We Have a Culture War…in the Seattle City Attorney’s Race?

Why a down-ballot contest became the talk of the town.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 27, 2021

In a year when Seattle is electing a new mayor, you might expect the contest for the city’s top post to dominate the discourse. The competition between Bruce Harrell and M. Lorena González has certainly generated some fodder. Just this week, González pulled a campaign ad that the Harrell campaign and others condemned as racist.

But pundits and Redditors alike have also fixated on a different ballot item, one with far less cultural cachet in a more normal season of political yammering. For weeks now, the race to become Seattle’s city attorney—yes, city attorney—has drawn intrigue and prompted outrage from nearly every corner of our local commentariat. While most Seattle election face-offs force voters to parse different shades of blue, the fight to head the city’s legal office hews closer to the country’s political polarization: One candidate has a Republican background, and the other touts an agenda deemed radical by even some liberal peers. As state senator Jamie Pedersen told the AP, “A lot of people are having significant buyer’s remorse that these are the choices we’re left with.”

This is how we got here.

Who are the candidates for city attorney in Seattle?

Notably, neither is the current city attorney. Pete Holmes, a Democrat in his third term, couldn’t fend off two challengers during August’s almost evenly splintered primary. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender, took 36.4 percent of the vote. Ann Davison, who most recently ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican in 2020 and city council in 2019 (as Ann Davison Sattler), finished a few points back.

Did you say Davison is a Republican?

The city attorney’s race is nonpartisan, so the private-practicing lawyer doesn’t have to declare a political affiliation. But Davison did indeed run for lieutenant governor as a Republican in 2020, when Donald Trump was presiding over the party.

She’s since tried to distance herself from that decision as an “independent thinker.” Her website says her failed run for Seattle City Council in 2019 proved certain local Democrats “didn’t have room anymore for a pragmatist like me”—a “Dan Evans type of Republican.” It notes that she voted for Obama and Clinton, caucused for Hillary in 2016, and cast her ballot for Biden, not Trump, in 2020. Regardless of where her party allegiances truly lie, nobody’s disputing that she’s well to the right of her opponent.

So Thomas-Kennedy is the more progressive candidate?

That would be an understatement. She’s running as a police and prison abolitionist.

Nicole Thomas-Kennedy has aligned her platform with calls for police abolition.

Hold on. Abolition is…big. What exactly does the Seattle city attorney do again?

Most people, this election cycle has proven, have no idea. David Goldstein, a former Stranger staff writer and current senior fellow at Civic Ventures, offers a view shared by many who have followed the race closely: “The issues that the candidates and the media have largely focused on—homelessness and ‘defund’ the police—are issues over which the city attorney has little or no authority.” Oh.

Let’s go straight to the source for some clarity, then. The city attorney oversees three major divisions, one of which is administration—think HR and accounting. Simple enough. The other two, civil and criminal, are at the core of the office’s work. The majority of the department’s budget goes toward civil litigation: offering legal counsel and representing the city and its officials when, say, the chamber of commerce sues over the new “JumpStart” payroll tax. Yet most of the conversation during election season has centered on the role the city attorney plays in prosecuting misdemeanors, which encompasses a broad range of wrongdoing—everything from theft to domestic assault. Shoulder shrugs to scary stuff, basically.

A common misconception is that the city attorney’s office prosecutes felonies like homicide. It does not. Those cases are referred to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

So how could Thomas-Kennedy abolish the police and prisons?

She couldn’t. At least not overnight, and certainly not alone. Beyond its limited case authority, the city attorney’s office has no control over police funding, something many vitriolic commenters may be surprised to learn. It can, however, shape the city’s views and approach to the criminal justice system. In practice, Thomas-Kennedy would use her long-term goal of prison abolition as a framework for overhauling the current justice system, or “criminal punishment system,” as she calls it.

During the run-up to the primary, Thomas-Kennedy criticized Holmes for being too harsh on petty crime. She wants to stop prosecutions for most misdemeanors, she’s told The Stranger, stressing that prison sentences have exacerbated the problems of people living with low incomes and/or disabilities. She wouldn’t seek jail time for someone who shoplifted or trespassed while sleeping outside.

Her argument is that the city attorney has always exercised discretion in prosecutions. She feels it’s usually people with more resources who dodge punishments for misdemeanors. “City prosecutors make the sole determination about who to criminalize, and these judgments have never been applied equally,” her campaign website says. She wants the city to spend its dollars on the civil side—to back legislation against wage theft and environmental harm, among other societal problems.

But if crimes don’t get prosecuted, what will deter them? Won’t small businesses suffer?

Welcome to Davison’s line of thinking. She wants to crack down on crime in its various forms, viewing smaller offenses as a gateway to more serious ones (though, as mentioned above, certain misdemeanors can be quite serious). Her platform is essentially the opposite of Thomas-Kennedy’s.

So was her approach in the primary. In the lead-up to August’s vote, Davison attacked Holmes in a mailer for allowing crime to “make a home here.” The flyer said homicides had “skyrocketed.” A critical reading might conclude this information betrayed, or perhaps attempted to entrench, the false notion that the city attorney’s office prosecutes felonies. A generous one could connect the dots between a rise in murders and the slippery-slope philosophy Davison promotes on her website: “It should be the goal of the City Attorney to make prosecution decisions that lead people away from a life of more serious crimes and the data does not support success in that.”

Either way, Davison has campaigned on cleaning up downtown, a cause that’s important to many small business owners and corporate bigwigs in this town. Former Democratic governors Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke have backed her.

Whose message is resonating more?

Though Thomas-Kennedy triumphed in the primary, Davison has blown past her rival, at least according to the latest polling commissioned by the Northwest Progressive Institute. A survey of 617 Seattle voters conducted by Change Research in mid-October found that 43 percent of respondents supported Davison, as opposed to just 24 percent for Thomas-Kennedy. Still, 30 percent of voters were undecided.

You haven’t mentioned Thomas-Kennedy’s bad tweets.

The candidate’s Twitter history probably hasn’t helped her cause as she pursues public office. As reported by The Seattle Times and documented on many a Reddit thread, the candidate has repeatedly lambasted cops on the social media platform. During the protests against police brutality in 2020, her account professed a “rabid hatred” for the police and, on Christmas Eve, responded to a tweet by Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz with, per a Times editorial, this parting message: “Eat some covid laced shit & quit ur [sic] jobs.”

Thomas-Kennedy says she wouldn’t tweet that way as city attorney—she didn’t know she was going to run for the job back then—but she hasn’t apologized. Some share her animosity. Others abhor it.

It seems like everyone invested in this race is mad.

Pretty much. Both candidates entered the race to upend the status quo on criminal justice in this city, just in completely different ways. Their supporters and detractors reflect the animus underlying their views. Others feel sidelined by such divergent choices. Goldstein calls the contest “an artifact of our elections system, not a reflection of the will of the voters.”

How could this have been avoided?

Certain forms of ranked-choice voting, perhaps, would have encouraged a more diverse group of candidates to run. More fundamentally, voters could have taken the time to actually, you know, read about the powers and responsibilities of the city attorney. And, as always, less tweeting never hurt anybody.

This article has been corrected to remove a line that said Davison participated in a "pro-Trump commercial, according to The Seattle Times." The Times report says Davison recorded "a video for a national pro-Donald Trump “#WalkAway” campaign of ex-Democrats."

Show Comments