Close race: Harrell, in line for Council President, up against the ropes

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The most recent ballots, released by King County at 7 p.m. Friday, have turned a once sleepy election into a nail-biter. Bruce Harrell -- whom his colleagues have already anointed as the first minority official since the 80s to be Council President -- is in a race for his political life with long-shot candidate Tammy Morales, up just 378 votes and shrinking with each ballot release.

As Harrell goes, so goes Shannon Braddock, the other more typically liberal candidate up against a more firebrand progressive, Lisa Herbold, aide to Councilmember Nick Licata. Braddock saw her narrow lead slip over the final days to a mere 105 votes. If the current late-ballot trend continues, says political analyst and Crosscut contributor Ben Anderstone, Herbold is now the favorite to win.

At stake in the final count is whether we will have a Council led by Harrell, an ally of Mayor Ed Murray, or one with uncertain leadership and an extra vote for the ultra-left bloc led by Socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

Harrell was almost unanimously considered a sure thing across Seattle media, especially after the primary in which he swept up more than 60 percent of the vote. The Seattle Weekly called him a “shoo-in” running in a “noncompetitive” race.

What could have made the difference? Two things: Sawant and the Stranger.

In the primaries, Morales lacked a direct association with the so-called Sawant Slate. She pushed harder on that affinity for the general election, attending Sawant’s “Rally to make Seattle affordable for all” and calling for “progressive taxation.” In doing so, she grabbed an endorsement from the Stranger, something she’d failed to do during the primaries.

Crosscut posited before election night that the Morales/Harrell race would be a measure of The Stranger Effect on local elections. While it did not work out as well for citywide candidate Jon Grant or District 4 candidate Michael Maddux, Morales’ success certainly seems to be an endorsement of the alternative weekly’s endorsements.

The new numbers no doubt come as a shock to senior members of the City Council, who had already dubbed Harrell the next Council President. (Current Council President Tim Burgess is apparently uninterested in retaining the post – not surprising, as council presidents usually serve only one two-year term.) The other two likely candidates, councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw, have their sights elsewhere for now and don’t appear willing to take on the distractions of being president.

Being Council President is a mix of administrative tasks – moderating full council meetings, keeping track of votes, signing passed legislation – and real power. Like the speaker of the house, the Council President has his or her hands on the legislative faucet, controlling the timing of bills and even whether or not they’ll see the light of day. The President is also, in a way, the face of the council and the point of contact in the mayor’s office. Behind the scenes, the President is the boss of the central staff. Other councilmembers often times alert him or her to upcoming agenda pushes.

And when the mayor is out of town -- as Mayor Ed Murray was for 86 days, or nearly three months, between taking office in January 2014 and August 15, 2015 -- the Council President takes over.

Perhaps most significantly, though, the Council President has the final say in how committees are structured and staffed. And there are already a number of matrices floating around City Hall outlining, based on the assumption that Harrell would be Council President, hypothetical scenarios that give a glimpse into the priorities of Harrell and the other councilmembers: O’Brien would take over Transportation; Burgess or Bagshaw would take the reins of a new Human Services, Public Safety and Public Health Committee; Braddock or Herbold would get an Environmental Committee; Rob Johnson from District 4 would be in charge of the Land Use Committee; Lorena Gonzalez would be the Parks councilmember; and Debora Juarez would take Sawant’s former Energy Committee.

Two other possible committees could included one with a youth focus – Seattle Public Schools, Pre-K and issues surround youth incarceration – and another combining civil rights, labor standards and immigrants and refugees, the latter created specifically for Sawant.

Reactions to a potential Harrell presidency are mixed. Some in the second floor halls don’t see any problem, saying they have never had issues communicating with Harrell. But others tell of closed doors and an unwillingness to meet when it doesn’t serve Harrell well. Calls and e-mails from Crosscut routinely go unanswered, including a long pending request to talk about Harrell becoming Council President.

If Harrell loses, it's unclear who would be the next Council President – likely Bagshaw, O’Brien or, doing his best Paul Ryan impersonation, a reluctant Burgess. Regardless, there would be something of a reset at City Hall.

Morales describes herself as a “True Progressive.” Her background is largely seated in food-related advocacy – as a principal with Urban Food Link, a founding member of the Acting Food Policy Council of Seattle-King County and, according to Morales’ website, “guiding the development of a strategic plan for the Puget Sound Regional Food Policy Council.”

If Morales and Herbold do make it to the Council, Sawant is still a vote shy of a majority. But the proclamations that this election proved Sawant an outlier and that the “Urbanists” are the clear winners are a little weaker. The narrative shifts from a weakened socialist to one with friends – one more friend, in fact, than she had before.

It would also be a win for the Stranger – for a race to have turned around this quickly between the primaries and the general has to say something about the power of its endorsements.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.