The Nov. 2 election came and went, and with it, Seattleites ushered in elected officials who ran more centrist and moderate campaigns. While abolitionist candidates such as in the City Attorney’s Office and District 9 seat pushed forward progressive ideas to the main stage of Seattle politics, voters stayed the course with candidates who emphasized “law and order” themes as well as clearing parks and public spaces of homeless encampments.
So, what happened?
Real Change decided to take a moment to reflect on the outcome of the elections and the role that local media played in the run up to the vote. We approached the conversation with a foundational question: Was the public served as well as it could have been by the coverage of the election, either by Real Change or other local media outlets?
To examine the matter, we convened a panel of local journalists including Nathalie Graham, a freelance reporter who formerly covered City Hall for The Stranger; Erica C. Barnett, the co-founder of news website PubliCola; and Charles Mudede, an opinion writer currently at The Stranger.
This panel caused a touch of controversy in some corners, in part because it was dubbed with the rather provocative moniker of “fearmongering” in order to evoke the tendency of media coverage around homelessness to focus on the comfort of housed people rather than the structural issues that result in thousands of our neighbors living outside or without stable housing. But the panel was also meant to bring up the coverage of certain candidates and positions, most notably the race for City Attorney which heavily featured provocative tweets from candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy written during the May 2020 racial justice protests and her position on prosecuting misdemeanor crimes.
Real Change, to be clear, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and, as such, does not endorse candidates. And we weren’t convening the panel out of a particular proclivity toward the losing slate. Instead, the goal was to critically examine media coverage as members of the media, which is, one hopes, a healthy exercise.
Barnett kicked off the panel with a classic example of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, to wit: Nearly any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered in a word:
The framing of the election — which Real Change also participated in — created a narrative of backlash against progressive ideas and walking Seattle back to a more moderate place, but that didn’t happen, Barnett said.
“I think that the disservice that that narrative does is that it has nothing to do with reality,” Barnett said. “We have not defunded the police in Seattle. We have not implemented a radically progressive policy on homelessness. Homeless encampment sweeps stopped for a little while, not because of the radical City Council, but because of the moderate Mayor Jenny Durkan heeding [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] guidance early in the pandemic.”
There was a difference between the actual policies that were implemented and the discourse that arose out of social media, Barnett argued.
Graham — who reported on the mayoral and City Attorney’s races for the South Seattle Emerald — agreed, saying that the “horse race” coverage left out the nuance needed to understand the policy implications, particularly around tricky, structural issues such as solving the housing crisis, reckoning with police brutality or combating climate change.
“I think the media really just boiled it down to, ‘This is a backlash against 2019 when a progressive slate filled the City Council,’ and that was a disservice to the public, for sure,” Graham said.
Mudede countered that the discourse wasn’t so different than in previous years, and the question, in part, was why was it so much more effective this year than before?
“I think there’s some truth to that, clearly, the voter turnout was low,” Mudede said. “But then there was also just the pandemic.”
According to King County Elections, 44 percent of county residents cast their ballot in the general election.
Homelessness became more visible during the pandemic as congregate shelters closed and encampment sweeps largely stopped, in part at the suggestion of the CDC, which came out early against moving encampments in order to control the spread of the coronavirus among a vulnerable population.
One confusing piece of the overall narrative was that incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell, incoming District 9 Councilmember Sara Nelson and incoming City Attorney Ann Davison were somehow new in style or substance to the political scene, Graham said.
Harrell served for three terms on the City Council and was technically mayor for less than a week after the resignation of former Mayor Ed Murray. Nelson served as a legislative aide and Davison had previously run for lieutenant governor and City Council.
“These are not new faces, and the rhetoric that these are the people who are going to fix the problems at City Hall is false,” Graham said.
There was slight division on the topic of Thomas-Kennedy’s tweets, with Mudede finding them inoffensive and Barnett suggesting that candidates scrub their social media before running for office, but the laser focus on them to the exclusion of other topics was a point of agreement.
“I don’t know if the media is that powerful to change people’s minds through the sheer power of information, but I think it’s a better way to change people’s minds than by just screaming endlessly about the same five tweets that you’re mad about,” Barnett said.
One topic that some progressives complained was left by the wayside during the election was the discussion of the Civil Division of the City Attorney’s Office, which is twice the size of the Criminal Division, which handles misdemeanor cases. The Civil Division defends the city’s policies against lawsuits, including left-leaning priorities such as progressive taxation and renter protections.
On that front, Davison’s positions as the City Attorney are something of a black box, Graham said.
“We don’t know how she will act when faced with some of those critical lawsuits and challenges,” Graham said.
When it came to policy around homelessness, the winning candidates largely stuck to clearing parks and getting people experiencing homelessness into shelter, similar to the Charter Amendment 29 — also known as Compassion Seattle — which would have been on the ballot but was ultimately struck down by Judge Catherine Shaffer.
“That is now the foundation of the homelessness plan for the mayor of Seattle,” Barnett said.
The Mayor’s Office is also the primary driver of policy in the city — the City Council, while powerful, directs funds and passes legislation, but it is up to other pieces of city government, which are controlled by the Mayor’s Office, to enact them. This detail got lost during the election to some degree, with councilmembers and candidates facing criticism because of the homelessness response.
Homelessness loomed large during the election, in part because of its increased visibility and that it was front of mind for many voters, according to local polling. The degree to which that focus was created by media through anecdotal reporting over nuanced policy reporting is impossible to pin down.
Policy stories are difficult to create and to consume compared to anecdote-driven pieces, Barnett said.
“The fact is, if you don’t have people writing about the boring stuff for a few thousand people, which I think of myself as doing… then all it is is just an anecdote from Northgate, anecdote from Alki, anecdote from Beacon Hill,” Barnett said. “And those anecdotes pile up in people’s minds and they start to seem like reality, and they start to seem like a picture of poverty or homelessness or whatever it may be.”
Empowering policy reporting from independent outlets is key, Graham said.
“I think so many people are not well read on these issues because there is not a clear source for this information,” Graham said. “It’s vital that we keep not the left, but just a more progressive voice alive.”
Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist and former Real Change staff reporter. Her work can be found in the South Seattle Emerald, KNKX and the Urbanist.
Read more of the Nov. 24-30, 2021 issue.