In the weeks since the Nov. 3 election, the media narrative for the most closely watched local races — all nine of the Seattle City Council seats, using the new district system for the first time — was clear: Mayor Ed Murray won. The urbanists won. The voters spoke, and it was a resounding endorsement of Seattle’s real estate-driven, density-at-all-costs mania. The Seattle Times said so.

Or, as local political consultant Ben Anderstone put it six days after the election in Crosscut, “Candidates who warned of approaching storm clouds got little traction.”

Really? By “approaching storm clouds,” Anderstone can only mean the city’s crisis in escalating rents and loss of affordable housing. The candidates on either side of this divide were relatively easy to identify: Murray’s consultant, Christian Sinderman, had establishment-backed clients in eight of the nine council races. Pitted against them were progressive candidates focusing on housing and development issues in eight races.

Now, in the last few elections, incumbents generally coasted to reelection. Their huge money advantage and the foreboding logistics of running citywide made strong challengers relatively rare. 

That’s one big reason why Kshama Sawant’s win in 2013 was so shocking: Until late in that race, Sawant wasn’t even seen as a serious challenger. Richard Conlin, like most of his colleagues, expected another somnambulant coronation. 

 

A different look

The “big win for urbanists!” frame starts with that assumption. But in the new era of both unlimited outside money and districts, it’s a bad assumption. Those eight progressive candidates? All but one broke 40 percent. 

With Lisa Herbold pulling ahead of Shannon Braddock in their West Seattle race, it looks like four progressives will have actually won: Herbold, Sawant, incumbent Mike O’Brien and Debora Juarez in Northeast Seattle will have won. 

As the last votes are counted, a fifth, Tammy Morales, still had an outside chance of catching incumbent Bruce Harrell in South Seattle. That would be a majority of City Council that ran against the developer-driven agenda of Sinderman’s candidates. By any definition, that’s “traction.” It’s hardly a sweeping mandate for business as usual.

Even if Harrell had not pulled out another term, the new council will be far more diverse — and not just ideologically. A majority are women. Four are non-white. Given that money still played a huge part in determining winners and losers in these races — only Herbold and (barely) Juarez were outspent among the winning candidates — the fact that a progressive slate will have far more influence, and on many issues a working council majority, is shocking.

The district system was designed to increase City Council accountability, and in that it was successful. Seven of nine council seats faced strong challenges to the establishment candidate. Four-dozen people ran for those seats in the primary. 

The days of a monolithic council and chronic 9-0 and 8-1 votes are over for a while to come. With Initiative 122 winning, complementing the district system, next time underfunded candidates will have another assist in waging competitive campaigns. 

Moreover, other local results had a decidedly progressive bent. I-122 passed easily, all four reform candidates won their Seattle School Board races and, in Fred Felleman, the Port of Seattle will have an ardent environmentalist as a commissioner for the first time in its sordid history.

 

A different election

Those down-ticket races had even more progressive results precisely because they didn’t draw as much corporate money. In the council races, that money was critical. Three of the four biggest beneficiaries of corporate soft money (Pamela Banks, council president Tim Burgess, Braddock and Rob Johnson) held Election Night leads. Cash still has a disproportionate influence on local elections, and most of the money is coming from people and companies who rely on elected officials to help them make more of it.

The other significant result, though, shows a strong and likely ongoing constituency for candidates who warn of “storm clouds.” 

Sawant is shaping up to be a unique political talent, and her success is a genuine phenomenon: Despite a ferocious challenge backed by the mayor and by Burgess, Sawant got a higher percentage of votes this year than in 2013. 

And consider her campaign: More than 600 active volunteers; more than 178,000 phone calls; 9,236 doors knocked on in the final weekend and more than 90,000 in the campaign; and well more than $450,000 in donations — without accepting any corporate cash — from 3,445 different donors, triple the number of any other candidate. Sawant’s donations were smaller, averaging half or less than that of other campaigns. But she made it up with her sheer number of donors and volunteers.

That is utterly unprecedented in local politics. Can public financing and campaign experience outpace Seattle’s steady exodus of voters who can no longer afford to live here? We’ll find out in 2017.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.