Tight council race exposes a divided West Seattle

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Lisa Herbold and Shannon Braddock are in the tightest race for city council.

When Lisa Herbold finds me on the corner of California and Raymond in West Seattle, she’s fuming. “Instead of another profile piece,” says the District 1 candidate for Seattle City Council, “I thought you’d be interested in this.” She gives me a blurry photo a friend took of a Rental Housing Authority (RHA) newsletter. It warns its members that Herbold’s “tenant-centric” approach would “represent a disaster for the industry.”

Herbold is incensed. And yet, as she works down her list of registered voters on a recent Monday afternoon, knocking on apartment doors in buildings that were perhaps once motels, she celebrates the slight, handing would-be voters a slip of paper detailing just how much the RHA fears her campaign. Herbold’s point, it seems, is that she’s the enemy of the enemy -- and therefore your friend.

It's an interesting contrast to the scene that awaited me the previous Thursday, when I met Herbold’s opponent, Shannon Braddock, at Freshy’s coffee shop on California Avenue. I grabbed a table that is reserved on Fridays for a psychic. When Braddock came through the front door, she apologized for being tardy, even though it was only by a couple of minutes. She knew a number of people in the small cafe, mostly from her daughter’s school. None mentioned her candidacy for City Council. After speaking for a while, we walked a nearby stretch of single-family homes as Braddock doorbelled. She had no incendiary flyers and abided by “No Soliciting” signs.

It’s hard to ignore how well the settings in which I met these opponents, who essentially tied in the primaries last August, play into their stereotypes. Braddock has been lumped into the category of “establishment” candidate – seen as representative of Seattle’s wealthy liberals and large donors. Herbold has been pushed to the populist corner, shared for better or worse with socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant. Both resist this binary – Herbold calls the categories “only marginally useful.”

And yet our meetings do little to dispel the feeling that District 1 is a race between the wealthier properties along the waterfront and the chipped paint apartment buildings southeast of 35th Avenue. Herbold's pride in being the candidate the RHA fears seems indicative that there are groups (in this case tenants) that deserve her attention more than others. Braddock, on the other hand, makes no such priority, pledging collaboration and community above all else.

While Shannon Braddock has seen the challenges of campaigning from behind the curtains, this is her first time sticking her own neck out.

Braddock grew up in Bellingham surrounded by politics. Her father, Dennis Braddock, was a lifelong politician, appointed by Gov. Gary

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Shannon Braddock resists her establishment label.

Locke as Secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. From a young age, Shannon had people come up to her to talk about what her father did or did not do. “I guess I caught the disease,” she says of her future life in politics.

After college, Braddock buried herself in politics, first in Washington D.C., in the world of committees, then in Austin, Texas, as an executive assistant for the state's lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock. (She jokes that, in a Texas governed by George W. Bush, she was considered a socialist.)

But when Braddock became pregnant, she and her husband moved back to the Northwest and she became a stay-at-home mother. “I leaned out,” she says, referencing Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. “[Sandberg] talks about women who take themselves out of the workforce before they should. I kind of did that.” It would be more than 10 years before she met King County Councilmember Joe McDermott and she'd re-enter the workforce. “I told him, ‘you should hire me.’ And he did,” she says.

Almost every candidate for office says it was their colleagues’ idea that they should run for office – a sort of “Who me?” that injects some humility into a naturally narcissistic endeavor. True or not, Braddock is no different. “I swore I would never do it,” she says. “I like the behind the scenes. I guess I’d say I’m not politically ambitious.” But when Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, a West Seattle resident, announced his retirement, Braddock started getting nudges, including from McDermott. After some hemming and hawing, Braddock drew on her inner Russell Wilson and asked herself, “Why not me?”

Some of the ensuing vitriol has been surprising. Despite her years in government, her masters degree from the University of Washington's Evan School and her sharp and articulate answers, a whole discussion unfolded on the District 1 Facebook page as to whether Braddock could be a councilmember and mother at the same time. Friends of hers, she says, have advised her to not talk about her kids on the campaign trail. “It genuinely surprised me,” she says, “that men I would consider progressive have broached the subject and think it’s okay and not sexist at all.”

What confuses Braddock the most, however, is how quickly and firmly she was tagged with the establishment label. “It’s funny because the ‘establishment’ has no idea who I am,” she says, laughing. “Within two weeks I went from ‘who’s that?’ to being the establishment candidate.” Some of that is because she favors a more measured approach. She celebrates the city's compromise with developers in Mayor Ed Murray's housing recommendations. She's tenuous when it comes to rent control (at least "traditional" rent control). She supports a neighborhood-first approach to governing. She repeats that "business is not the bad guy."

But all of that means little compared to her alliance with one man: Christian Sinderman. Sinderman’s consulting firm, Northwest Passage, was behind the campaigns of Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine, councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Tom Rasmussen, Tim Burgess, and Bruce Harrell, and an enormous list of other candidates and ballot measures. In Seattle area races, Sinderman’s candidates are often awarded the support of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and, almost by default, become the “business candidates.”

Braddock nods knowingly when asked about Northwest Passages. “It’s interesting, because to make yourself viable you need the big guns,” she says. “But once you get there, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve sold out.’ As far as I’m concerned, he’s done some great work. He’s won some races and lost some races. I feel great he’s my consultant.”

But there's something else that makes Braddock look like the big money candidate, whether she likes it or not: She’s received nearly $80,000 in backing from an independent expenditure – a sort of local version of a Super PAC – named People for Shannon. Braddock swears it was a shock to her. “I learned about it because I read it in ‘C if for Crank,’” she said. “I was like, ‘what are they doing? What are they doing?’ It’s a little disconcerting to not control your own message.”

Nonetheless, in a progressive city that looks positioned to pass a major campaign finance experiment, receiving money from an outside group that is less beholden to donation caps than ordinary donors can make life a little bit awkward.

“She hasn’t come out and said stop doing it,” Herbold says of Braddock's response to the People for Shannon group, adding handwritten messages to every flier she wedges into the crevices of unanswered doors. Herbold is a little more down to business than her opponent. She’s accommodating of a reporter, absolutely. She answers my questions, we joke off the record and she even gossips a little bit. But while Braddock would have sat with me in Freshy’s for as long as I had questions, the feeling with Herbold is that this is her time to get things done and, if I can keep up, I’m welcome to follow along.

While Braddock has quickly gained a reputation as the establishment candidate, Harbold comes with her own set of baggage. For the past 17 years, she has been an aide to Nick Licata, who was was by far the most progressive person on the council until the arrival of Councilmember Sawant. Herbold is often credited for being the brains behind his efforts, drafting and vetting legislation. On her campaign, she walks a thin line between advertising her work with Licata and establishing herself as her own candidate. As she knocks on doors, she mentions that she has his endorsement, but not that she works for him.

Herbold isn’t a native, but who is these days? She’s a self-described community organizer from upstate New York. She has moved from one advocacy organization to the next, working first for Syracuse United Neighbors, then, inspired by the efforts on behalf of the homeless in Tompkins Square in New York City, volunteered with  Habitat for Humanity. She came to Seattle to open an office for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group for poor families. Eventually, she moved over to the Tenants Union where she worked as a community organizer, educating tenants on their rights and advocating for tenant friendly laws in Seattle and Olympia.

Herbold met Licata as the Tenants Union fell on hard times and her hours waned. Licata, she says, did not want to hire a campaign consultant. He was looking for someone with community organizing experience – someone who could mobilize populations. Herbold fit the bill. She’s been in City Hall ever since.

I ask Herbold where she lives now. She smiles. “I want to show you something,” she says. She pulls her phone out of her pocket and brings up a precinct map of West Seattle. It is colored based on which candidate won which precinct in the August primaries. Herbold is blue and Braddock is salmon-pink. East of 35th, which is a little poorer, more industrial and less populated, all the precincts are blue for Herbold. Admiral way and along the waterfront is pink for Braddock. “I live here,” she says, pointing to a section in the middle of the blue, “in Highland Park.”

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Like the RHA's endorsement of Braddock, this split is both a point of outrage and pride. Herbold promises that she knows the politics of City Hall and the importance of collaboration. She even suggests a venue in which landlords and tenants can get together and share their challenges. But getting along nevertheless plays second fiddle to beating back the forces she sees as hurting Average Joe/Jane in West Seattle. That means she wishes the mayor's housing recommendations had extracted more from developers. That means she wants to make evictions harder at every turn. It means she favors finding ways to restrict landlords from hiking rents beyond a certain level and dipping into the City's bonding capacity to build affordable housing. She favors policies that would make it harder to tear down older, often more affordable apartment buildings.

In person, the two candidates don’t really take the negative bait; you don’t get the sense that they hold each other in particular contempt. “I only know Lisa from the campaign trail,” says Braddock. When asked how she’s different from Herbold, she says, “I feel more engaged at the community level.” But she doesn’t get any more negative than that, steering the conversation back to her own accomplishments.

Herbold has complained publicly about the negative attacks funded by People for Shannon. In an e-mail to her supporters, she called the independent expenditures group “shady and deceptive.” But she doesn’t think Braddock’s behavior as a councilmember would be influenced by the money she received. “I don’t think it will buy her vote,” she says. “But I think it will buy the election.”

Herbold is more critical of Braddock's backing from the Rental Housing Authority. It's the kind of group that wants a status quo politician, she says, insinuating that Braddock, therefore, must be status quo.

Braddock, meanwhile, emphasizes the diversity of the King County Council. “We have Republicans on the council,” she says. Her base of supporters and time with King County, she says, is proof that she knows how to work respectfully with everyone, even if she disagrees. She doesn’t say so, but this is emerging as a common argument against some of the more populist council candidates – that they don’t work well with others.

The temptation of this race is to draw it as Tim Burgess versus Kshama Sawant — the establishment candidate vs. the lefty agitator. Braddock and Herbold both roll their eyes. “I don’t see it that way,” says Herbold. While popular movements can work to a politician's advantage, she says, “it’s not the whole thing.” Sometimes it can push you in a direction you didn’t want to go. As an example, she points to a recent decision of Licata's to allow language in a rent control resolution that suggested the city should favor it. According to Herbold, that was a mistake.

“I don’t know how these narratives get played out,” says Braddock, but she’s uninterested in them. And yet, for us members of the media and even the opponents on the campaign trail, it's a useful trope that emerges nonetheless: Who do you want? A fighter or a collaborator?