New type of city council politics: Not so much

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What if they gave a brand new district election and nobody came?

You can be excused for wondering that based on the Aug. 4 primary results. Seattle voter turnout, according to political consultant and Crosscut contributor Ben Anderstone, is projected to reach an anaemic 25-27 percent. That’s way below 2013’s turnout of 34.95 percent, and almost as bad as 2007’s dismal 25.03 percent, what then seemed like a vote of no confidence in our first August primary. Seattle generally doesn’t like to be bothered with politics until after Labor Day, once the scream of the Blue Angels is out of our ears.

This election was supposed to be energizing, not underwhelming. In 2013, Seattle voters decided to switch to a new hybrid system featuring seven city council districts and two at-large seats, instead of the previous nine at-large. District elections, advocates said, would bring out the masses, empower local candidates with the ability to doorbell their neighborhoods. The districts were supposed to bring back the little guy or gal to a city politics dominated by candidates with the big money and name familiarity to win citywide.

So far, it’s been a fizzle by those standards. Of the nine council seats up this time, five primary races were won by council incumbents, who sport large leads and lots of money: Bruce Harrell in the 2nd, Kshama Sawant in the 3rd, Mike O’Brien in the 6th, Sally Bagshaw in the 7th and Tim Burgess in the 8th. Only one incumbent is tottering: Jean Godden in the 4th.

If there is a citywide desire for change, it is so far dormant, and the five incumbents' sizable leads suggest they will also be dominant in November. The election turnout will be higher, but little suggests the citywide electorate will be dramatically different from the subset that bothered to vote this week. Money and name familiarity still matter, districts or no.

Races in the 1st and 4th districts do look to be competitive since they are currently too close to call. And the 9th council position—an at-large seat—has a newcomer and strong frontrunner in Lorena Gonzalez.

Anderstone says that the “early results don’t point to districts being a game changer in how we run campaigns. Winners are either well-funded or supported by powerful institutional forces, such as newspaper endorsements. The traditional mode of campaigning is not going to be upended.” Not yet anyway.

One effect of the new system was to generate a huge number of primary challengers—47 in all. But, oddly, this populist outpouring to civic engagement was contrasted by the fact that, whereas Seattle voters used to be able to vote for nine council members, they can now only vote for three. It’s like getting to shop in Whole Foods but only having three bucks to spend. The new ballot did seem to demand extra study, especially for those in districts like the 1st with nine candidates and the 5th with eight, and no incumbents running. If people got more choices, however, they also seemed to spend their votes very conventionally.

No neighborhood upsurge was in evidence. Bill Bradburd, chair of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, made it through to the general coming in second place for position 9, but with only 15 percent of a lopsided vote. Tony Provine in the 4th got lost in the shuffle among Rob Johnson, Michael Maddux and Godden. The battle to protect single family neighborhoods was won before most votes were cast, and might not have been a factor anyway. Consider it a potential third rail defused.

Downtown business and establishment institutions should take heart from the primary results. The real impact from district elections is more likely to be seen in governing—how money is allocated citywide, and in accountability and constituent service—not in how candidates get elected. The mayor will likely end up dealing with a council that he mostly knows, and which largely supports his agenda.

The August primary suggests that the general election, barring a dramatic turn of events, is going to be mostly political business as usual.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.