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How one city council district could swing Seattle politics

The candidates competing to represent a complex chunk of NE Seattle each represent a different vision for the direction of the city.

The 43rd District Democrats hosted a forum for the District 4 Seattle City Council candidates in the HUB at the University of Washington on June 8, 2019. (Photo by Caean Couto for Crosscut)

The southernmost point of District 4 begins where South Lake Union ends, in the Eastlake neighborhood. From there it moves north across the Montlake Cut, where it pushes into Wallingford to the west and then blooms to the northeast, covering the University District, Ravenna and Wedgwood, before ending where District 5 begins at 85th Street.

Contained within those boundaries are conflicts and contradictions that seem to tell a larger story about Seattle. The district is home to large swaths of both renters and single-family homeowners. It hosts one of the city's largest employers and economic drivers in the University of Washington, and yet is often associated with youth homelessness. It's dense with immigrant-owned businesses, many of which worry about the rising cost of doing business.

The debates that unfold there have a way of seeping outward. There's the now-tabled 35th Avenue bike lane, a stretch of road that most of Seattle does not use, but which has become indicative of Seattle's larger fights around bike and car infrastructure. There's the opening of a new Sound Transit Link light rail station and the challenges of preparing for the resulting increased foot traffic. There's the question of whether to allow taller buildings on the Ave, a debate defined by the familiar struggle to balance the need for new housing with the concerns of small business owners.

It's fitting, then, that the 10 people running to represent the district in this fall's Seattle City Council election span the shades of politics that have shaped the city in the modern era: a socialist, an urbanist, a unionist, a small business owner, a so-called pragmatist — each representing a vision for what it means to be a progressive in a West Coast city.

"It's — what am I doing about those challenges we share as part of a larger community, and how are they specifically manifesting in the district that I represent?" said Mark Crawford, interim executive director of U District Partnership (UDP).

With the April exit of Councilmember Rob Johnson, the race is not a referendum on an incumbent, but, say observers, on the broader direction of the city. And, depending on how the math of the other district races plays out, District 4 is well positioned to be the city council's swing district. If the body is to have a new tilt in any particular direction — be it a more moderate body, one with two or more socialists or any number of other shifts — there's a good chance that will be reflected in the winner of District 4. 

"As goes District 4 goes the city is not an unreasonable mantra," said Ben Anderstone, a political consultant.

While the candidates are a diverse bunch, they do largely agree on one thing: District 4 voters are frustrated and mostly about homelessness. Candidate Heidi Stuber estimates 70 percent of the conversations she has with people while knocking on doors throughout the district are about homelessness.

And while candidates report that there is a  contingent of constituents calling for the "Seattle is Dying" approach — namely, shipping homeless people to a south Puget Sound prison island — they generally agree that calls for action can be classified as urgent, but empathetic.

"Every now and then, of course, we get someone that says something that is kind of off base, but for the most part people want compassionate solutions to the homelessness crisis," said Emily Myers, a candidate who's finishing her Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Washington. "They want to feel like their money is being put towards actual solutions and not Band-Aids."

Homelessness isn’t the only issue the candidates are addressing. In fact, candidate Alex Pedersen, once a legislative aide to former Councilmember Tim Burgess, said for a time that the fight over 35th Avenue's proposed bike lane overtook homelessness as the number one issue he heard about.

While there may be agreement on the problems, the way in which the candidates say they will approach them varies. With an understanding that no single neighborhood in this many-faceted district can deliver a council victory, the task at hand is to convince voters that their brand of politics is the best, for the most people — be they young, old, rich, poor, renter, homeowner.

Pedersen has seized the mantle of "accountability" — a word that capitalizes on broad voter dissatisfaction and lays blame for the city's seemingly intractable issues at the current city council's feet.

He's seen by his opponents as the most conservative among them — cautious on bike lanes, taxes, incursions into the city's single-family zones. He emphasizes incrementalism and potholes, the catch-all for "back to basics" governing.

Pedersen, of course, rejects that he's conservative — a battle his former boss, Burgess, also fought — arguing he just wants results. "I was really fortunate to come out with this message of accountability, which to [voters] means listening, transparency, results," Pedersen said.

So far, his message seems to be working: He's raised the most money, and even his opponents largely acknowledge that Pedersen is leading the pack. During a recent afternoon door-belling in Wedgwood, the support he received from residents was near unanimous. Their skepticism of a solicitor on their doorstep often vanished at the mention of the city council and the pledge to hold its members more accountable.

On the other end of the spectrum of Seattle politics is Shaun Scott, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The council is certainly not blameless in his eyes — Scott faults City Hall for what he perceives to be capitulation to large corporations — but he never strays far from a systemic view of issues. He speaks of the city's need to launch its own Green New Deal. When he talks about police accountability and housing, he never fails to bring up the history of those institutions and their bias against communities of color.

For his part, Scott, a renter, embraces the binary contrast with Pedersen. There are two visions for the city, he said. "One of them, I think, puts us in a direction where we're embracing more of what the city has to do in the future.” Scott said. “And on [Pedersen's] side of it, I think there's more of a kind of a tension and a sense of not letting something about the city slip away."

Scott has a broad base of volunteer support  and is well known in Seattle's activist community. His campaign is relying heavily on turning out voters in the University District, particularly students. His collection of Democracy Vouchers, currently amounting to $56,525, shows he is having success on the campaign trail.

Yet, while Scott is an experienced campaigner — he worked for U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal's campaign — turning out students at the ballot box can be hard. "It takes a lot of hand-holding to change someone from a presidential voter to an odd year municipal voter," said consultant Anderstone.

Pedersen and Scott have received the most early attention, but Myers has seen something of a surprise surge. Also a renter, she was not directly involved in politics before her run. She is weeks from finishing her Ph.D. in research on Parkinson's disease, and is following a path similar to that of Dr. Kim Schrier, who last fall beat longtime Republican politico Dino Rossi to represent Washington's 8th Congressional District. Like Schrier, Myers completed training through Emerge Washington, an organization formed to help women run for office.

Myers is also a labor organizer with UAW 4121, which represents academic workers at the University of Washington. In her capacity there, she's a delegate to the Martin Luther King County Labor Council — which resoundingly endorsed her over her opponents.

Myers is an unapologetic progressive, but doesn't call herself a socialist. What she brings, she said, is a scientist's mindset to issues — data and evidence. She talks extensively about addressing affordability and getting people out of cars, but says it's all for naught if a council member can't build support.

"What we've seen in this city particularly is that it's necessary to build the political will to get things through the council and to pass policy in the city," she said. "And so that's where my background and my commitment to organizing comes in. Because we can have great ideas, but if you can't pass them, then they don't go anywhere."

Cathy Tuttle has taken the so-called urbanist mantle for her own. She has a PhD in urban design and has a vision for the city that involves more housing, more cafes, fewer cars and a better transit system. She also thinks the city needs to spend $1 billion on homelessness. While other candidates tend to focus on what people need to survive, Tuttle talks about what they need to enjoy themselves and each other.

"I love when I travel anywhere in the world and visit those nice plazas that have places to get your coffee and you can watch the world go by and then you can easily get on the bus, the bike share or whatever and move around and you can sort of do everything you need in your neighborhood," she said. "You don't need to travel far to go to a school or a concert or a coffee shop or a bar or a bookstore."

With 10 candidates, much of the race is about effectiveness — not necessarily who has the best policy, but who can actually implement it. Sasha Anderson cites her work in conflict resolution for why she'll most effectively pass legislation. Heidi Stuber, who is a small business owner, is running on a belief that "the right answer is usually somewhere between the two extremes" — a direct attempt to land in the middle between Pedersen and Scott. Beth Mountsier, a transportation project manager with the city of Redmond, worked for 26 years as a policy analyst and program manager with the King County executive and council.

The mass of candidates is rounded out by a few other newcomers to politics. Joshua Newman is a Boeing employee and transit advocate who's involved in neighborhood politics. At 19, Ethan Hunter, a student, is by far the youngest candidate. 

There are relatively few votes up for competition, especially in a race with so many candidates. As a result, candidates must cast a wide net. Shaun Scott talks about turning out UW students, but said his message of socialism and climate justice is playing well on the doorsteps of homeowners. Alex Pedersen brought up that he's canvassed nearly every precinct.

Be it reality or hopefulness, most candidates say the Seattle they see while knocking on doors is not as divided as is portrayed. People are frustrated, yes, but they largely want a city that treats its most vulnerable citizens well.

One woman in Wedgwood answered her door for Pedersen. She was distressed by the growing homeless population, yes. But also distressing, she said, was how some of her neighbors were proposing more arrests and criminalization on Nextdoor. The solution, she said, should be mindful of what the people struggling with homelessness were going through.

Pedersen said that's among the more typical sentiments he hears. It's some combination of anger and heartbreak. And underlining both is something common to nearly every voter and candidate: desperation for a solution. 

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How one city council district could swing Seattle politics

About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

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