No doubt, there's going to be a new-look council in January 2016. At least four of the current nine council members will not be there next year; longtime members Tom Rasmussen (first elected in 2003), Jean Godden (first elected in 2003), Nick Licata (first elected in 1997), Sally Clark (appointed and then elected in 2006), and John Okamoto (Clark's temporary replacement; Clark retired this year) will all be gone. And it's not crazy to suggest that council president Tim Burgess, first elected in 2007, could also be gone; he's facing a for-real challenge from tenants advocate Jon Grant.
With either four or five of the veterans gone on a nine-member city council, there's no doubt we're looking at a brand new era. The easy conclusion would be to credit our new district system for the change. But that doesn't track.
Licata, 68, would have been running for a sixth term. His retirement is happening in its own right—and frankly, tossing a left-winger like Licata doesn't fit with the antiestablishment uprising that district elections are supposedly all about. Clark was slated to run for one of the at-large seats—not a district seat. Similarly, Burgess is running for an at-large seat. Godden will be 85 next year. It's certainly possible that the retail politics of a district race put her age in sharper focus for voters when they ousted her in the August primary and opted for two sprightly young men, Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux. But it's equally likely, given that she got dumped straight away in the primary, that voters knew her time was up regardless.
That leaves Rasmussen. And yes, I'll concede that Rasmussen is a default casualty of districts; the rough-and-tumble of retail politics at the doorbell level does not suit him.
Conversely, though: There are the four incumbents who are likely to hold their seats: Bruce Harrell, Kshama Sawant, Mike O'Brien, and Sally Bagshaw. All four are running in districted seats, which means only three new council members out of nine council members will come from a district. (The new districted system features seven districts and two at-large spots.)
Of those three new members, one will come from Distict Five, North Seattle, where none of the incumbents lives...which means the seat was wide open to start and won't represent a district trophy. And frankly, Mercedes Elizalde, an organizer for the Low Income Housing Institute, was the revolutionary candidate in that race; she lost in the primary to two standard liberals—a former judge (Debora Juarez) and the former head of the church council (Sandy Brown). In short, districts in their own right will not be responsible for what appears to be a Seattle Spring.
The most anti-etablishment candidates are Jon Grant and Bill Bradburd; only Grant has a chance, and both (white men) are running in the at-large spots, not in district spots. The other legit populist is Nick Licata's former aide, Lisa Herbold. Despite the obvious irony that Herbold is actually a consummate city hall insider (she's worked for Licata since he took office in 1998), I will cede the point (as I did when I noted Rasmussen was likely a legit casualty of districts) that Herbold, who's running in Rasmussen's district, is a poster child for the districts revolution story arc. Her victory, however, is not guaranteed. She's in a close race with the more "establishment" candidate, Shannon Braddock. My money is on Herbold, but one bona fide district scalp will not translate into a compelling case that districts are responsible for the altered council.
With four districted incumbents likely staying put and the other changes only tangentially at best (Godden? Rasmussen?) related to districts, let's nip the November 4 districts revoluion story in the bud right now.
So, what is the 2015 city council election about. It's pretty obvious isn't it? When I ran through the list of incumbents who are likely to hold on to their seats, one of them didn't quite fit did they. You don't think of Kshama Sawant as an incumbent. You think of her as an outsider. As part of this sweeping revolution. And there you have it: This year's election isn't about districts, it's about Sawant and a leftward lurch in Seattle. This year's race will decide whether Sawant gets a left-wing majority on the council. And that possible win has very little to do with districts.
Currently, the Sawant bloc is three-strong: Sawant, Licata, and O'Brien. If 2015 goes her way—swapping in Herbold for Licata, knocking out Burgess with Grant, adding union-friendly Democrat Maddux over urbanist Rob Johnson in the Fourth Disrtict and keeping O'Brien in District Six—Sawant will ascend to a five-vote majority.
This pending Sawant majority would have little to do with district elections, though. Conversely, it may happen in spite of districts. Again: Grant is running at large. And O'Brien's rival, Catherine Weatbrook, is actually more of the traditional district candidate in that race. Weatbrook is the co-chair of the City Neighborhood Council, and, unlike most candidates, she's relying largely on in-district donors; 68 percent of her donors live in her district. (Just 26 percent of O'Brien's contributors are from the district.) Sawant is hoping against a district upheaval in O'Brien's district.
Of course, all of this analysis is premature. There's still an election looming out there. But let's be clear from the start: Districts are not the issue. For one thing. Districts were supposed to diminish the significance of money. But in fact, perhaps the biggest factor in this year's elections have been the outsize influence of independent expenditures (it takes less money for outside groups to impact a smaller electorate.) And again, the majority of candidates are not relying on district money. Only 21 percent of Sawant's donors, for example, live in her district; her biggest base of donors, 31 percent, live outside the city altogether. (And in that open seat in the Fifth, frontrunner Debora Juarez only has 11—11!— donors from her district; that's a lifeless three percent showing.)
The story of the 2015 election is Sawant. She's very likely to win herself, but will her atmospheric slate—at-large candidates Bill Bradburd and Jon Grant along with incumbent O'Brien, District One candidate Lisa Herbold, and to some extent Democrat Maddux—carry the day as well?
Whether Sawant's slate of preferred candidates wins or not will have very little to do with districts. It will, much more, have to do with Amazon-era anxiety and Sawant's own push to translate that into a brand of citywide progressive politics that is unrelated to, and frankly, much bigger than districts.