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Fall elections could bring historic turnover to Seattle City Council

With at least four council members on their way out, the city has rarely seen as much upheaval as it will in 2020.

A photo illustration of the current Seattle City Council, minus the candidates who will not be running for re-election in fall. (Original image courtesy of the City of Seattle)

This much we know: the Seattle City Council will look a lot different in 2020. Seven of nine seats are up for re-election this fall and four sitting council members have already opted out of the contest.

If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. In fact, if any of the three council members seeking re-election lose this fall, the turnover will be historic — never in the history of Seattle have five new council members taken their seat at the same time. Even if all three win, 2020 will tie 2016 for the most turnover in a single year since 1946, when the system switched from three- to four-year terms.

Using the city’s historical records, Crosscut has examined the history of turnover on the council in order to better understand the impacts and the causes of disruptive elections. If a council member was sworn in between the end of the fall budget season and the beginning of the next year (such as Councilmember Lorena González, who took office in late November 2015) we included them in the class of the following year. 

It appears the council has welcomed three new council members in a single year plenty of times — nine, to be exact — with large turnovers in the late 1960s, early 1970s, mid-1990s and early aughts.

The coming shift is due, at least in part, to a structural change. The voter-approved decision to switch from citywide to district-based elections in 2015 made greater turnover possible. When council members were elected citywide, the number of positions up for re-election alternated every other year from five to four. In 2015, however, all nine seats were contested as the city settled into its new system. Now, elections alternate between electing the seven district seats and the two citywide seats. The result is a potential for more turbulence, with large turnover more likely every four years.

Past periods of rapid turnover have tended to correspond to particular movements or scandals.

In the years from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the entire city council turned over. Some of this was the result of tragedy: Wing Luke died in a plane crash near Stevens Pass in 1965. But much of it was thanks to a movement that called itself Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC). The organization emerged during a period of broad upheaval across the country. It was a challenge to the perceived entrenched powers on the city council and — in contrast to some of the activist movements of today — cast itself as collaborative and bipartisan. For example, before the CHECC era, council members Mike Mitchell and Clarence Massart had sat on the council for decades. The period that saw the elections of Sam Smith, Phyllis Lamphere and others changed all that.

Another notable time of turnover came in the early 2000s, following the “Strippergate” scandal — or, as the New York Times called it at the time, “A Tale of Sex, Money and Politics, in ‘Mayberry.’” The scandal was rooted in the deeds of crime boss Frank Colacurcio Jr., who made donations to three council members just as the council was considering whether to allow him to expand a parking lot near his strip club, Rick’s. 

Although the headline writers of the New York Times turned up their noses at the scandal, it was enough to spur a backlash in the following election, when Jean Godden, Tom Rasmussen and David Della took office.

But current ongoing turnover rivals any period in the city council’s history. If she wins re-election, Councilmember Kshama Sawant will be the most senior member in 2020 after just six years in office. The next most senior is González, followed by Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez, who have been in office since just 2016. Herbold and Juarez are also both up for re-election.

The outgoing council members are leaving for a variety of reasons, but it’s no secret that popular opinion has turned against the council, as most polls over the past year have shown. The dip has corresponded with increases in cost of living and the homeless population, reaching a crescendo last year with the bitter debate over whether to tax large businesses. 

Former Councilmember Tim Burgess opted out of running for re-election in 2017. He said he was ready to move on to something else. At the same time, he acknowledged that pressure was building on the council as affordability and homelessness became top priorities.

“It can be uncomfortable, especially when it’s personal,” he said in a recent interview. “I can remember being in neighborhood meetings when citizens would say to me directly, you’re not doing a good job and here’s why.”

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So what might happen if a majority — or near majority — of the council turns over? There’s likely to be a period when the new council members adjust to and learn about their new jobs.

“There is value to institutional knowledge,” outgoing council member Sally Bagshaw said. Candidates sometimes suggest things — particularly conducting studies — that have been tried or done before.

Tina Podlodowski, who was a council member for four years in the late 1990s, said it wasn’t until the second half of her term that she felt like she was substantively moving her agenda forward. “The first two years are really a learning curve,” she said.

Still, inefficiency isn’t necessarily a given. When four new council members took their seats in 2016, said Bagshaw, “It’s funny, I don’t think the change was as great as you might imagine.” She credits central staff for bringing the new members up to speed.

So far, the gold rush of open seats has attracted about 40 candidates. The most expensive is likely to be District 3, where Sawant is running for re-election. Three people are challenging her, although the candidate who may have been her most formidable challenger, Beto Yarce, recently dropped out of the race. Pot store owner Logan Bowers, however, has raised over $20,000 in his bid to unseat her.

Juarez has also attracted just three candidates so far, while Herbold has attracted four. However some of their challengers, such as chronic and abusive public commenter Alex Tsimerman, are not likely to muster any actual momentum.

The filing deadline for candidates is this May with the primary occurring in August. 

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Fall elections could bring historic turnover to Seattle City Council

About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman is a staff reporter at Crosscut focused on local politics.