Early on, the officially nonpartisan races took a partisan tilt. In a shakily filmed YouTube clip, Kasner told a Democratic gathering that his election would induce a Democratic “tsunami,” and turn the “purple Eastside” blue. Wallace chastised his opponent for making municipal elections, partisan. Robinson and Slatter followed suit, quickly distancing themselves from the politicking.

Kasner remains ready to make his case for replacing Wallace. “I’m not sure there’s been a clearer contrast between two candidates in the last 15 to 20 years in this region,” said Kasner of his opponent in the race for position 4.

Wallace touts his work on the Sound Transit light-rail alignment, advocating for sound mitigation and setbacks for neighborhoods along one segment. He also proudly notes his efforts on a no-new-taxes budget. Kasner is vocal about his frustrations with the slow pace of projects in the city and the council’s “cherry-picking” of topics in place of addressing neighborhood issues. He’s often said the city is too dependent on a sales-tax model, which is successful he claims only in “boom times.” He’s quick to point out Wallace’s support of a defunct light-rail alignment, and like newcomers Slatter and Robinson, has advocated for a more transparent government.

In his campaign against Mayor Lee, Heywood has said, “I’d take big boots to some of city staff.” That echoes similar disgruntlement on his part about the glacial speed of council agenda items and what he claims is an unresponsive staff.

Heywood emigrated from London in 2004 and became a citizen two years ago (making this the first local election he is eligible to vote in). But while he’s generated laughs, Heywood offers a sharp perspective on Bellevue’s shortcomings. He blasts the downtown as characterless, claiming it has all the charm of an airport terminal. He has said the failed installation of a bike lane near his house was the reason he first got involved in politics. Multi-modal transportation is a major underpinning of Bellevue’s ongoing comprehensive plan update.

For Lee, the focus is downtown, “the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Also an immigrant, Lee’s years of leadership have greatly bolstered the city’s global status with business ties to Asia. Last year he helped launch, a bilingual website promoting Chinese businesses and investment on the Eastside. As a councilmember he’s been instrumental to cooperative economic agreements with the cities of Dalian and Qingdao, China. Two Fu lion statues flank the entrance to Bellevue City Hall; they are gifts from Bellevue’s sister city, Hualien, Taiwan, and a testament to the city’s international ties.


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