Seattle conservatives aim for influence behind the scenes in 2021 election
Former Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle voters haven’t elected a Republican to mayor, city council, city attorney in over a decade. But despite that, conservative groups, donors, and campaign operatives have looked to wield their influence in other, more subtle ways in the current election cycle.
The last Republican elected mayor in Seattle was James Braman in 1964. Douglas Jewett was the last one to serve as city attorney, while winners in city council races have skewed more and more progressive over the last 10 years.
A push to put more conservative, business-friendly candidates on the dais in 2019 saw local PACs pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into seven city council races, opposing incumbents like Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold, as well as newcomer progressives like Tammy Morales, Dan Strauss, and Andrew Lewis. But after public backlash brought on by the belief that companies like Amazon had sought to sway the election, that effort ultimately fell short, with Sawant, Herbold, Morales, Strauss, and Lewis all winning their respective races.
That’s had conservatives opting for a different tack in 2021, instead attempting to operate more quietly behind the scenes.
Both of the remaining candidates for Seattle mayor are Democrats who each cast themselves as progressive, pragmatic leaders. But, it’s former Council President Bruce Harrell who appears to have broad support from local conservatives.
A local PAC registered as “Harrell for Seattle’s Future” has already raised over $365,000 in support of Harrell’s campaign (albeit without his direct coordination, as is mandated by the city’s election laws). The top donor to that PAC is prominent Trump donor and Goodman Real Estate CEO George Petrie, who’s contributed $2,800 to the erstwhile president in each month of 2021 following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
As of early this week, Petrie has also donated over $61,000 to Harrell for Seattle’s Future, as well as the maximum allowable $550 individual contribution to Harrell’s campaign.
Harrell has received support from another well-known Trump supporter in billionaire real estate CEO Martin Selig. Selig has given the max direct contribution to Harrell’s campaign, while his daughter, Jordan, has given $6,000 to Harrell for Seattle’s Future.
Harrell’s conservative support can be seen in other ways as well, particularly in his endorsement from the traditionally right-leaning Seattle Times Editorial board. Other candidates endorsed by the Times editorial board this cycle include Republican County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, Kathy Lambert, and Pete von Reichbauer, as well as Republican City Attorney candidate Ann Davison.
Former Councilmember Tim Burgess — whose 2019 “People for Seattle” PAC was a major player in the attempt to move the council away from left-leaning candidates — has been similarly vocal in his own support, having issued harsh criticism for mayoral candidate Lorena Gonzalez’s more progressive stances on policing, homelessness, and upzoning in a lengthy endorsement of Harrell published to his personal website last week.
While Burgess isn’t strictly speaking a Republican himself, he’s also expressed a wide range of more conservative stances on issues ranging from homeless encampment sweeps to prosecuting misdemeanors.
Burgess has opted to largely stay out of council politics during this election cycle, instead pivoting to a more issues-focused approach. That’s taken the form of a proposed amendment to Seattle’s city charter dubbed “Compassion Seattle.”
In practice, it would mandate an additional 2,000 shelter beds or permanent housing units within a one-year period by waiving building permit fees, treating housing permit applications as “first-in-line” for expedited treatment, and refunding to the payee the city’s portion of the sales tax paid for these facilities. It also places a requirement on the city “to ensure that parks, playgrounds, sports fields, public spaces and sidewalks and streets remain open and clear of encampments.”
Critics have cited the proposal as a “wedge issue” for conservatives designed to capitalize on controversy surrounding Seattle’s escalating homeless crisis, claiming that it does not identify an adequate funding source, nor does it provide enough available housing to provide shelter for the city’s estimated 4,000-plus unhoused individuals.
The group behind the proposal has been more understated in its own political leanings, although its most prominent financial backers paint a much clearer picture. Among its largest contributions: A $50,000 donation from George Petrie, as well an additional $50,000 from Petrie’s business partner, John Goodman.
Kshama Sawant recall
The group behind the attempted recall of socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has made frequent attempts to define itself as the “opposite” of a right-leaning effort. But conservative support has poured in nonetheless, including $1,000 donations from each of Petrie and Goodman, an endorsement from the Seattle Times Editorial Board, and a smaller $25 donation from Martin Selig.
Reports also surfaced in September of last year, indicating that Jordan Selig had reached out to the recall in late 2020 to offer her support as a campaign volunteer, while telling the recall’s former head, Ernie Lou, to “please let me know how I can be of help to you.”
Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Officers Guild — whose president, Mike Solan, has been been a highly visible figure within conservative media — reportedly offered up its members for off-duty signature-gathering in early May. The 43th Legislative District Republicans also voiced their own support for signature gathering efforts around the same time.
City Attorney candidate Ann Davison operates as more of an overt conservative, as a registered Republican who’s been vocal on her “tough on crime” politics. That’s resulted in a sizable mobilization of resources from Republican operatives.
In terms of direct links, Davison’s treasurer, Jason Michaud, has served on several other prominent Republican campaigns in the past, having operated in that same role for Republican state Minority House Leader J.T. Wilcox among others.
Endorsements and money have flowed in accordingly from local conservative PACs, too. That includes the Concerned Taxpayers of Washington group, which has formally endorsed Davison, while backing other Republicans in races across the region. A more local, similarly-named PAC registered as the “Concerned Taxpayer Accountability Center” also spent $20,000 on mailers supporting Davison’s candidacy prior to the August primary. Michaud serves as the treasurer for both PACs.
Correction, 8/23: A previous version of this article stated that former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan had donated to Bruce Harrell’s campaign. It has been amended to reflect that McClellan has in fact not donated to any mayoral campaign in Seattle.