Photo depicting Nicole Thomas-Kennedy standing at a podium getting ready to speak at The Great Debate.

What Is Justice and How Should It Be Administered: Seattle’s City Attorney Race

by Alexa Peters

The race for Seattle’s next city attorney has been a surprising one since three-term incumbent Pete Holmes conceded in the August primaries, leaving newcomers Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison to duke it out.

The typically uneventful race for an often overlooked office heated up after many of Thomas-Kennedy’s controversial anti-police Tweets from 2020 resurfaced, prompting local media and previous Seattle municipal court judges to question her fitness for the City Attorney’s Office. Even Fox News’ Tucker Carlson took a stab at the candidate during a September segment of his show, calling the candidate flat-out “crazy.” Meanwhile, Davison, who recently switched from Republican to “moderate Democrat,” has come under fire for her Republican rhetoric and ties to a video campaign organized by a Trump supporter who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

In looking beyond political warfare, experts say the race for city attorney gets to the heart of a question all the more relevant since anti-police protests broke out in 2020: In Seattle, what do we consider justice and how should it be administered? Our selection for city attorney will be decided on voters’ answers to those questions.

“The city attorney sets the city’s moral compass,” said Robert Rhodes, a Seattle-based attorney with over 25 years of experience in the criminal arena. “They set the city’s position on crime because, among other things, they decide the priority of the crime’s prosecution.”

In other words, the city attorney can choose which misdemeanor crimes, like theft, assault, trespass, harassment, and property destruction, are most and least urgent to address. By contrast, felonies — like assault with a deadly weapon and other examples of gun violence — are decided by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. 

The position of Seattle city attorney hasn’t always operated in this way. In Seattle’s early days, the city attorney served either as one of many legal advisors to the city or as a prosecutor in misdemeanor proceedings. The city had a separate body, called the Corporation Counsel, concerned more heavily with civil cases. In the early 20th century, city attorney became a role elected by the public and, while the position’s primary duties continued to focus on prosecuting misdemeanors, the role was expanded to include some civil casework.

The city attorney remained one of many peer-level counselors reporting to the Deputy Corporation Counsel within the Law Department for more than 50 years. In 1977, the Law Department was reorganized into five divisions which dissolved the divide between the criminal-focused City Attorney’s Office and the civil-oriented Corporation Counsel. The city attorney became the elected head of the Law Department as well as chief prosecutor and legal advisor to Seattle on all city-related legal matters.

In 2021, the City Attorney’s Office primarily oversees the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses, like trespassing and more severe charges like DUIs and domestic violence, as well as civil litigation on behalf of the city. The city attorney has minimal jurisdiction when it comes to prosecuting felonies, including gun violence. Additionally, Seattle remains the only city in Washington State that continues to elect their city attorney. According to an archived history of the department, this arrangement requires them to serve as “an advocate not just for city officials, but also for the needs of the public.”

Advocating for both camps is no short order in an era when the very definition of serving justice in Seattle and the nation is being aggressively reexamined in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), and the rise of the movement to defund the police department.

On one hand, social justice activists are advocating for a reinvestment in community-based programs and the reimagining of a justice system that disproportionately affects those in poverty while, on the other hand, many officials consider such a reenvisioning to be unnecessary and extreme. In the race for city attorney, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison’s platforms reflect these two opposing ideas.

Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defense attorney, is running on a progressive abolitionist platform; she wants to prosecute less and, instead, bolster community-based programs to mitigate crime and the disproportionate prosecution of BIPOC and the poor.

“[It’s] not just taking something away, but actually building healthy, supported communities that don’t need police and prisons for everything,” said Thomas-Kennedy.

Thomas-Kennedy worked within the criminal system and saw firsthand how continually prosecuting people who were most vulnerable — whether living paycheck-to-paycheck or already experiencing homelessness —  was making their situation significantly worse and not actually deterring or reforming their criminal behavior.

One September 2019 report, entitled “System Failure,” supports this assertion. The report’s abstract describes it as “commissioned by several neighborhood business groups and written by former public safety advisor to the city” and says it uses city agency data to show how “the poor performance of Seattle’s criminal justice system results in under-reporting of crime from chronic victims, low police morale, and helps perpetuate crime and incarceration cycles for vulnerable individuals.”

As an alternative to arresting and incarcerating people repeatedly, Thomas-Kennedy wants to pour money that would otherwise be spent in the court system into social services, and she’s also interested in pursuing community-led police accountability and oversight measures.

“We really need to start looking at the root problems and addressing those. It’s going to be less expensive, it’s going to result in greater deterrents, and it’s actually going to allow everyone to flourish and be safer,” she said. “The idea behind defunding the police isn’t just an immediate, overnight, police are gone; it’s a gradual process where we start reinvesting that money back into the community.”

Recent data confirms that incarceration disproportionately affects BIPOC in King County, and the Seattle Office of Civil Rights recommends “The City Attorney’s Office … exercise prosecutorial discretion to decline cases disproportionately impacting poor people, limit requests for jail sentences, and instead develop and rely on more effective solutions.”

As for the inclusion of BIPOC voices and experiences in her campaign and work, Thomas-Kennedy says her progressive platform is based on the scholarship of BIPOC activists and is supported heavily by BIPOC advocacy groups in Seattle like Black Action Coalition. As well, Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign team is made up entirely of Black women. 

“I want my office rooted in equity. That means racial, gender, LGBTQ, class equity. I think that societally, we have not been focused on the most vulnerable and that is why we’re facing a lot of problems right now,” she said.

Thomas-Kennedy is also for pursuing litigation against corporations causing harm to workers and the environment and defending progressive tax revenue measures.

Meanwhile, Ann Davison is a private practice attorney and arbitrator, primarily in contract and immigration law. Her campaign for city attorney is her third campaign for different public office positions in three years. In 2019, she ran for Seattle City Council and in 2020, after disavowing the Democratic party, she ran as a Republican for Lieutenant Governor. Both races were unsuccessful.

Davison, who now identifies herself as a moderate Democrat, is particularly upset about the City’s handling of crime and homelessness. Her vision is to return civility, livability, and respect” to Seattle and restore the safety of Seattle’s downtown area, which the Downtown Neighborhood Association recently said was “in a crisis from crime and homelessness.”

Davison plans to do this by being tougher when it comes to repeat offenders, and believes the City should prosecute more, particularly when it comes to misdemeanor gun violations, like unlicensed concealed carry. She is also interested in developing more effective diversion and reentry services for offenders.

“If there’s a release of someone on an evening at 7 o’clock, where is that person going? We need to make sure that there’s a plan there,” said Davison. “We need to make sure that we really have a place where someone is welcomed, and that’s not just physically but also socially. We are making space for people to rejoin. I think that’s important.”

As for her stance on the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Davison wants better, more efficient service to the community without ballooning the police budget. At the same time, Davison has tweeted about her attendance at pro-police events, her ride-alongs with police, and her opposition to slashing the police budget.

Davison says she has incorporated the perspectives of BIPOC in the formation of her platform, primarily through talking to People of Color on the campaign trail. Two key BIPOC leaders in police reform, Rev. Harriett Walden, cofounder of the Mothers for Police Accountability, and Pastor Harvey Drake of Emerald City Bible Fellowship, support her bid.

“[My platform] is the blending of people’s perspectives and experiences,” said Davison. “I ask people what is it that you are experiencing, what is it that you think needs to take place, and really, when I do that, it’s because that is the way forward. It is not just a categorical get rid of and dismantle our public safety system and legal justice system; it is a way to blend those together. It has to be both,” said Davison.

Ann Davison’s notable endorsees also include three of Washington’s previous governors, Christine Gregoire, Gary Locke, and Dan Evans, as well as 30 retired judges and The Seattle Times editorial board. Thomas-Kennedy is endorsed by Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, King County Democrats, and 100+ Seattle attorneys including, among others, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who represents Seattle’s South End and parts of Renton and Tukwila.

Many municipal court workers, both past and present, have expressed a reluctance to back either candidate and a dismay at both candidate’s unrealistic expectations of the role, and public polling has shown some waffling. Heading into Nov. 2, it’s still not clear who Seattle will choose.

Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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