It wasn't supposed to be this way. In Tuesday's primary election, the top two fundraisers in each Seattle City Council race advanced to the general election, with just two exceptions — Jon Grant and Michael Maddux. The candidates who campaigned as neighborhood representatives did poorly. And, perhaps with the exception of Maddux, there were few strong showings from any underdog candidates.
This primary was the first litmus test for Seattle’s new district-based election system, where seven council members are chosen by voters in their area and two members are elected citywide. The hopes of those who helped to pass the new system were that it would localize politics, reduce the influence of money, and make it easier for the smaller guys to campaign on hard work alone. On this first go-round, little of that appears to have happened.
In the hours leading up to the first ballot count Tuesday night, the campaigns of Tony Provine and Abel Pacheco, both from District 4, spoke of hard work reaching out to voters, expressing optimism about their campaigns against better-funded opponents. Provine’s campaign manager Laura Bernstein said volunteers were waving signs on Election Day, while Provine himself knocked on doors and made stops at neighborhood events.
After he finished fourth with just 13 percent of the vote, Provine said there had been signs the work might pay off. “We had a great deal of response from people who were excited by the idea of having some direct representation. I was trying to mobilize my neighbors to recognize that we had an opportunity for strong and effective representation from city council for the neighborhood.” Pacheco, too, said he’d put in everything he had to the campaign. “In 60 days I knocked on 6,500 doors,” he said. “My legs are chiseled. I lost 14 pounds.”
This was the type of political system that Faye Garneau of the Aurora Avenue Merchant’s Association imagined. Garneau bankrolled the switch from citywide to district elections in 2013, spending more than $200,000 of her own money to campaign on its behalf. “I’m thrilled,” she said prior to the election. “The candidates have gone out to the people. And that’s what I was trying to achieve. The government belongs to the people.”
But it’s hard to point to any candidates in the big, 47-person field who were catapulted to success as a direct result of district elections. Maddux would be the most likely: As of Wednesday night, he was beating Councilmember Jean Godden for one of two District 4 spots on the general election ballot. He only raised a third of what Godden did and less than half of what the top vote-getter, Rob Johnson, garnered, and he talked up his doorbelling efforts Tuesday night. While that is certainly a bit of a coup for Maddux, Godden has been on shaky ground since 2011 when she won her race by a mere tenth of 1 percent.
The other surprise winner of a general election spot is Jon Grant, who appears to have finished second in one of the two remaining citywide council positions. He beat John Roderick, a rock musician with name recognition and more than twice the campaign funds. But Grant, a longtime tenants' rights leader, has also grabbed the spotlight recently, thanks to the city’s housing debates. He may have also benefited from the strong showing in District 3 for Councilmember Kshama Sawant, with whom he did some campaigning.
Pacheco and Provine expressed disappointed with the results. “I do think [district elections] allows you to beat out some potential distraction that come from outside influence,” said Pacheco, but he added, “You’ve got to have money for people to pay attention in politics.”
“It says a lot about the political machinery that’s powerful in our city,” said Provine. “A lot of money was spent on this race. More than I could believe was put into independent expenditures in this race.”
Catherine Weatbrook from District 6 and citywide candidate Bill Bradburd are two other candidates labeled as neighborhood advocates. Although both will advance to the general election, they were trounced by their higher profile opponents, Councilmember Mike O’Brien and former Murray mayoral administration official Lorena Gonzalez, respectively. Weatbrook and Bradburd face long odds in November. “I don’t think district elections can counter name recognition unless other things change in the process,” said Weatbrook.
As a citywide candidate, Bradburd was never in a position to benefit directly from the district system. But there was some thought that neighborhood issues would be elevated and indirectly benefit someone like Bradburd. “I was expecting to do about 30-35 percent,” he said. “But obviously it didn’t work out that way.” As of Wednesday night, he was around 15 percent, nearly 40 percentage points down from Gonzalez.
Does this signal a failure of the district-based system? Not necessarily. The argument can be made, as former Mayor Mike McGinn has done, that this is a reflection of the power of a Seattle Times or Stranger endorsement. This could also signal that, as a Stranger reporter suggests, Seattle voters really don't endorse neighborhood-based NIMBYism.
For their part, proponents of district elections have remained upbeat. Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association, saw pre-election effects of the shift, implying that the voluntary exits of Sally Clark, Tom Rasmussen and Nick Licata from the Seattle City Council were a result of the new system – a motive all three have denied. “The Council will be changed to a female dominated Council,” said Wasserman over e-mail, assuming the election in November of Lorena Gonzalez and Debora Juarez, “with five women, three of whom are minorities, and only three white males.”
Garneau remained enthusiastic, although less so than before the election. “I think it’s a little too early to tell,” she said Wednesday. “Changing a system after it’s been in effect for over 100 years is pretty hard. And unfortunately in this country it seems like there are a lot of people who are willing to put up a lot of money to get a personal call” from someone they helped put in office with campaign contributions.
Although the margins of victory were fairly large — there arguably will be only three competitive races next November — Garneau maintained that the large candidate pool was a good thing. “The number of people running shows how many people are really interested in how the city is run,” she said.
Provine said he would not have run in the old citywide system. Pacheco said he would have, but added, “It would have been way harder to climb the ladder.” If, like Garneau, one measure of success is the number of candidates, then district elections seem to have accomplished something. But once the newcomers dove into the pool, the jury's out on whether they ever had a shot of winning to begin with.