By Sarajane Siegfriedt, Member of PSARA’s Executive Board
Electing Seattle City Councilmembers by district had failed in three previous attempts, so it was no sure thing when it ran on the November 5, 2013 ballot. The ballot sponsors were an eclectic group, but most of the funding (about $200,000 of $296,000 raised) was contributed by the main sponsor, Aurora Avenue businesswoman Faye Garneau.
Asked why she sponsored it, Garneau said it was money well-spent if it forces future council members to prioritize and be more responsive to neighborhood concerns outside the downtown core. “It’s my city. I love it,” she told the Seattle Times. “I want to leave it better than when I entered it. And I think it will be.”
Garneau was joined by Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox, Fremont land use activist Toby Thaler, Fremont business leader Susie Burke, Ellen Taft, Jim Coombes, and City Hall aide James Bush.
For the first time, the proposal included its map, leaving nothing in doubt. The district map was created by Richard Morrill, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Washington. He said federal rules prohibit diluting minority voting blocs, and Seattle doesn’t have the minority population to create two strong minority districts, so he created one in South Seattle. They each contain approximately 88,000 people and the citywide positions represent 600,000 constituents.
The Seattle Times endorsed the districts model: “All but three of the country’s 50 largest cities have changed from at-large elections to district or hybrid models—for good reason. Seattle should do the same.”
The sponsors explained the need for election by districts: “We currently elect all nine Seattle City Councilmembers ‘at large.’ This means our Councilmembers…are not responsible to voters in any specific district. Seattle is only one of three [of the top 50 cities] that do elect our legislative branch in an ‘at large’ fashion.”
Calling their hybrid proposal “7-2”, sponsors said, “The other two will be elected to ‘at large’ positions.” When the map was applied to the current councilmembers, it was immediately apparent that there was no incumbent in District 5, the area north of 85th Street that was annexed in 1954 and, according to local legend, was promised, but never received sidewalks.
The sponsors explained, “We will begin the transition to the 7-2 system at the next city election in 2015. In 2015, all nine Councilmembers will be up for a vote. The seven districted Councilmembers will be elected to 4-year terms. The two atlarge Councilmembers will be elected to two-year terms. In 2017, the two at-large seats will be elected to four-year terms. This places the at-large Councilmembers on the same election cycle as the Mayor and City Attorney. The goal is to allow residents to vote on at least part of the Council at each city election.”
Seattle Districts Now was favored by 65.92% of the voters, and opposed by 34.08%.
Councilmembers averaged 10 years’ seniority when the proposal passed. Kshama Sawant in District 3, as of this writing, has three challengers. Tom Rasmussen of West Seattle’s District 1 is not running in November. Neither is Sally Clark, faced with another city-wide race. Nick Licata, at 17 years the Council’s senior member, has also decided to retire.
The advantages of incumbency — fundraising and name familiarity — seem to be balanced against the desire for a fresh face and a less downtown-centric agenda. Because of low turnout, districts may be won by running a credible campaign and knocking on just 12,000 doors, and acpaign funds of $75,000 to $100,000, whereas a citywide race takes far more fundraising to pay for cable TV ads and all those oversized postcards that fill our mailboxes around election time (upwards of $350,000).
As of March 20th, we have 39 candidates registered in the nine Council races, from 11 in West Seattle’s District 1 to Sally Bagshaw, who is unopposed (so far) in District 7. There are five candidates for AtLarge Position 8, including Tim Burgess, and three candidates running for Position 9, which has no incumbent. Filing week ends May 15th.
In the May Advocate, we will list the candidates and give as much information as we can.