Seattle Soundings: The new City Council order

In the big scheme of things, last Friday’s Seattle City Council vote to appoint Kirsten Harris-Talley as an interim city councilperson, replacing Tim Burgess, won’t mean much. Most of Harris-Talley’s 50-day tenure will be dominated by the council’s annual city budget process, for which she has no obvious experience or political capital. But that’s precisely why her appointment is so telling as an indicator of larger changes in Seattle’s political landscape.

Harris-Talley, a well-established community activist (most notably with Block the Bunker and the new People’s Party) and a nonprofit administrator, won five of the eight sitting council members’ votes. She drew praise from her council supporters for being a young, smart, dynamic woman of color - which is indisputably true. But that wasn’t why she was selected.

The other two finalists were Abel Pacheco, a business-oriented 2015 city council candidate who received the support of councilmembers Johnson and Juarez; and former 18-year councilmember Nick Licata, who was supported only by councilmember Herbold. Herbold noted in her comments that Licata had received more supportive calls and e-mails to council than all the other applicants combined, and in his many years on council he was renowned as a detail-oriented budget hawk. He was the only applicant who could have conceivably stepped into the position cold and known enough to navigate the complexities of both a $5 billion city budget and the politics of getting five votes for amendments to it. Most local politicos assumed Licata would be the appointee - and if council members had actually wanted an effective ninth member to help with the process, he would have been. They didn’t, so he wasn’t.

To understand why, it’s helpful to know the recent history of interim council appointments. For the last three such appointmnents - Richard McIver (1997), Sally Clark (2006), and John Okamoto (2015) - existing council members made a point of choosing applicants who they were sure would not rock any boats. Both McIver and Clark leveraged year-long appointments into decade-long council careers upholding the status quo. Okamoto had a shorter tenure; he was chosen just before the May filing deadline for that year’s primary, and agreed not to run. But as with McIver and Clark, his appointment was not only pro-establishment, but met relatively little criticism.

It’s only been two years since then. Harris-Talley’s situation is different. She’ll only be on council for a few weeks, while it is immersed in the most difficult process on its annual calendar. If it was obvious that Pacheco, as the preferred business candidate, wouldn’t draw enough support, the vested interests that count on favorable budget line items were left with a choice between a temporary member that could catch such items and actively work on budget amendments, and a neophyte that through no fault of her own would be far less likely to. It was once again a  choice designed to minimize boat-rocking.

Why the cynicism? Because among Harris-Talley’s five council supporters, only one - Kshama Sawant - has any sort of consistent idelogical affinity with her. The other four - Bagshaw, Gonzalez, Harrell, and O’Brien - collectively have spotty records of rewarding community activism; little past interest in empowering women of color; and very little overlap in priorities or values with Harris-Talley or the People’s Party. For them, Harris-Talley’s appointment was to varying degrees a combination of realpolitik and an embrace of appearance over substance.

Even so, the appointment shows how quickly council-level politics are changing in Seattle. Even relatively establishment-oriented members like Bagshaw saw value in at least appearing to support the (much more radical) woman of color. And Harris-Talley’s win was likely made possible by Nikkita Oliver’s strong showing in the mayoral primary. Seattle’s political elites may have no use for Oliver or the People’s Party message, but they know she attracted a lot of voters - a development they can’t afford to ignore the way they would have a few short years ago.

That’s especially true because after next month’s election, Seattle will have the most progressive city council in its modern history, replacing Burgess - its most conservative member - with either housing activist Jon Grant or labor activist Teresa Mosqueda. Harris-Talley’s short tenure will also help, enabling her and her party to gain experience and contacts that will have sway with such a council. And Seattle will also have a new mayor - and one of the two candidates, Cary Moon, has been campaigning on establishing some limits on the endless developer gravy train that has accompanied Seattle’s recent rapid growth. Harris-Talley will come and go from the second floor in a matter of weeks - but the constituencies and issues she champions are likely to stick around a lot longer than her council supporters may be expecting.