By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Seattle City Council will have its biggest changeover in its history in 2024 since 1911 after a momentous election. Out of nine council members, six are new and only three current members remain.
The Seattle Municipal Archives has backed political watchers’ observation. Former Seattle City Council member Dolores Sibonga, the first Asian American female to fill in a seat in 1978 and then ran and won in 1980, said she doesn’t recall the council ever having such a high turnover. At 92, she was not surprised at all by the results.
“People really wanted change. Even [Kshama] Sawant’s district (3) wanted change” voting in a moderate. Sawant did not seek reelection.
What does a dramatic change imply for the new council?
The good news is, no more “divisiveness,” said Seattle City Council member Sara Nelson at a recent downtown event. Public safety is a priority among the new team, she added.
For the first time in history, the 2023 election voted in the most diverse Seattle City Council with two Black council members and one Latino council member, three females and two males, and a different combination of skills, including Rob Saka, a high-tech attorney; Maritza Rivera, a budget specialist; Cathy Moore, a former judge; Joy Hollingsworth, an entrepreneur; and Bob Kettle, a naval commander. But the results are far from perfect…
There is not a single Asian American represented at the city council, even though the largest minority in Seattle is Asian Americans who make up more than 16.8% of the population. In District 2, one of the most diverse districts including Chinatown- International District, Tanya Woo, of Chinese descent, a community advocate, and business owner, challenged an incumbent, Tammy Morales, and lost by 403 votes out of 26,479 cast.
Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda will resign her seat on Jan. 2 to take her new job at the King County Council—leaving open City Council’s ‘at-large’ position 8—and council members can pick a new person to take her place.
The lack of Asian representation was obvious at an early December celebration for the newly elected council members held at Cotto Belltown Restaurant in Seattle. An Asian American who should be part of the new team was missing during a group photo shoot.
What was not said during the program was that these new and current council members would have the power to determine if the Asian community could achieve representation. Whoever applies for the position would need five votes from the nine-member city council to fill Mosqueda’s seat. The new council would also vote for its leader, council president, on Jan. 2, 2024, who also needs five votes.
What was revealed at that celebration though was the election results favoring moderate candidates was not just a win for Mayor Bruce Harrell. The person who played an essential role to help her colleagues get elected was Council member Sara Nelson. She endorsed a couple of the candidates last year, Woo and Bob Kettle, who had won the race over Council member Andrew Lewis by 439 votes.
Nelson did more
But the public had no clue that Nelson did more than lend her name to those who were running for the first time.
“She did five things,” said JJ McKay, one of the event hosts. “She doorbelled, she endorsed, she schooled them on policies, opened her contacts to raise money, she did whatever other people asked for.”
Taking a chance on new candidates posed a political risk for an elected official. That’s a lot, said Sung Yang, board president of the Seattle Downtown Association.
Was it five things Nelson did or more?
“It’s not a small matter to put your reputation on the line when your colleagues are running. Not only that, she (Nelson) held events for them (candidates).”
It was also not uncommon for elected officials to recruit candidates to run against their colleagues. In this case, Nelson encouraged one of the new council members to do so. Harrell recruited Saka to run.
Some guests at the celebration were surprised to learn what Nelson did behind-the-scenes to reshape the council. Nelson was unapologetic though, and open about her support in various ways for her new colleagues.
“The celebration showed that it was a collective effort of the funders (present at the event) to get a strong city council who would listen to their constituencies.” Her success depends on the council’s ability to collaborate and work hard, she explained.
Yang has known Nelson since the mid-2000s, when she was former City Council member Richard Colin’s legislative aide.
“She develops the strongest sets of relationships with the incoming group,” said Yang. “They are likely to support Nelson for the city council president position.”
Nelson has proven that “perseverance and hard work, moderate and hard working candidates can win,” said Yang. “It sent a signal to other like-minded candidates, moderate, central, with better cultured ability, can win.
“[Nelson] did that three years ago beating her liberal and charismatic opponent, Nikkita Oliver, though Seattle is a progressive city. She had a lot of community support, but she learned during her run that the infrastructure wasn’t in place” to support new and like-minded candidates. So “she set it up for these candidates,” Yang explained, as “she didn’t have that help before.”
The theme between present and past campaigns four years ago, was contrasting between public safety and supporting the cops vs defunding the police.
“When did public safety become a strategy (in a campaign)?” asked Nelson during the celebration. But it did and worked effectively for the five newly-elected council members.
The new team “is committed to solve problems of the city,” said Nelson. The downside is, “it could be boring” at the council meetings, she said jokingly.
Asked Nelson if she already has five votes for the Council president’s job, she didn’t confirm, but was careful to say, “It has to be voted on Jan. 2.”
Asian applicants for the vacated seat
As of now, three Asian Americans have shown interest for the position: Tanya Woo, Seattle School District member Vivian Song Maritz, and community activist Linh Thai.
“We didn’t have an Asian (city council member) for a very long time,” said Martha Choe, a former Asian council member recently.
“You forgot Sawant?” this reporter said. In my subconscious mind, I sometimes forget she is Asian. In the eyes of the Asian community, Kshama Sawant, of Indian descent who was elected in 2014, has never been counted as Asian American since her agenda is ideology-focused, promoting socialism, publicity-driven and advocating several issues without relevance to the average lives of city residents.
“Sawant never supports anyone except herself,” said Sibonga. “She never consults and acknowledges the Asian community except her own office staff members.” Sibonga also said her council staff doesn’t have any persons of color.
Should the new council member be a caretaker?
Since Mosqueda’s term won’t end until 2025, the new council president and council members will decide if the vacated seat should be a caretaker or fill-in. The fill-in council member would have to run in 2024 and again in 2025, two elections in two years.
Yang disagreed that the new council member should be a caretaker.
“It’s not good for someone to be there just for one year. Starting the gate with diminishing influence is a bad idea. For someone willing to run, it shows, ‘I am in this, I care, I am going to run, twice in two years,’” said Yang. “This person clearly cares about the city for the long haul. It’s for the continuity of the council. The council has to find this person willing to run for a citywide race twice.”
Another potential candidate for the vacant seat is former KING 5 host Angela Russell. Upon hearing that the position might not be a caretaker role, Russell has decided to drop out of the pool of candidates, said Nelson on Dec. 11.
Will the Council be boring?
“City politics is never boring,” Yang said. “The council will have better culture and stability and dialogue as they work together.” It will not be “illogical, partisan, divisiveness, ideological” and it will “focus on the day to day concerns of the citizens.”
“I clearly understand what she (Nelson) meant (about boring).
“The operations of the city council shouldn’t be the news. What’s news is, this city council and the city should be collaborating and working together to solve problems which people care about. Let’s avoid the drama and focus on the work.”