A 2017 Election Autopsy

by Michael Maddux, Opinion Writer

What 2017 Tells Us About Seattle

In Seattle, this year’s election was cast as many things. For some, it was about routing the so-called establishment. For others, it was seen as an opportunity to elect ideological purists to the city council. To some it was viewed as a referendum on HALA and density. Not to mention the questions surrounding revenue options in Seattle, and how we’re addressing the homelessness crisis. At the end of the day, most “sides” can claim some victory. A week out, with most of the ballots counted, here’s what voters said:

The Establishment

In the Mayoral election and Position 8, much hay was made about fighting back against “the Establishment.” Cary Moon routinely noted that the “Corporate Establishment” was to blame for the ills of Seattle. Teresa Mosqueda was labeled as the “Big Labor Establishment” candidate. While the election (and margin) of Jenny Durkan was clearly a win for Seattle’s historic Establishment, in Position 8 it’s not that simple.

Back in August, I posited that there is, in fact, a “New Establishment.” Young, progressive, and collaborative, these are folks who are less interested in ideological purity, and more interested in results. The overwhelming support Mosqueda and Gonzalez received (who I count as part of this New Establishment, along with folks like Council Member Rob Johnson and Rep. Nicole Macri) suggests that embracing being an effective progressive is not a bad thing.

“Collaboration” Isn’t a Dirty Word

The lopsided victories of candidates who focused on collaboration over ideological purity says something about where Seattle stands on collaboration. Where policy positions intersect, Seattle voters want council members to work together.

In early October, Jon Grant staffer and Seattle DSA leader Shaun Scott argued that finding common ground and working together is a bad thing. The notion appearing to be that working with people on issues on which we agree, even while having stark differences in other arenas, is a bad thing. People’s Party leader Nikkita Oliver, People’s Party organizer Aretha Basu, and Teresa Mosqueda pushed back on that notion. It appears the City of Seattle leaned heavily for the more collaborative approach.


Candidate Pat Murakami made much of her bid focused around opposition to HALA and more growth throughout Seattle (along with giving more control of planning back to neighborhood councils). Jon Grant touted his abstention vote as a member of the HALA committee as part of his cred. Cary Moon was seen as waffling at times on whether to implement the remaining recommendations of the HALA committee, or to renegotiate whole or part of the proposal. On the campaign trail, there were whispers about how far candidates should go in embracing HALA.

Turns out that those who did were rewarded, and the referendum on HALA is clear: voters support these changes throughout Seattle. In 2015, the most vocal opponent of HALA (Bill Bradburd) ended his campaign with just 21.43% of the vote, while HALA supporters were generally successful. This time around, Durkan, Mosqueda, and Gonzalez all embraced HALA, and more housing types throughout the city. All three won with massive majorities. In fact, looking at a map based on election night data for Position 8 (h/t to Phil Gardner for making this happen), Mosqueda handily won in Wallingford, where some of the most vocal opponents to HALA reside. Suffice it to say, HALA is not the toxic issue that many might have thought it was.


Here there were mixed signals. Voters clearly want to pay for solutions (the Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy showed that much), but also indicated they believe those solutions don’t necessarily mean allowing unsanctioned encampments. Durkan has proposed more sanctioned encampments and tiny house villages in the short-term, while moving away from sanctioned encampments, and embracing long-term housing vouchers. Moon was on the record regularly calling for a stop to the encampment cleanups as they currently are done in Seattle. As the debate over the HOMES tax continues – both as a source of revenue and how to spend that revenue, it’s clear that voters want to do something, but it’s unclear what exactly that is.

Paper Endorsements Matter – But Only So Far

Teresa Mosqueda will be the first person elected to City Council without the support of either the Stranger or Seattle Times in over a decade (if not longer). The Seattle Times had a particularly bad night – their candidates for Seattle City Attorney, City Council, and School Board (save for Eden Mack) all lost, and all lost big. They fared much better in Bellevue, indicating they are more in tune with Bellevue values than Seattle values.

It turns out that some of the most important areas to get support are (still) from organizations that will follow-up with action. Whether that’s knocking doors (Labor and Democrats), sending out mailers to members (Planned Parenthood), or hitting up email lists (NARAL, Sierra Club, ERW), if you can’t match a big paper endorsement with organizations that will also push their members on your behalf, it’s a tough road ahead.


Not only in Seattle, but across the country, women had a good night. In Virginia, for instance, numerous Republican men lost to Democratic women. Bolstered by turnout among black women, Democrats roared back to life in the Commonwealth. This included electing the first out transgender woman to the House of Delegates.

Here at home, women will lead every major city on the I-5 corridor in Washington. Women of color had a particularly good night – Satwinder Kaur in Kent, Victoria Woodards in Tacoma, and Vandanna Slatter in the 48th were all well ahead of their white male counterparts.

Mitzi Johanknecht will be the first out LGBTQ woman to head the King County Sheriff’s office, scoring a victory over incumbent Sheriff John Urquhart (who was facing numerous sexual harassment and assault allegations leading up to Tuesday). Seattle City Council will have a 6-3 female majority. Men: this area belongs to women, and we just live in it.

Photo: Naomi Ishisaka

Also Big Winners: Communities of Color

Zak Idan became the first Somali immigrant elected to the Tukwila City Council, and Jimmy Matta and Pedro Olguin are the first Latinos to serve on the Burien City Council. With the blowout election of Teresa Mosqueda, the Seattle City Council will be majority people of color. This trend occurred across most of King County, and was a trend seen across the country. As a lesson to political Parties, it’s no longer enough to proclaim to support historically marginalized communities: we must support members from these communities in their bids for public office.

Seattle is Still a Democratic Party Town

Two new political parties emerged this year – Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and Seattle People’s Party. Seattle DSA did not have any wins in Washington State, while People’s Party didn’t have a win with a specific candidate, but were successful advancing a populist agenda. Socialist Alternative played a minor role this year, their efforts appearing focused more on Ginger Jentzen’s unsuccessful bid for Minneapolis City Council. 

Heidi Groover argues that this loss wasn’t the end of Seattle DSA – and she’s right. But whether they continue as an antagonistic toward the Democratic Party organization, or operate more like other DSA groups across the country (supporting Democrats and working with the system – leading to 15 wins) remains to be seen. How People’s Party will play in future elections remains a question, but all signs point to strong organizing power and good things to come.

This was an historic election. The introduction of Democracy Vouchers brought thousands of people to the table that have otherwise sat out elections. Seattle has its first woman mayor in nearly a century. In the end, it also showed that Seattleites are, in fact, welcoming of change, welcoming of new neighbors, and willing to have that change in their back yards. Our next test of this will be in 2019, when the seven City Council Districts will be up for re-election.

Featured image by Naomi Ishisaka

4 thoughts on “A 2017 Election Autopsy”

  1. Which dead body are you examining in your “autopsy“, Michael? That of the old Seattle where neighborhoods had a say in City Hall?
    I don’t think she’s dead. She just went unnoticed while all that floodlight was directed, by big money, on glossy brochures and TV ads for pro-density candidates who will ride the development rush rodeo a little longer.
    Pat Murakami got app. 50% more votes than Bill Bradburd. Jon Grant ran a great grassroots campaign and has many devoted fans, as does Nikkita Oliver, who came very close to entering the general election. Critics and victims of turbo growth, displacement and environmental degradation will eventually find representation. Maybe in two years.

  2. “Seattle is Still a Democratic Party Town”
    Yes, you sure got that right–Seattle is perfectly emblematic of the Democratic Party. A great place to live for the comfortable upper crust who can afford it, with the poor and working class continuing to get pushed out, while the politicians committed to “compromise” and “collaboration” just uphold an immiserating status quo. But at least it’s women upholding it now! I’m sure that will make the displaced and homeless will feel better.

  3. Our election process was interesting to compete in, but glaring issues with how we operate were evident. Our election style -even for non-partisan seats- remains a “first past the post” system that discourages voting away from major party choices. The Democracy Vouchers are not as helpful to small campaigns, putting the balance of support by taxpayer dollars into the larder of already heavily funded campaigns. My opinion is that we spend too much money on our elections.

    Media attention was almost completely on the Mayoral and Position 8 elections, as they were without an incumbent. As a former candidate for Position 9, I felt the race against incumbent councilperson Gonzalez was nearly written off by press coverage. It should be the purpose of our democracy to always seek the best representatives -even if the job is already filled- and this requires the active attention of our media to serve the public interest.

    Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on our elections this year, and still we have our growing homeless population sleeping in the harsh cold of this winter. That money could and should be spent caring for our people, not advertising for individuals seeking office.

    In summary: I would like to see our electoral process become less of a burden to the taxpayer; our media fairly cover all elections, regardless of incumbency; and the focus of our spending be on caring for all of Seattle’s people.

    If you would like to reach me for answers to any questions you may have, my twitter handle is @i_affleck_asch .

    A well-written article, you have my appreciation for writing it, Michael.

  4. Just to chime in about the School Board elections, we saw, once again, a turning back of ed reform candidates backed by big money (at least for Board races). Zachary DeWolf handily defeated DFER-backed Omar Vasquez (who sat on a charter school board until late in the campaign and was in Teach for America which also has not found favor in Seattle). Betty Patu retained her position, defeating a lackluster Chelsea Byers, also an ed reform candidate.

    What I see is that Seattle remains independent of national trends and really is the better for it. Charter schools may have some benefits but overall, have not shown the outcomes they promised. I think most Seattle voters see that and are not willing to throw Seattle Schools under the charter bus.

    The twist to this is that Jenny Durkan, early in the campaign, seems unhappy with the Board and said so in the videotape of the 36th Dems twice. If Durkan has designs on taking over the Board/District, she might want to consider the work she already has and that voters in Seattle have little appetite for ed reform. (And no big city with mayoral controls has shown better outcomes.)

    Melissa Westbrook