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How Progressive Is Seattle?

An extra-long election season gave us more time to weigh which side of the left we’re really on. In the aftermath, three insiders take our political temperature.

By Benjamin Cassidy February 15, 2022 Published in the Spring 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jane Sherman

► Joni Balter, multimedia journalist and college lecturer
► Crystal Fincher, founder and principal, Fincher Consulting; host, Hacks and Wonks podcast
► Andrew Villeneuve, founder and executive director, Northwest Progressive Institute

In light of recent election results, how has your view of Seattle voters’ political preferences shifted, or not?

► JB: I thought what you saw here in November was a good old-fashioned change election. Voters wanted to go a different direction. It had something to do with those right-direction, wrong-direction poll numbers that had been building toward wrong direction for many months. My quick take care here: What the voters did, collectively, was give space to the moderates in the city, who may have, for many months, felt either overrun or not listened to by some of the other folks, the harsh left in the city. And when I say moderates, this is not a clear term in this town. That’s only compared to the very pronounced and sometimes harsher left.

If you look at the city’s voters over the years, and I’ve said this so many times, it’s a city of 31 flavors of Democrats. It’s a range of Democrats. So it made no sense, if you want to go back to that election, to be talking to what turns out to be 42 percent of the city. You have to include a broader range of Democrats who did feel left out and did have something to say in that election about the kind of city they want. They want a city that works.

► CF: I have a bit of a different perspective on that one. When we talk about change, I guess a big question would be: change from what? We had a moderate mayor; we chose a moderate mayor. We, in an election following that, had the furthest left council member and stuck with that council member. I think what we see are voting patterns that actually are pretty consistent throughout elections, in that we have people who are not on the higher income ladder, that don’t have view homes, that are more likely to be renters and workers, who continue to vote in one way. And the other portion of the city in higher income, more single-family homes who vote in a different direction.

I think the biggest creeping indicator and biggest change that we’re seeing is in age demographic preferences. And the issues associated with that, that being the most pronounced difference. Seattle is not a city of Republicans and Democrats. Seattle is not a city of huge stark differences in a ton of areas except for age. Huge determinant. We’re seeing a lot of issues having to do with workers’ rights and economic justice, simple taxation, that are delineating among age lines. So I think what we’re seeing is a growing indicator of where policy is heading in the city, but preferences that were not radically different than what we saw before.

I certainly think voters want someone who will get things done. But I think that they voted for the candidates that most effectively articulated that they would get done what is most consistent with their values. And what we did see was a mayoral candidate field and a council candidate field that certainly spoke to progressive values. Now whether that manifests in policy, we will see. But, interesting in talking about change—change from what into what? I think people just want to get things done, but kind of stayed in the same lane that they were in before.

► AV: I would agree with a lot of those comments. Elections really come down to identity and trust. What you see in an election is people will vote for the candidate who really connects with them. And in this election, the candidates who won were the folks who connected best with the voters. There weren’t any particularly razor thin results in the citywide general election. We did see a narrowing in the end in the city attorney race. But when you look at all of the races, there was wasn’t a particularly super close, tight result. Bruce Harrell won very comfortably, Sara Nelson, won without too much difficulty.

I would say Seattle has been a left-leaning city for a long time. It was before the election; it still is now. Our polling suggests that people really haven’t changed in terms of their political makeup. In our polling, we found that 87 percent of Seattle voters voted for [Joe] Biden in 2020, 49 percent identify as strong Democrats, 81 percent in total identify as Democrats. You’re talking about, just the spectrum of those who are Democrats, eight in 10 voters say they are a Democrat to some degree. So that means that everyone else, whether they identify as a pure independent or as a Republican, is part of a group that totals 19 percent, which is not a very large group.

This is a big city. Seattle has got a bigger population than some countries on this planet. It’s got a bigger population than entire counties in Washington state. So, in some ways, Seattle is like its own state or its own county. It’s a very large jurisdiction. And you do see diversity in terms of people’s political thought within the city. But a lot of it occurs within the sort of left-of sphere. You have these lanes that people are in, and the diversity of political thought is within those. But it’s not the same gamut of political thought that you would see in the country or the state as a whole. So that’s a little bit about where the city is ideologically. I don’t think it’s changed very much.

I think what you saw in the election was people had a choice between two different kinds of progressive candidates because we had candidates who identified as progressive in both camps, if you will. You had Bruce Harrell and Sara Nelson running. They both identify as progressive. I did a search for progressive on Bruce’s website. Several results came up. In a news release, he says, I’m running on unity and progressive change. He said that explicitly. So whether or not people think he is a progressive or not, he certainly thinks he is one. And Sara Nelson, likewise, described herself as a pragmatic progressive.

So those are the messages that voters heard. Of course, their opponents and their opponents’ supporters might say, well, those folks aren’t as progressive as our candidates. But regardless, they identify as progressive. So that’s something to keep in mind as we’re thinking about the political makeup of the city and who people voted for.

► JB: Well, that’s kind of my point in a way. Because I think that, what we all need to understand is—Democrat, progressive—they all use the same terms. This is a big group of people. The mistake that was made, I believe, leading up to the election was the harsh left trying to battle and demonize moderate Democrats who vote the same as them and use some of the same language terms all day long, but they have a slightly different take. But why demonize this? Why not make your tent bigger? That’s what Bruce Harrell needed to do and use some of that language. That’s what Sara Nelson needed to do, and did, and was successful.

In addition to that, the council presidency went to a person named Debora Juarez. Now she’ll tell you all day that she is very progressive. But she also isn’t the most progressive. She’s in that range. The city voters obviously don't participate in who becomes council president. That’s from among your peers. But enough things happened that it would be, I think, a little bit foolish not to recognize that voters are saying something different.

► CF: I, again, would just say even among that, we went from a council president who was progressive, but not the most progressive, as the council president to that again. I also just want to highlight with the mechanics of campaigns, just the actual strategy. I think one of the big issues that we saw in this campaign was the asymmetry in communication and the amount of direct voter communication and investment in that coming from the candidates who wound up being successful versus those who weren’t.

To Andrew’s point, voters heard a progressive message. They heard that coming from largely one entity in each one of those races—in the council races, certainly in the city attorney’s race, and they were responsive to that. You have to talk to the voters. I think that’s a priority that all campaigns need to make. And some campaigns were able to recognize and deliver on that, certainly, with the help of independent expenditure allies, and others were not. But I do think that the role of direct voter communication and the sheer amount of that certainly was impactful on the outcome of the campaign.

► AV: Yes, I would agree that there were a lot of communications in the election. Voters saw and heard a lot of the candidates. We ended up spending a lot of time talking about whose ads were effective or not effective, or what the message of the ads were. But our polling suggested that voters were really concerned about a host of issues, homelessness being one of them, for sure, but also public safety. And people had a lot of ideas about what they wanted to see the city do. We actually had an option in our first poll where people could just say, open-ended, what they wanted, and the responses were kind of all over, as you might expect. 

But the real impetus we saw was: We want the mayor, we want the city council, to take action—to Joni’s point earlier. There’s a desire for action. So I think people were looking for, okay, who can we trust? Who is going to take action? In this election, what you saw is that Bruce Harrell and Sara Nelson were able to articulate that they would be candidates who would take action. And for whatever reason, I think Lorena González was not able to make that case very effectively, and the numbers in the election suggests that.

Nikkita Oliver is a bit of a different case because Nikkita was actually the strongest candidate initially in our polling, which speaks to the organizing that they were able to do very early in the cycle. I think that served them very well. But then as they got closer to the election, Sara Nelson was able to build a very effective coalition of voters and secure a first-place spot. But you’ll remember that in the top two [primary], Nikkita actually came back and was able to take that first-place spot in the top two. It was only later in the general that Sara was able to build that majority. So Nikkita was more competitive, I think during the election cycle, than Lorena ended up being. But as you saw, both Sara and Bruce were able to prevail. I don’t know that their prevailing was due to necessarily the ideological reasons. It may have been because people connected with them and thought that they were people of action who were going to accomplish their priorities.

It’s hard to say why people vote the way they do, but we know that it’s primarily about trust. Ideology is an important thing that we all talk about, think about, and it’s a factor in terms of how people make their decision. But ultimately, when you fill in the oval, you’re not using a spreadsheet to say, who am I ideologically closest to? Who shares all of my positions? Who shares my values? You’re thinking about, Who do I trust? And the name you choose is going to be a name that you choose based on your feelings about the candidate. That’s what humans are. We’re thinking, feeling creatures. So it’s important to recognize that.

► JB: Let me give you a practical point of connection that explains some of our results. You have the issue of public parks, homelessness, and at the same time, a very difficult summer for public safety. It was gonna be the candidate that recognized this very practical, daily part of people’s lives that people wanted changed.

Bruce Harrell use this word “urgency” over and over again. And that, I think, gave him the edge when you come to this very practical use and connection with the city that a lot of people felt just was not working. The bells went off if you started saying, Well, how do you feel about how things are going in our public parks, our public spaces? Do you feel safe? We had the big rise in [crime against Asian Americans] around the country—some of it here, but probably not as big as in some other places. So you have this sense that things were not working. If you have somebody saying “I will urgently address,” rather than explaining it as Lorena González did, that’s going to be who you go with.

With Sara Nelson, everybody knows we haven’t had a business person on the council for a while. She comes in and says, and you can complain about different parts of her own business, but she comes in and says, we’re gonna focus on small business, because small business, in many ways, really took the hit during Covid around here, really took the hit in the economic downturn that went with it. So to have an advocate, a specific advocate on something like that, you can see why voters would say, okay, let’s try that small business approach. But there was just a junction, a point of frustration, real frustration in the city. And I don’t think we should deny it, I’m not going to, around parks and homelessness and public safety. And that’s when the bells went off.

► CF: See that was a very interesting turn. Andrew just talked about how in the primary, Nikkita actually was leading and then Sara Nelson was able to take the lead in the general election. And one of the most curious things I saw, and to Andrew’s point about talking about their communication, Sara actually changed the way that she was defining herself and talking about issues, where she started the campaign in the primary talking about being a business owner and taking more of a hardline approach to that. I’m looking at one of her general election mailers, I have a few here, and she’s talking about police reform and not mentioning being a business owner and talking about equitable recovery and environmental justice and very much mirroring a lot of the talking points that some people would identify with people who you would think would be a little bit further left.

So that’s where I think some of the challenge is in determining, What are voters actually voting for and saying? And in a city where there are so many Democrats, and where even business owners are actually not talking about being business owners, and the messaging that’s actually building their coalition broader is talking about environmental justice and their experience on the council as an aide and that type of stuff. Moving away from the business talk was very interesting.

I do think it’s great to have a variety of experiences and range of lived experience on the council, including as a small business owner, but it was very interesting that she moved away from that, and started talking about issues that Nikkita had been talking about, other progressives have been talking about, and found success with that.

► AV: I noticed that, too, Crystal, and one of the things that I also noticed was that in our polling, the places that appeared to be the most undecided were places like West Seattle—that were deciding late—and Magnolia and Ballard and communities around there. If you look at the maps, Nikkita’s base of support, really the Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill, neighborhoods like that, Capitol Hill, that’s where most of the vote came from, for their candidacy. And then Sara had been doing fairly well in the north end. But when you look at where the West Seattle and Magnolia and Ballard voters all went, a lot of them went to Sara, and that’s how she was able to prevail and build that majority because those later deciding voters who were, again, undecided—more of them were undecided in our final poll of the Seattle electorate in October—they ended up gravitating to Sara.

I think it’s probably in part because of the reasons you just stated. Sara was presenting herself as somebody who had progressive ideals and had progressive policy directions. That is very helpful to a late-deciding voter when they're looking at, okay, well, who am I going to vote for? And, okay, I’m going to read the voters’ pamphlet statement. I’m also going to look at my campaign mail. A lot of people at least pay some attention to that. Or they will see what’s going on online, or they will talk to their friends and family and whatnot. So it’s the signals you get. I think that did make a difference for Sara in terms of how she was perceived in the general. You can only control what you say, as a candidate, you can’t control what your opponent says. So what your opponent says will have an effect on the results, of course. When your opponent isn’t doing a very good job, that helps you. When your opponent is doing a really good job that makes your task harder. 

So I think part of the reason Nikkita couldn’t come back in the general as they did in the top two is because Sara did a better job making the case that I’m a candidate who you can identify with. I’ll be a great representative for you on the council, I share your progressive values. That, I think, came through. It registered for enough voters. That did make the difference in the end in that race. 

But it’s just really fascinating to look at the maps and to figure out like, okay, well, where did people’s support come from? Because it’s a big city, as we were talking about earlier. And I noticed that Nikkita was able to win places that Bruce was not, and that’s something we noticed in our polling too, is that you actually had voters who were not voting along a perfect, what I would call, slate line where they’re voting for all the candidates that one group out there was telling them to vote for or vice versa. People split their votes in some cases. So that, of course, explains why the numbers vary a bit between the races. But it’s just really interesting to me to look at the geographic results and see like, where did the candidate support come from? And what was the key to their victory across the whole city? 

► JB: And also, these candidates are broader and have more depth and more length of time in their story than these little snapshots that you do in mailers. For example, Bruce Harrell. I can’t tell you how many things I read that said, Bruce Harrell, the conservative, or the moderate. Like, the conservative? I mean, do you know his record? Do you understand what he’s done, and who he is, and what his personal story is? So there was some really funny typecasting. And similarly, with Sara Nelson. Yes, she’s the small business owner here, I guess, the more moderate, but do you remember what she did in her life? She worked for Richard Conlin, who at the time that he was on the council was pretty far left himself. And Sara worked with him. That’s part of her story, too. So we do this in elections. We sort of give a couple of word phrases to people. And we get away with saying things that don’t really capture the broad range of experiences or positions that they have.


I’m thinking about something Andrew said earlier, about Seattle’s place in Washington. I also think about Seattle in this broader landscape of cities across the country. Do you describe Seattle as a progressive place to people outside of the state?

► JB: I describe it as progressive, left, and polite. And I’m not so sure about the polite anymore. Honestly, it comes down to, there’s more people honking. Somebody said, oh, the tech bros, they like to honk their cars, and they come from everywhere. The city was more polite. And I think the biggest mistake of this last election was, as I mentioned earlier, was trying to demonize the multitude of Democrats who live in this city, but who may not be as far left as some of the other candidates that were running, who happened to lose.

I think that demonizing is sort of making it a small tent. And this came up when governor Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire, former governors, endorsed Ann Davidson. They got a really nasty comment back from the state Democratic Party chair that made me think, wait, don’t you want your party to be big tent? How do you win elections, and how do you seem like a productive city, if you’re narrowing the folks who can consider themselves in the group? 

► CF: To that point, I do think that there is broad conversation and ideological variation between Democrats. I think in that issue, the issue was that Ann Davison had identified as a Trump Republican, and that certainly was challenging for a lot of people, particularly Democrats. 

But in terms of how I describe Seattle to the rest of the cities, it’s a microcosm of the issues that we’re dealing with. One of the advantages that we have is, we get to be a laboratory for solutions because we are not a city where the conversation is so caught up between Republican versus Democrat in ideological solutions—is climate change a problem, should we address it, yes or no. We get to debate ideas—okay, yes, we should address it. But how?

We’re on the “how” part of the conversation on so many of these issues. Yes, we need to address zoning and land use, but how? Yes, we know that we need to get people into housing from off of the street. But how? So we are in a different situation from a lot of larger cities that have both Democrats and Republicans and are battling from two very far apart ideological positions, and we get to have fuller conversations and richer conversations on how do we address those issues? Not in terms of should we address it? Should we not? Is it a problem? Is it not? But yes, we agree that there’s a problem here. And now our conversation gets to be about how we address it.

When I’m looking at who Seattle is, Seattle certainly is a city that loves to feel like it cares about people, like it wants to address these issues, and like it wants to be a leader in the nation, and certainly has the opportunity to. And Seattle just has to demonstrate that it will. We have certainly led on a number of issues, particularly with workers' rights. But we have a long way to go in some others, and the nation is going to be looking at us as we continue to address issues. Everything from economic insecurity and income inequality, to how we address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. All of it’s on the table.

► JB: I agree with all that. But I just want to add: Some of it is not for free. So what I mean by that is, when Seattle does things that are maybe a little loopy left, what will happen is, the national Republican Party will go and blame that on, for no reason, absolutely no reason, on Kim Schrier in the 8th District. So one of her potential Republican opponents is already saying that she’s somehow tied to Seattle’s inability to solve some of its problems. So it’s not free.

► CF: I don’t know that anyone was suggesting that it was free. But I also think Seattle isn’t tethered to what the Republican Party is messaging across the country, or what even Democrats outside of Seattle like Kim Schrier are talking about in the country. I think that one of the benefits of being able to have that fuller conversation comes from not being tethered to either one of those things, and being a place that has a tradition of blazing its own path, even in the Democratic sphere. So I’m eager to see how that turns out.

► AV: I said earlier that I think Seattle is a left-leaning city. It was before the election. It is now after the election. If people ask what kind of city is Seattle, I would describe it as a progressive left-leaning city. I think that the data and all the evidence clearly shows that it is.

Building on what Crystal said earlier, Seattle is a place where you can try out policies that could help people. There are many places in the state that would not be open to the kind of policies that Seattle voters are open to. Seattle voters are willing to try alternative voting methods. They are willing to consider policies that would help tribes restore our orcas and salmon. They are willing to look at ways to protect trees that other cities might not be willing to look at. And it’s really the council and the mayor who in some cases have to play catch up with the voters because the voters are ready. They just want their elected officials to act. So I do think that this is a city where there's a lot of possibilities. There’s a lot of promise, and there’s a lot of willingness for progressive change.

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