The competing crises driving Seattle’s City Council election

In crowded 2023 races, candidates have their work cut out to show voters they can make progress on issues such as crime and homelessness.

councilmember debora juarez's face reflected in plexi glass in the seattle city council chambers

Seattle City Council president Debora Juarez is reflected in plexiglass during a meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. Juarez is one of four members leaving their seats at the end of the current term. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Elections are always a measure of how Seattleites feel about their city at a given moment — or at least how the 45%-50% or so of registered voters who typically turn out for the general feel. But this fall’s district City Council elections could be a particularly weighty barometer.

It will be, in many ways, Seattle’s first post-pandemic election, with local, state and federal COVID-19 states of emergency now over. The city is grasping for a return to a pre-pandemic normalcy, with plenty of fledgling signs of the before-times starting to appear, from big companies mandating in-person office work to packed restaurants and sporting events. Yet the pandemic’s negative aftereffects linger. 

The specter of recession looms over city budget forecasts. Street homelessness remains a visible challenge after snowballing in the early days of the pandemic, when shelters closed and many services went remote. Temporary gains in housing affordability have largely been erased by rising interest rates and a recovering housing market. Residents are fearful about crime — both petty and serious — and they’re frustrated by a general sense of public disorder.

In 2021, when Seattle last held elections for city positions, the pandemic was still a daily concern for most voters and tensions were running high over the city’s attempts to grapple with racial justice and policing during and after the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. 

In the races for mayor, citywide Council Position 9 and city attorney, law-and-order centrist candidates won against candidates who promised cuts to the police budget or were outright abolitionists. For pundits on disparate ends of the political spectrum, 2021 was seen as a backlash by voters to attempts at substantial police reform and the city’s pandemic response.

This fall, all seven district council seats are on the ballot, with the two citywide positions not up until 2025. That alone would make for a busy election season, but incumbent Councilmembers Debora Juarez, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant and Alex Pedersen have all chosen not to run for re-election, making for an even more wide-open race. 

Forty-five primary candidates are vying to represent those seven districts on the Council. As fledgling campaigns get off the ground and start to gain momentum, Crosscut spoke to campaign consultants, pollsters, pundits and representatives of big business and labor to understand what issues are top-of-mind for Seattleites this election and how the political temperature has shifted since 2021. 

Will voters respond to promises of more cops and crackdowns on public disorder, or will candidates win on a message of tackling root causes with behavioral health outreach? Will the painstaking work of housing people appeal, or do voters want sweeps of homeless camps at all costs? Are voters supportive of new and expanded taxes to fund progressive causes, or will a message of conservative spending toward economic recovery resonate?

Seattle City Council members Alex Pedersen, left, and Dan Strauss attend a Council meeting. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Same issues, growing stakes

Seattle politicos broadly agree about the issues that will drive this year’s elections: homelessness and crime, with a softening economy underlying everything.

“The issues haven’t changed in years,” said Stuart Elway, a longtime pollster whose firm conducts the quarterly Crosscut/Elway Poll. “Didn’t we declare homelessness a crisis during the [Ed] Murray administration? I think crime has risen over that period. Then [housing] affordability spiked.”

The most recent Seattle Metro Chamber Index survey supports the notion. Conducted by EMC Research, the Index found that in an open-ended question about what issues Seattle voters are most frustrated or concerned about, 56% said homelessness. Another 38% said crime, drugs or public safety was their top concern, with 23% citing the cost of living or housing affordability.

“Everybody kind of thinks every election is pivotal,” said Chamber CEO Rachel Smith. “The distinction with this election, and why there’s a lot of energy right now, is because of how much progress we need to make on the issues. The crisis level that we are at on these issues is higher than it has really ever been.”

With candidates sure to promise action on homelessness, housing and public safety, it will be all the more important to voters that they have clear policy proposals for making progress on those issues.

“We’re a few election cycles into having politicians talk about those issues,” said Ben Anderstone, a consultant with Progressive Strategies NW. “People are ready to hear more than just basic talking points on homelessness and public safety. … Talk of on-the-ground results and measurable results plays well. Opinion polling shows voters are asking not only can we put more resources into the problems, but what are the solutions?”

A member of the public attends a City Council meeting. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Candidates have plenty of existing or planned solutions for the city’s problems to shape a platform around. On public safety — a broad category that encompasses policing, crime and general public disorder — city leaders have promised a “Yes, and” approach.

Pilot programs like the Third Avenue Project are doing concerted outreach with people engaged in criminal activity in the heart of Downtown. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s gift-card program is meant to incentivize participation in treatment for substance-use disorder. The long-delayed launch of a third public safety department is meant to provide a non-police response to certain public emergencies by year’s end.

But at the same time, the city has continued hiring efforts to make up for the steady loss of police officers over the past few years, offering $7,500 bonuses to new recruits and $30,000 bonuses to sworn officers joining the Seattle Police Department from other cities. City Attorney Ann Davison and Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen want to start prosecuting public drug use and possession again. 

Images of Seattle City Council members are reflected as Dan Strauss, center, attends a meeting. Strauss was elected to the Council in 2019. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

On homelessness too, Seattle politicians have taken divergent approaches. Concerted outreach efforts have had some success getting people into temporary and permanent housing. While those efforts can be effective in closing encampments and actually housing people, they are slow and painstaking. At the same time, the Harrell administration has ramped up encampment removals as the pandemic has waned — an approach to homelessness that moves people out of sight more often than it gets them into housing. 

A worsening city budget could make progress on those issues all the more challenging. Seattle’s most recent budget forecast shows declining revenues in the short term and a general fund that’s not expected to keep up with the rate of inflation for at least the next five years.

As such, taxation is likely to be a key issue for the next Seattle City Council. The city shored up a general-fund revenue shortfall last fall using money from the Jumpstart Payroll Tax on big businesses. The tax on large employers performed far better than expected in its first years. So though the money is earmarked for green infrastructure, affordable housing, homelessness and small business support, the city used it for general business after its first year of collection.

Now big businesses are calling for a three-year tax holiday from Jumpstart, claiming the break is essential to help spur economic recovery in the region. In March, the Chamber, Downtown Seattle Association, and NAIOP (a commercial real estate industry group) called for the temporary tax break as part of a letter to the mayor laying out their vision for Downtown recovery.

A Seattle City Council meeting is shown on the television at City Hall. Several members attended remotely. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

“The city has two levers to address this in a big-picture sense: make cuts or generate more money,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, a progressive advocacy group. “It’s going to be a contentious issue in the fall with the Chamber and other business interests making their intentions known, while human service providers are trying to get equitable wages and the Solidarity Budget group is fighting against cuts.”

The Chamber’s April survey gives a glimpse into residents’ current views on taxes, with 57% of respondents saying they think taxes are too high for the level of services the city provides and 82% saying they do not trust that the city has an effective plan to address homelessness, affordability and public safety. But at the same time, in April’s special election, 73% of Seattle voters said yes to raising property taxes through the Crisis Care Centers Levy. 

One smaller-scale factor at play, say some pundits, is how much candidates can connect with voters on district-level issues — beautiful parks or pot holes or improving safety on a particularly busy street. That kind of bread-and-butter politics takes on extra significance in district council elections. 

“How people consider their individual Council members is very different than how they view the Council as a whole,” said Crystal Fincher, a campaign consultant who typically works with progressive candidates in South King County. “But one good thing about district elections is it’s the people of that district deciding, so it really depends on how the trust is built with voters in that district.” 

Seattle City Council member Andrew J. Lewis speaks during a Council meeting. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Echoes of the 2021 election 

For many Seattle political observers, the 2021 election was significant. It too was an election about policing and homelessness and the city’s response to COVID-19. But coming on the heels of the 2020 anti-police protests and attempts by city leaders to grapple with systemic racism and violent policing, the dial was cranked to 11.

In races between explicit police abolitionists and more conservative, pro-police candidates, the latter won. Ann Davison beat Nicole Thomas-Kennedy 51% to 48% in the race for city attorney. In the race for citywide Council seat 9, Sara Nelson beat Nikkita Oliver 54% to 46%. In the mayor’s race, Harrell beat former City Council president Lorena González 58% to 41%. Gonzáles wasn’t an abolitionist, but pledged to cut SPD’s budget by 50%.

Although they viewed the outcome through a vastly different lens, centrists and leftists alike saw 2021 as evidence that the Seattle electorate is more interested in making reforms to the status quo than swinging for the fences with systemic reforms.

“There was a perception on the activist left that Seattle politics had fundamentally changed and they were the majority,” said Sandeep Kaushik with Sound View Strategies. “They looked at the results of 2019 and backlash against Amazon, and said now the time for compromise is over and it's time for us to go big.”

Kaushik thinks the turmoil and tumult of 2020 still hangs over Seattle politics, and that an explicitly abolitionist candidate would be destined to lose in 2023. He said, “I think the question we’re casting in these races now is where’s the political center and where’s the progressive center in Seattle?”

Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales's empty seat before a meeting. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Transit Riders Union’s Wilson also thinks 2021 represented a conservative backlash by voters, but she doesn’t think 2023 will continue that trend. She points to a Downtown Seattle Association/Chamber survey on public safety that found 80% support for alternative police responders.   

“That’s heartening,” said Wilson. “I don’t think the ‘We just need to crack down on the criminals’ mindset is continuing to the same extent. … I think people continue to want a positive vision of what the city can be. We’re in Seattle, so it’s going to be a progressive vision overall.”

Pollster Elway said it’s hard to pinpoint just how much the pandemic’s upheaval shaped 2021 in ways that might not factor in this year. 

“I wonder how much the pandemic just affected everyone’s outlook on a whole range of things,” Elway said. “It was such an unprecedented phenomenon. It exposed so many things in our society and our communities that we weren’t paying a lot of attention before.”

Voters are coming into this election cycle with a little more optimism about the city. 

The Chamber’s April Index saw the “Quality of Life” measure tick up slightly, from 3.9 on a scale of 0-10 in August 2021 to 4.2 this April. The percentage of voters who see Seattle as being on the right track also ticked up in that same time period from 28% to 31%, and the number of voters who say the city’s on the wrong track went down from a March 2022 high of 76% to 62% now.

“The temperature has come down a bit,” said Anderstone of Progressive Strategies NW. “There is less of a sense of political instability in the air. The ideas people are proposing are closer together in many cases in these races. … The city feels less polarized.”

Empty Seattle City Council member seats before a meeting on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

A mostly new City Council

Regardless of who wins, Seattle will have at least four new councilmembers for Districts 1, 3, 4 and 5 next year. That exodus is certainly significant, though not unprecedented. One need only look back to the 2019 district council elections when Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Rob Johnson, Mike O’Brien and then-Councilmember Harrell all opted not to seek re-election. 

Adding to the mix this time, however, citywide Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is running for King County Council, meaning her seat could be open come Jan. 1 as well. And of course the three incumbents — Tammy Morales in District 2, Dan Strauss in District 6 and Andrew Lewis in District 7 — could also be unseated in their re-election bids. 

With 45 candidates in the race and campaigns just getting rolling, it’s tough to make predictions yet about how new councilmembers could realign the Council’s political leanings. But the door is certainly open for shifts with the departures of Sawant and Herbold from the Council’s left wing and Pedersen and Juarez often providing the centrist votes.

Seattle’s labor movement — always influential in local elections with endorsements and campaign donations — is primarily looking for candidates to continue implementing worker protections such as the $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave, and gig-worker protections. 

“For the last 10 years, Seattle's really been the vanguard for pro-worker policy in the United States,” said Katie Garrow, general secretary of the MLK County Labor Council, the central body of the region’s unions. “Absolutely, we want to see candidates who want to carry that torch forward.”

Seattle City Council member Andrew Lewis is reflected in plexiglass during a City Council meeting at City Hall. Lewis was elected to the Council in 2019. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Big business is similarly looking for more allies on the future Council, though the Chamber told Crosscut it will again neither endorse nor donate to candidates through its PAC, a policy that began with the 2021 election

“My hope is that the next set of council members are going to be able to show everyone that they care about different constituencies, including the business community as a constituency or a stakeholder. We don't need to be the exclusive stakeholder, but we need to be important to them,” said Smith.

Some candidates launched their campaigns as early as January, but the candidate filing deadline, May 19, marked the real start of the 2023 elections. 

The next few months will be filled with candidate forums, debates, endorsements and splashy campaign ads as we march toward the Aug. 1 primary. From there, the top two candidates in each district will face off in the Nov. 7 general election. 

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