Last year, a record number of individuals ran for office at all levels of government. The trend is continuing in local elections this year. Chicago chose among 14 people running for mayor, while races for the San Antonio City Council averaged nearly five candidates per district. Perhaps no city, however, can match Seattle for candidate enthusiasm.
More than 700 people are running for local offices in Seattle and surrounding King County this year. That includes 55 candidates for seven seats on the city council -- not including 17 who filed for those races and then withdrew.
There are several reasons for Seattle’s explosion of candidates. For one thing, this is only the second election since the city shifted most of its council from at-large to district seats. That’s led to more interest from challengers, and four of the seven incumbents decided not to run. And Seattle itself is experiencing a time of flux. Its growing economy has driven strong population gains, which has led to problems with homelessness, housing affordability, traffic and an array of other headaches. “The local mood here is pretty frustrated with leadership, particularly the council,” says Don Blakeney, vice president of the Downtown Seattle Association.
Candidates also have a newly minted ability to gather the resources they need for their campaigns. Four years ago, Seattle voters approved a “democracy voucher” program, giving voters up to $100 to distribute to the candidates of their choice. This is the first time it’s been used. Many candidates will easily be able to raise tens of thousands of public finance dollars for races in districts with about 90,000 residents apiece.
The vouchers, in turn, have perversely led to increased numbers of local political action committees looking to influence the election. While candidates who receive the democracy vouchers have to abide by strict campaign finance limits, PACs face no such constraints. The chamber of commerce alone is devoting more than $700,000 to local races. “In a 10-candidate or 15-candidate race, simply having people remember your name is a pretty big advantage,” says Seattle political consultant Ben Anderstone.
Turnout for local elections, as in most cities, has historically been anemic in Seattle. This year, numerous groups -- everyone from local party committees and labor unions to environmental organizations and bicycle clubs -- are holding candidate forums and endorsement interviews. The goal is to get the turnout up, and many of the events are taped and available for streaming online. Still, for all this effort to work, voters will have to have enough interest to seek out the information being offered on as many as a dozen candidates in their local districts.
Until the fields are culled in this month’s primary, there’s no telling who will emerge on top, whether it’s mostly candidates with major financial backing or those who stand out ideologically. There will probably be some wild cards. For campaigns seeking pluralities in relatively small slices of the city, it won’t take that many votes to make it through to November.