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City Councils Nationwide Are Moving Left. Seattle Is A Case Study In Why

Despite a massive pro-business infusion of cash into the Seattle City Council race, the incoming council may very well be further to the left than its predecessor. 

Amazon, the biggest donor, plowed $1.5M into the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy Super PAC in an effort to back business-friendly candidates in an effort to make the council more moderate. In the end, only two of the seven candidates the PAC backed won: Alex Pederson and Debora Juarez. The PAC gave District 4’s Pederson $66,014, and $19,222 went to Juarez, according to public records.

City Councils Nationwide Are Moving Left. Seattle Is A Case Study In Why
The south section of Seattle, known as SODO, has yet to be upzoned.

City councils in other cities are moving to the left as well. Philadelphia,  an already liberal city, will also be moving a bit more to the left come Jan. 1. At least two of the new council members have more progressive views on housing, but how that might impact the commercial real estate industry has yet to play out.

In a Bisnow Philadelphia article, NAIOP Philadelphia President Lauren Gilchrist said part of the push to the left is a result of the backlash to President Donald Trump.

"And some of these election results, particularly the WFP's win, are a realization of that backlash,” Gilchrist said. 

Chicago now has six Democratic Socialists on its 50-member city council. The Democratic Socialists of America candidates ran on a platform of ousting the longtime political establishment in the city and promised to move the power from that establishment to the neighborhoods and their grassroots movements. 

Much of the pushback from Amazon and other business leaders in Seattle began when the city council voted to impose a head tax on the city’s top employers in 2018. The head tax, which would have charged companies that gross more than $20M a year a $275 per employee tax, infuriated the local business community, which then took action to launch a repeal effort through a group called No Tax on Jobs.

In the end, the city council withdrew the head tax. Yet that threat, along with a growing affordable housing crunch, homelessness crisis and transportation quagmire has many in the Seattle business community fretting.

Daniels Real Estate President Kevin Daniels told Bisnow last year that he heard from people all over the world when the head tax was approved.

“Are we sending out the right message to the world about our city?” he asked.

Then, in May 2019, news broke that Amazon would relocate its worldwide operations team, including thousands of jobs, from Seattle to Bellevue by 2023. At the time, many blamed the city council’s head tax attempt and perceived anti-business attitude. 

At first, it appeared that Amazon and the super PAC’s efforts would pay off. Some of the PAC’s candidates were leading on Election Day. But last-minute voters, who had an average age of 36, according a report by The Seattle Times, came in at the last minute to secure candidate Kshama Sawant’s eventual win, along with that of 29-year-old Andrew Lewis.  

Lisa Herbold, who was re-elected to District 1, which includes West Seattle, Alki and South Park, isn’t surprised voters responded the way they did. Herbold said that Danny Westneat (in a Seattle Times article) predicted back in January that Seattle may become even bluer.

She said that blue cities in other parts of the country have trouble with homelessness and public safety and that increasing economic disparity is often the origin.

"The electorate, whether in Seattle or elsewhere, doesn’t vote 'change for change sake,'" she said. "They vote for candidates who have a vision for how to address our most important challenges. A candidate can’t just say, 'The incumbent is doing it all wrong' without their having a better plan.'”

The primary election brought in big money for District 3’s Sawant. In the primaries, Sawant outpaced all other candidates by about $200K. She raised $295,549. Many of Sawant’s largest contributions came from those living out of state, according to public records.

Sawant did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Egan Orion, who ran against Sawant, put some of the blame on Amazon’s enormous financial contribution, which he said ended up hurting his campaign, according to a report by KOMO News. Despite Sawant’s win, Orion said he believes there is a desire for a more moderate voice on the council.

City Councils Nationwide Are Moving Left. Seattle Is A Case Study In Why
It is unknown how the incoming Seattle City Council will affect commercial development in the city.

The high level of Super PAC spending in Seattle triggered a bill called Clean Campaigns Act, which would limit donations to candidates from companies and effectively abolish super PACs. The move mirrors similar trends in other areas, including Colorado and San Francisco, which proponents say increase transparency in elections.

The nationwide trend of city councils moving farther to the left, or sometimes right, may reflect the larger trend of the divisive political climate. As Gilchrist noted, much of the far left city council reaction seems to be a knee-jerk opposition to Trump, particularly in the urban centers where Trump's approval rating is low.

Developers like American Life Inc. CEO Henry Liebman are watching and waiting to see how the Seattle council's political leanings will affect business. Thus far, he is sanguine about the possibilities.

“We have no idea how this council will turn out,” he said. “The biggest impact [on commercial real estate] is zoning but most of the city is already upzoned, the only open spot is SODO and I doubt they will move on that. So in general, I don’t think [the council] will have much impact.”