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Bruce Harrell, mayoral candidate

What could the Seattle election results mean for progressives?

For a third straight election cycle, Seattle voters have elected a centrist Democrat to the mayor’s office, but there’s no clear consensus as to why. 

This year’s elections pitted left-leaning progressives against more centrist Democrats in the two city council races, an abolitionist against a Republican in the city attorney race, and a left-lane mayoral candidate against a more centrist one. While left-leaning progressives still retain a majority on the city council, that composition could change in December following the recall campaign against council member Kshama Sawant. 

By Friday, former city council President Bruce Harrell had won the mayoral race as his opponent, current city council President Lorena González, conceded. Business interests, several IBEW locals and the Seattle Times endorsed Harrell, while González garnered support from Democratic district organizations, UFCW local 21 and the progressive outlet The Stranger. 

Harrell had nearly 62% of the vote as of Thursday evening, a wide margin ahead of the 38% of voters in favor of González. In the city attorney race, Republican Ann Davison currently holds 55% of the vote compared with abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy’s 44%. 

Incumbent city council member Teresa Mosqueda held onto her seat with 56% of the vote, compared to her challenger Kenneth Wilson in the Pos. 8 race. And in the Pos. 9 council race, Fremont Brewing owner Sara Nelson was well ahead of community organizer, abolitionist and attorney Nikkita Oliver, with 57% of the vote. 

The candidates were broadly painted into groups, with González, Thomas-Kennedy, Mosqueda and Oliver generally characterized as the more progressive slate of candidates. Of this group, only Mosqueda is headed for office. There was no consensus among those that the Wire talked with about whether the results represented a changing view of progressive politics in Seattle, especially in an off-year election with roughly 33% turnout in King County. 

Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, cautioned against drawing ideological conclusions based on the race. He views identity and trust as being more important than proposed plans and political alignment.

“Voters have to believe that you’re going to be coming into office with something that will be credible, that will be effective,” Villeneuve said. 

The decision by the González campaign to run attack ads, instead of focusing on a positive vision for the city, hurt her chances, Villeneuve said. 

In the final weeks before the election, the González campaign ran a television ad against Harrell highlighting his past comments on child sexual abuse allegations leveled against former mayor Ed Murray. The ad sparked a backlash, with some calling it racist. 

Villeneuve also pushed back on viewing the mayoral race as one between a centrist and a progressive candidate, calling both progressives, but with differing views on how quickly to enact change.

But for Robert Cruickshank, who is the campaign director at Demand Progress and who volunteered to phone bank for González’s campaign, and co-hosted fundraisers for Thomas-Kennedy, it’s the third election cycle where the more progressive candidate has lost. 

For Cruickshank, progressive candidates and campaigns going forward need to figure out what issues are important to voters, and run hard on them. He pointed to Michelle Wu’s progressive mayoral victory in Boston. 

“That right there is a pretty good model going forward.” 

For Chris Vance, a former Republican state Representative turned independent, the driving issues of this year’s elections were homelessness and criminal justice. But it’s unclear whether the city council will support Harrell’s approach. 

“I don’t know what the new administration is going to or can do,” Vance said. “They’re not going to tomorrow turn the Seattle police loose and sweep all of the camps. First of all, Bruce Harrell said he’s not going to do that, and you can’t legally do that. So it’s going to be a real slog that he’s going to have to engage in, and he’s going to have a city council that is probably to the left of him by a bit… People who want a quick solution to this, that’s not going to happen.”

Harrell and González were at odds over a business-supported plan to address homelessness called “Compassion Seattle,” which was opposed by advocates for people experiencing homelessness, who said it would lead to more encampment sweeps. 

PubliCola reported in September that Harrell is likely to implement key components of the plan, after it was barred from the November ballot by a King County Superior Court judge. 

Seattle is also poised to send Davison, who ran as a Republican in the 2020 Lieutenant Governor race, to serve as city attorney. 

While the late vote in Seattle tends to favor left-leaning candidates, Davison’s lead will prove hard to beat for Thomas-Kennedy, who ran as an abolitionist. Thomas-Kennedy proposed refocusing the city attorney’s office away from prosecuting misdemeanor charges, and instead working to address upstream causes of crime. 

It’s part of a growing awareness of abolitionism in Washington State, and a position that city council candidate Oliver also ran on. Villeneuve said branding likely played a role in the city attorney race, as Thomas-Kennedy ran as an abolitionist, instead of a progressive Democrat. Davison’s campaign also received a boost after being endorsed by two former Democratic governors — Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke. Cruickshank also said those endorsements were important to Davison’s likely victory. 

For Dujie Tahat, a political consultant who worked on Oliver’s mayoral campaign in 2017, the election results are part of a backlash to conversations about the role of policing and local government, that have been occurring since the murder of George Floyd. 

“Whether it’s the Republican city attorney or in other races, I think that you are seeing what used to be coded Seattle politics being uncoded,” Tahat said. “I think there’s always been a more conservative option, and a more progressive option.” 

Structural impediments to addressing issues like low voter turnout during off-year elections played a major role in this election, Tahat said. They hope that this election will encourage systemic changes, like enacting ranked choice voting and removing off-year elections. 

“I think it would be pretty hard to say that the results of this cycle are for everyone,” Tahat said. “I think the results are pretty clearly aimed at what’s good for wealthy, white folks.” 

While it was a unique election in Seattle, the implications of Seattle’s elections on King County and statewide politics are likely to be little, Vance said. He pointed to the incumbent victories on the King County Council, with the exception of Kathy Lambert, who lost her seat to Sarah Perry. County Executive Dow Constantine also won re-election. 

And Vance is expecting the suburban cities ringing Seattle to continue sending Democrats to the state legislature. 

“The earthquake is in Seattle, not everywhere else,” he said. 

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