Last May, just weeks before the Seattle City Council was forced to rescind its own “head” tax, political insiders across the state began getting unusual inquiries from a heavy hitter in Seattle politics.

The political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, a key opponent of the head tax, was quietly preparing for another, even bolder fight: a campaign to flip the Seattle City Council in 2019.

Although the inquiries didn’t mention names, it was clear the chamber’s political action committee, Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), wanted to unseat progressives on the City Council who had supported the head tax — notably, Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien and Lisa Herbold.

Election 2019 | Our changing politics

This is the first in a series of stories examining how homelessness, affordability, crime and other flashpoints are reshaping the region in the run-up to the 2019 elections.

“They were incredibly eager to find quality candidates and put staff behind them,” says Adam Bartz, who runs the state Senate Democratic campaign and saw one of the inquiries. “They were just scouring for any kind of campaign talent.”

A year later, that campaign is in full swing. The council’s head tax may be dead, but criticism over Seattle’s homelessness policy has only intensified, creating what many Seattle business leaders see as a crucial opportunity to dislodge the city’s progressive political establishment.

CASE has been reaching out to potential business-friendly candidates. It has also been raising a lot of money — $702,277 as of May 10 , including a $200,000 contribution in March from Amazon. The online retailer played a major role in last year’s head tax fight and, says one Seattle political consultant, “is taking the city races very seriously.”

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What do Amazon, CASE and others Seattle business players hope to accomplish by going after council progressives?

After all, Seattle is a city whose voters are so liberal — and where unions and other progressive constituencies are so strong — that business-backed candidates often don’t even get out of the gate. The last City Council candidate that business endorsed, in 2017, didn’t even survive the primary.

But this year, business leaders say, progressives’ winning streak could come to an end.

A December poll by CASE found that the City Council had a job-approval rating of only 43% and was trusted by only 40% of voters.

Anti-incumbent sentiment is so strong that O’Brien decided not to seek reelection this year in his Ballard district — and Herbold (West Seattle) and Sawant (Capitol Hill) could face serious challenges. “From what we’ve seen in our polling, they’re politically vulnerable,” says Markham McIntyre, CASE’s executive director.

That perception of weakness, coupled with wide-open elections this year — all seven of the council’s district seats are on the ballot, four incumbents are retiring and nearly 60 candidates have filed — has the city’s business lobby feeling confident that 2019 will be “a change election,” says McIntyre.

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Not surprisingly, city progressives have a different view of the city’s homeless response — and of business’s chances among the city’s progressive voters. Sawant made that point when she announced her own reelection bid Jan. 24. “Who runs Seattle?” she asked. “Amazon and big business or the working people?”

A unifying issue

The plan to flip the Seattle City Council emerged in late 2017, soon after council members proposed a per-employee head tax to help fund new homeless programs.

For many business leaders, the tax underscored the implacability of the council’s five-vote progressive majority: O’Brien (elected in 2009), Sawant (2013), Herbold (2015), followed by M. Lorena González (2015) and Teresa Mosqueda (2017).

That majority had given labor unions, social-justice advocates and other progressive constituencies a steadily larger role in council policymaking. But business leaders say it has left them sidelined in policy discussions.

Even the election of relatively business-friendly mayors, such as Jenny Durkan and especially her predecessor, Ed Murray, hasn’t stopped that progressive majority from pursuing policies, like the head tax, that many business leaders see as both economically costly and openly ideological. Council policy has become almost “punitive,” as if some council members are trying to “address social problems by taking it out on business,” said Seattle chamber President Marilyn Strickland in an interview last fall.

But the head tax also delivered some good news for business.

First, it brought some unity to an often fractious business community. Long-standing political differences, especially between small neighborhood businesses and big downtown firms and organizations, such as the chamber, were temporarily shelved to focus on flipping the council.

Second, the head tax revealed that progressives were vulnerable, business leaders say.

Polls showed that historically generous Seattle voters were growing skeptical about new spending for homeless programs. In CASE’s December poll, six months after the head tax, only 23 percent of voters believed “city government needs more taxes for programs to effectively address the homeless problem,” compared to 70 percent who said the city needed to spend existing funds “more effectively.”

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Although homelessness had been a growing problem for years, many voters “hadn’t necessarily seen where to direct their ire,” says Ben Anderstone, a veteran political consultant with Progressive Strategies. With the head tax, Anderstone says, that frustration had a target: the City Council.

That frustration verged on outright hostility among some neighborhood groups and small businesses, which complained that council progressives were ignoring local problems, such as homeless encampments, within their own districts.

By 2018, the council’s favorability rating was down “in the mid-thirties,” or barely half of the level of support enjoyed by local business, according to another political consultant who has worked for business clients. A January poll by The Seattle Times found that nearly 7 seven in 10 Seattle residents “do not trust that Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council can solve the problem” of homelessness.

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CASE won’t share its polling on individual council members. But political consultants who have seen CASE’s polling say it indicated trouble for council progressives up for reelection. Herbold’s favorables were reportedly under 50% — not encouraging for an incumbent. Sawant’s favorables were in the 30s, while O’Brien’s were in the high 20s. O’Brien declined to comment for this story, but according to one progressive consultant, O’Brien’s internal polling was “so bad that labor went to him and said ‘don’t run because we can’t save you.’”

Reframing the narrative

To convert that frustration into a new council majority, the business community is pursuing a strategy that tries to exploit progressive weaknesses while sidestepping business’s own multiple vulnerabilities.

First, the business lobby wants to reframe the conventional Seattle election narrative.

In recent city elections, races often have been cast as battles between labor and business, or between progressives and conservatives. That storyline tends to work against business, and it also ignores the fact that Seattle politics routinely cross ideological boundaries, as when developers ally with pro-density environmentalists, or when labor and business back the same mayoral candidate.

To sidestep that trap, CASE hopes to avoid politically charged labels like “business” or “conservative” in favor of themes such as “inclusiveness” and “openness” — as in, “we want a council that has an open mind, that is willing to listen to all sides of the conversation, and isn’t driven solely by ideology,” as Strickland explained.

Along these lines, CASE hopes to recruit nontraditional candidates. CASE won’t indicate which candidates it favors, but other business community insiders and consultants say CASE is interested in political outsiders, such as small-business owners or public-safety employees — figures who could be popular with voters but won’t be as easily be labeled as stooges of Big Business.

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McIntyre acknowledges that CASE has met with people who have “frustration” with city policy, but are “new to politics” and are “inexperienced with what it takes to actually get elected or to govern.”

Second, the business lobby will play the local angle. Although CASE will push a few broad election themes — better homeless policies and more city budget accountability and transparency, for example — it wants candidates to focus on local issues that are important in their districts.

In theory, CASE’s localized strategy would hurt incumbents such as Sawant, who is often criticized for being too focused on a citywide progressive agenda (rent control, for example) to attend to constituent issues. Sawant declined to comment for this story.

As important, the district focus will make it harder to frame the races in conventional ideological terms. “There’s not going to necessarily be an easy us-versus-them rubric that you can cast across all the districts,” says McIntyre. Instead, the campaign “is going to divide into these more district-specific kinds of political coalitions.”

Third, the Seattle business community is clearly ready spend some money. Amazon’s $200,000 contribution in particular will likely encourage other businesses to write big checks, consultants say — and Amazon itself may not be done spending. “It’s fairly common for a large funder, especially one that is wading in the political waters gently, to do so incrementally,” Anderstone says.

Business insiders are also encouraged by the fundraising around last year’s head-tax fight. The $486,000 that businesses contributed last year to the anti head-tax referendum was almost triple what labor spent trying to support the tax. And many business leaders say it would have been much larger if the council hadn’t quickly backed down on the head tax.

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The $486,000 “was a drop in the bucket” compared to what business was ready to spend “had they gone through with the actual referendum,” says Bob Wallace, a commercial real estate investor and former chair of the Seattle chamber’s board of trustees.

With barely three months to go until the Aug. 6 primary election, it’s still too early to say whether the Seattle’s business community has finally found a winning political formula.

Certainly, with high voter frustration and so many open seats, it’s possible that the election could produce a council majority that, if not openly pro-business, is at least more receptive to the business community’s agenda of lower taxes and less regulation.

Yet most political observers believe business still faces an uphill battle in Seattle.

For starters, Seattle progressives can still count on substantial support from voters, 62 percent of whom identify as liberal or very liberal.

Progressives can also count on generous support from traditional progressive constituencies, like labor. As an example, Mosqueda benefited from $208,000 in independent expenditures from labor organizations in her successful 2017 campaign, and most observers expect to see even higher numbers this year.

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Business can probably outspend labor. But thanks to new restrictions on social-media political ads, there may simply be fewer places to spend that money. And labor can compensate with a large, well-organized get-out-the-vote army. That will be a key advantage given the local nature of district campaigns, and one that business may have trouble matching.

And, of course, big-dollar donations by Amazon and other companies will be easy targets for progressive candidates.

In 2015, when Herbold faced a business-backed opponent, Shannon Braddock, “we incorporated the chamber’s spending in our campaign messaging and that really resonated,” says Dean Nielsen, a Seattle political consultant who is also working with Herbold this year. Herbold’s strategy illustrates another complication for business: Though Herbold has been a reliable progressive vote on the council, she also has been careful to court small businesses in her district.

Lastly, business faces some daunting electoral math.

True, the council’s progressive wing could lose three members: O’Brien (retiring), and Sawant and Herbold, who are vulnerable. But the council is also losing its three most business-friendly incumbents. Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw are retiring this year and Rob Johnson, CASE’s 2015 candidate, stepped down April 5. Given Seattle’s progressive voters, there’s a reasonable chance that at least one of those moderate seats will be filled by a progressive.

As a result, some political observers think Seattle is headed toward an election that will be bitterly contested and extremely expensive, yet unlikely to produce a new, business-friendly majority.

Still, business remains upbeat. Even if the election results in just one or two more council moderates, that might still be enough to end a progressive majority and create a situation where no single viewpoint will have an automatic majority.

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More to the point, some observers see 2019 as only the beginning in a long-term fight. The council’s current progressive tilt “took half a generation to create, so don’t think that the Chamber of Commerce can resolve this problem in one or two election cycles,” says Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant.

When it comes to shifting the city’s political trajectory back toward the center, says Hays, “you all need to play the long game.”

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