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Seattle elections: A whole new era

By Crosscut contributors
City Council Chamber (1)
By Crosscut contributors

Election season 2015 officially launched last Friday at midnight, the candidate filing deadline. The final slate of City Council hopefuls will be finalized after the withdrawal deadline on Monday. But it looks like voters will have nearly four dozen office-seekers to choose from, most of them newcomers.

Even in a year when many county council and school board positions are also up for grabs, the primary and general election campaigns in Seattle will draw huge attention. And legitimately so. The outcome of the 2015 races promises a sea change for Seattle politics, not just in terms of who wins, but because of the historic nature of the election process itself. (You can find the full list of filings for all the city council, school board and other races on King County's website.)

As the campaigning begins, here are some things to keep in mind.

What you should know

For starters, this is the first election under a new hybrid system that virtually does away with the old practice of electing council members by citywide votes. Seven of the nine members will be elected by districts, a reorganization that voters approved in a 2013 initiative.

(The City Clerk's Office has a guide to the districts, which roughly conform to neighborhoods, and a link to King County Elections' interactive map for finding yours. You can find links to Crosscut's analysis of the districts and Seattle voting patterns here. We will also publish brief information about all the City Council candidates later.)

City
City Council districts

Second, the entire City Council is up for election in 2015, something City archivist Scott Cline says hasn't happened in Seattle since 1911. (Crosscut's Knute Berger provided details on the history of Seattle elections while covering the 2013 districts initiative campaign.)

Third, following this year's election, the terms of council members will be staggered. After their elections this fall, the seven district members will serve four-year terms, coming up for re-election in 2019 and then every four years after that. The two citywide council members will serve two-year terms this time; their positions convert to four-year terms after the 2017 election. To his knowledge, says City archivist Cline, the staggering of terms has never been this "lopsided" in Seattle's history. Usually, the election cycle has allowed for about half the council seats to come up for election in any given year, theoretically preserving institutional knowledge and continuity.

In embracing this new hybrid approach, voters were responding to widespread grumbling that the citywide system produced a council that lacked ethnic diversity, favored downtown interests, neglected neighborhood concerns and reduced pointed policy differences to a Seattle-nice version of wan consensus.

Sensing the opportunity in this new system, 47 Seattleites filed last week to compete for the nine city council positions. Nine are running to represent District 1 (West Seattle-South Park), where council incumbent Tom Rasmussen lives. Along with sitting council members Nick Licata and Sally Clark, Rasmussen is one of three incumbents who opted not to run for re-election. All professed confidence in their chances, but the departures of these council veterans only adds to the sense of potentially seismic shifts in the political landscape.

Why you should care

There's a big sorting out that will take place quickly: No race has fewer than three candidates, a wealth of options for a city used to limited competition for council positions. In the August 4 primary, voters will narrow the field from 47 to 18 finalists, two for each of the nine open positions.

The new system could give us a much more (racially and ideologically) diverse, neighborhood-centric council and approach to governing. New coalitions may emerge among council members and neighborhoods around mutually important issues and initiatives — transportation, education, policing, growth, walkability, urbanism.

On a more concrete level, longstanding complaints in north and south Seattle about the lack of sidewalks might finally result in more than token construction programs. On the other hand, a desire by council members to bring home projects for their own district could undermine the city's ability to focus, say, its social services spending on where the needs are greatest. Electing a council that can serve both neighborhoods and the city as a whole will be important.

If the supporters of the 2013 district initiative are right, money may take a back seat to personal touch in this 2015 election. The new district model favors small-ball campaigning with candidates door belling and actually talking one-on-one with constituents rather than relying on the name recognition of incumbency or heavy spending on media advertising and yard signs.

Of course, the district initiative passed just before Kshama Sawant brought a new energy to the council, displacing some of the chumminess with confrontations over business power, capitalism and workers' rights.

Here are some of the things we'll be watching

District elections are (theoretically) meant to create better neighborhood representation, which is especially important to residents in South Seattle. But what will the campaigns really emphasize this year? Will there be more talk about hyper local issues, such as more sidewalks in the North End or economic development along the Link light rail corridor in Southeast Seattle? Or will the candidates focus as they always have on bigger picture issues such as better transportation, spending levels and green initiatives?

Will Seattle's more diverse neighborhoods actually send more diverse candidates to City Hall? And what will that diversity mean for policies, politics and the future of the city?

In the new, smaller-scale district elections, vote margins between winners and losers will be significantly slimmer than they were in the old citywide system. That could make these races more susceptible to the influence of money. After all, it's easier to recruit 1,000 votes than 10,000. Speaking of money, incumbents Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell are the frontrunners in the fundraising race — by a mile and at the moment. For a look at fundraising totals for all contenders go to Seattle.gov.

There are already some high-profile political questions looming in the individual council races. Chief among them, how safe are City Council incumbents? Is Kshama Sawant really a shoo-in in District 3, as some insist? Are veterans Mike O'Brien, Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw as safe as many assume?

More broadly, could we wind up with a council of novices? Would that be bad?

Questions abound on this journey into uncharted political waters, but some things are certain: Primaries are on August 4. General elections take place November 3. And Crosscut will be there to cover it all.

  

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Seattle elections: A whole new era