The prickly race for City Attorney — and why you should pay attention

Seattle Human Services Coalition Candidates Forum at Miller Community Center in Seattle

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes (left) and challenger Scott Lindsay at the Seattle Human Services Coalition Candidates Forum at the Miller Community Center. Sept. 20, 2017. (Matt Mills McKnight/Crosscut)

It's a rare thing for one candidate for office to accuse another of supporting prison labor, but in a debate last month, City Attorney Pete Holmes did just that of his challenger, Scott Lindsay, a former advisor to departed-mayor Ed Murray.

At issue was the city's use of convicts to clear homeless encampments. To hear Holmes tell it, Lindsay helped the practice continue while he was working for Murray. Lindsay shot back, interrupting Holmes and calling the charge "gross and untrue."

Such is the tone in Seattle's least understood race for elected office.

In every other city in Washington State, Seattle’s race for City Attorney wouldn't happen. But thanks to a piece of city code dating back to the 1800s, Seattle residents have the pleasure of watching two-term City Attorney Holmes and the former mayoral advisor Lindsay argue over what it is the City Attorney actually does — and why the other guy is ill-equipped to do it.

Absent the televised public meetings and yes or no votes of the city council and absent the sweeping policy proposals and front-page press conferences of the mayor’s office, context, already in short supply in election season, is especially lacking in the race for City Attorney. Because much of the City Attorney’s work happens behind office doors and in courtrooms, because “success” is measured in statistics and because the two competitors are lawyers, there’s always, it seems, more to the story.

Lindsay says domestic violence prosecution is down; Holmes says statistics can lie. Holmes accuses Lindsay of supporting prison labor; Lindsay calls it bogus. Lindsay says Holmes is bad at diversion programs; for the price, says Holmes, I’m good at diversion programs. Holmes said Lindsay squandered his chance in the mayor’s office to make a real difference; Lindsay calls himself an “innovator.”

The City Attorney is, arguably, the second most powerful elected official behind the mayor. The office has about 100 lawyers, a $30 million annual budget and receives 14,000 police reports a year. Whoever holds the job can launch enormously consequential and high-profile lawsuits — against Monsanto, Purdue Pharma or the Trump administration, for example — and is tasked with defending the city council’s maybe-legal-maybe-not legislation, like a new income tax.

But in a city as progressive-leaning as Seattle, you won’t hear Lindsay challenge Holmes on the merits of these fights. In this race for City Attorney, their campaigns are focused on misdemeanors and what to do about them.

Where felonies go to the county, it’s the city’s job to deal with misdemeanor charges, which means the City Attorney’s Office is fertile ground for debate over criminal justice reform. The candidates seem to agree that when you’re dealing with misdemeanors — petty theft, drug use — the goal is not punishment but to change the offender's behavior. And when it comes to changing behavior, the two options are usually either intervention or jail.

It’s how each candidate wants to implement intervention vs. jail that’s made the race so combative.

Scott Lindsay was first introduced to Seattle as former-mayor Murray’s public safety advisor and a familiar face on all things homelessness. But before that, he was in Washington D.C., working as a staff member on the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. He’s featured prominently in a 2016 New Yorker article by Matthieu Akins on Afghan contractors exploiting America’s war for profit, The Bidding War, excoriating the military for not doing enough.

When he was an advisor to Murray, it was always hard to not see that D.C. figure as he paced City Hall; his polished shoes, tailored suit and slick hair stood out in contrast to the more casual city council where suits are the exception. And unlike the veneer of cooperation and consensus that shrouds City Hall, he’s never been scared to use media and play politics. Councilmember Mike O’Brien once accused him of prematurely leaking a draft of a map for where homeless encampments might go in order to stir up political ill-will. Lindsay took offense, although more than a year later, during his race for City Attorney, Lindsay happily leaked a premature draft of a different piece of O’Brien legislation, this one on RVs.

Under Murray, Lindsay was worked like a dog, first on all things public safety, then exclusively on homelessness. He takes credit for advancing the city’s model of sending out “navigation teams” to homeless encampments — teams of police officers and service providers — which city officials say have shown promising results. He points out that candidates for mayor of all stripes — Jenny Durkan, Cary Moon, Nikkita Oliver — have all said the city should expand its use of navigation teams.

“I put my neck out there to take risks,” he says.

But among some homeless advocates, he’s enemy number one, largely because of his opinion that encampments can never work and his work to close the Jungle encampment beneath I-5 (in an interview he called it a "rape camp").

Lindsay also worked for about a year on the city’s police reform efforts. And he helped establish the King County Task Force on Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction, which would go on to recommend the establishment of safe consumption sites.

As a longtime extension of Murray, separating his own beliefs from the mayor’s is a challenge for Lindsay. But Lindsay occasionally struggled working for the combative mayor and tried to quit in the summer of 2016, near the end of one of the tensest periods of debate around homelessness, according to a source at the mayor’s office at the time. The mayor talked him out of it.

Lindsay successfully quit Murray's staff in April, shortly after the mayor was accused of sexual abuse.

Holmes does not have anywhere near the razor-sharp look of Lindsay: His mostly-gray hair is usually just out of place and his suits don’t quite have the same shine. He apparently polishes his truck whenever he’s got a free moment and eats peanut butter sandwiches with a Red Delicious apple. In a dark cocktail lounge near City Hall, he drinks Manny’s beer.

After decades in law as a bankruptcy attorney, Holmes was only the second City Attorney in a hundred years to unseat an incumbent, overwhelming Tom Carr by more than 20 percentage points in 2009. He wasted no time making headlines, coming out as a sponsor of I-502, which legalized marijuana in Washington state. He also directed prosecutors to seek 364-day maximum sentences for misdemeanors, a move intended to prevent automatic deportations that occurred at 365 days. And his office deprioritized charging people for driving with a suspended license.

On police reform, he became well-known for his clashes with then-mayor Mike McGinn. After the Department of Justice sued the city for unconstitutional policing, the two went to battle over the settlement that was eventually struck. Holmes arguably came out looking better on the other end as McGinn was seen widely as resisting the consent decree, although McGinn is quick to say the Community Police Commission would not have existed were it not for him.

He’s also shifted the city’s approach to prostitution, going after, in his words, “the demand side” and not the “supply side,” meaning more arrests of those soliciting sex and fewer of those selling it.

Given the opportunity, Holmes still brings up many of these initiatives. But their power has weakened over the years and onetime backers of Holmes have begun to question what’s new and whether he can live up to his early promise as a criminal justice reformer.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the exodus of support from the Community Police Commission, Seattle’s civilian lead police advisory board. Of particular note is Lisa Daugaard, a CPC member, member of the heroin task force and co-founder of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which offers to connect low-level offenders with case managers in lieu of arrest. Daugaard was among Holmes’ first phone calls when he decided to run for City Attorney in 2009 and she supported him. But when Lindsay jumped in, she endorsed him instead; four other CPC members also joined in. In short, Holmes ate a large slice of blame for the pace of police reforms, which Holmes characterizes as “getting it right,” but the CPC members saw it as ignoring their years of hard work.

Holmes for his part defines his first term as seizing on “low-hanging fruit” and his second term as laying the foundation for what he believes can be a productive third term.

Challenger Lindsay’s strategy for running against incumbent Holmes is to paint himself as both more committed to creative alternatives to jail and also tougher on crime, selling an image of the City Attorney's Office that can accomplish both at the same time. "To me, it’s a shame that the office has such a low profile under Pete Holmes, that so few people know and understand why this office matters," he says. "The status quo right now is that Mr. Holmes and the model that he has is pretty much either don’t prosecute or incarcerate. To me, those are the two least effective ways to change behavior in the criminal justice system."

Lindsay cites statistics that show a decrease in domestic violence charges and talks extensively about property crime in the city, casting Holmes as soft on crime. In the same breath, he criticizes Holmes for not doing enough to break the “street-to-prison pipeline,” arguing he could do more to divert repeat offenders away from the criminal justice system.

Domestic violence charges have, in fact, dropped since when Holmes took office in 2009. When he was elected, police filings would turn into charges 50 percent of the time. That's down to 36 percent.

Holmes does not dispute that charges are down, but quotes the old “lies, damn lies and statistics” idiom. On the domestic violence cases, Holmes says, “Compared to years before I took office, there was much more of a file everything, just throw it in and see what happens, regardless of the unintended consequences.” Holmes says more of those cases that come to his office are being re-filed as felonies, which would go to King County.

He also points to the lack of staff in the Seattle Police Department dedicated exclusively to domestic violence investigations. In his proposed budget, Mayor Tim Burgess added money to hire more investigators.

If Lindsay's attacks on Holmes' domestic violence numbers are an homage to the more conservative, get-tough voters, he also tries to appeal to criminal justice reform advocates. Under the umbrella term "diversion," Lindsay says he will do a better job of finding alternatives to incarceration. He specifically targets the city's pre-filing diversion program, intended to get young adults 18-24 out of jail and into community support groups. There have been 19 cases in which individuals have avoided jail time, a load Lindsay says is too small for the $300,000 price tag.

As a rebuttal, Holmes points to the city’s work with the 180-program, which offers community listening and support circles as an alternative to incarceration. He says programs like these are great, but they stretch on for a long time and can be expensive. Through this lens, the 19 diversions at $300,000 is actually pretty good, he says. “With what we have, we’re doing all we can,” Holmes says.

Holmes says he supports expanding programs that do a better job of diverting people from jail but says Lindsay doesn't have a plan to make it a reality. "It's like Donald Trump's plan for peace in the Middle East," he says. "I sure would like to see it."

Still, losing Daugaard’s endorsement to Lindsay severely hurts Holmes' image as a proponent of alternatives to incarceration — the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which Daugaard helped start and couples police officers with caseworkers, has shown promising returns and is widely seen as the city’s best chance to funnel repeat, low-level offenders away from jail.

Lindsay’s strategy of coming at Holmes as both more progressive and tougher on crime has its awkward limitations. He likes to bring up a case where the city fought against diversion for a man arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover officer. But when asked whether he supported more diversion for these so-called “johns” he waffles, at once emphasizing the need to be "looking at all the individual cases" while also lamenting the sex work scene on Aurora Avenue.

He also says the police are frustrated with Holmes for not getting serial offenders off the streets quickly enough, accusing him of “not having their back.” But when asked if he has sought or would accept an endorsement from the Seattle Police Officers Guild, toxic among Seattle’s activist community, he says no.

Electing a City Attorney has the potential to set up a rift between the city’s chief lawyer and the executive and legislative sides of City Hall. Because of the disagreement over police reform, McGinn complained about not having a lawyer during the consent decree negotiations.

Still, both Holmes and Lindsay say they believe it should be an elected position. Lindsay says the mayor's office doesn't have the capacity to focus on criminal justice the way an independent attorney does. Holmes says electing a City Attorney guarantees a lawyer who is not beholden to the politics of City Hall.

But if voters feel a little fuzzy on why, exactly, they're electing a lawyer to office, they might be forgiven: Four years ago, Holmes ran unopposed. It's been eight years since Seattle voters had to give any hard thought to who is best qualified for the job.

Monday, Oct. 16: This post has been updated to clarify former-Mayor McGinn's stance on the settlement agreement with the Department of Justice.

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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.