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How Seattle Is Increasing Diversity in Politics

Seattle is largely run by older white men, but changes in the city's election law will likely make its politicians more representative of the people.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant celebrating her victory in 2013.
(Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times/MCT)
Change is coming to Seattle. This month, residents may well elect a majority of new members to the city council. That’s thanks to a charter amendment voters approved two years ago that ended the century-old system of electing all city councilmembers at-large. Instead, all nine seats are up for grabs on Nov. 3. Seven members will be elected by district, and two will remain at-large. 

The new approach has already shaken things up: A field of four dozen candidates ran in the August primary -- the largest the city has seen in memory. “In the primaries, of the top vote-getters, five were women, four were people of color and only two were older than 60,” says Liz Berry, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. “This is not a city of 60-year-old white men, and that’s what our council looks like now.”

In addition to being new and more diverse, the council may also be more liberal. What has already been a progressive body is likely to shift further left on issues such as equity and gentrification. “The council will be a little more leftist, or potentially a lot more leftist,” says Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association.

In normal circumstances, just one or two new people are added to a governing body that includes veterans who have hung around for a decade or more. Business continues as usual, with the isolated newcomers told to sit down and shut up. That dynamic won’t apply this time around, with so many new faces arriving en masse. Three incumbents opted not to run for re-election, a fourth was defeated in August, and one or two remain vulnerable.

But a whole crop of newbies who feel they’ve won a mandate can make some collective rookie mistakes. That happened in 2013 after Minneapolis voters elected a majority of new members who then tried to impose a massively unpopular building moratorium in several hot neighborhoods.

Austin, Texas, underwent a shift in governance structure similar to Seattle last year. More than two dozen city department heads there signed a letter complaining that the council demonstrates “a serious lack of understanding regarding the complexity of our work.”

That sort of thing may not be all bad for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who has enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon with the current council. “With a brand-new council, the executive at least for a while might have the upper hand,” says Sally Clark, who left the council in April.

Given the upcoming upheaval in council chambers, some observers are predicting a rush of legislation that gets pushed in the dark of December before new members get seated. “It will be a change,” says Don Blakeney of the Downtown Seattle Association. “Nobody’s trying to call the playbook for January.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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