New elections, but oddly familiar batch of results

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Seattle city Council diversity in 1900: Three beards, ten mustaches, and three clean shaven faces.

Click here for a full listing of preliminary election results.

For an historic election, it was a bit of an anti-climax.

It’s the first time in over the century that we’ve elected the Seattle City Council principally by districts. And the new council, whatever its makeup, is surely going to be a lot more diverse than the all-white, all-male city councils of that era. Back then, diversity meant whether you had a mustache or a beard. Now, in terms of gender and race, the new council will reflect more of the rainbow than ever before.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is how little ideological diversity there will likely be, and how centrist the council will probably look. On election night, the three establishment “killer B”candidates — Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, Shannon Braddock — all were leading. The exception was Banks, who was trailing Kshama Sawant. All of the leaders on election night — save Sawant and Mike O’Brien — were on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s endorsed slate.

Is this why we went back to districts?

Money and incumbency still mattered, so too a mainstream progressive ideology aligned with Mayor Ed Murray and downtown business. There were hopes that districts would usher in a new era for neighborhood candidates, but that was largely squashed in the August primary, with the remnants thoroughly crushed with the defeat of Bill Bradburd and Catherine Weatbrook on Tuesday night.

New hopes arose of a fantasy council majority consisting of tenant-rights activist Jon Grant, Nick Licata aide Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Michael Maddux, Sawant and O’Brien. This contingent would steer a more radical course to deal with affordability, public housing, rent control, equity and race. Even if later votes swing left — as they did in the primary, being younger and more liberal — such a majority seems out of reach. The main question remaining: Will Sawant have a lefty playmate to replace the departing Licata? The late columnist Emmett Watson’s observation about the council was that interesting individuals are elected, but after a short time on the council they all bunched together like so many maple bars in a bag. His point wasn’t that they never accomplished anything, just that they became ideologically indistinguishable. Is this a council of maple bars even before they are bagged?

Sawant, whose style, politics and grandstanding already grate on the council elders, is certainly not anyone's maple bar, and word is that some council incumbents are determined to isolate her further. And while she’d certainly love to have allies on the council, she practices a politics that can take such rejection and adversity and turn it to her advantage. Indeed, her popularity has little to do with how she will represent District 3 per se, but rather her role as change-agent-in-chief. Where she has led on the $15 minimum wage or in pleading with Olympia for rent control, the council has followed.

She’s now a district politician with a global agenda, and her supporters care less about potholes than the big picture. At Sawant’s election-night party there were posters with socialist slogans and red T-shirts. I don’t think I saw anyone from the Montlake Community Council, and in her world, such things don’t matter much.  She’s more about a movement than constituents. The fact that most of her campaign funding was from outside the district showed that, in her case, macro politics matter more than the micro.

Election nights are no longer what they were, a kind of electoral revelation, or guillotine, with results in the wee hours before anyone went to bed. Now they burble, like a hot mud pit at Yellowstone, belching vote counts over a period of days. We may see swings that could change the outcome in a few close races, such as Braddock-Herbold, or Rob Johnson-Maddux.

At Sawant’s election night headquarters, a giant banner over the main stage said, “We Need a Political Revolution.” But for a supposedly transformative election, it feels oddly familiar.

The smell of maple bars was in the air.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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