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Seattle mayoral race filled with ads, PAC money, and cash

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“Tonight,” the scary movie trailer narrator reads under ominous piano music, “thousands of people will sleep outside in our parks, on our streets. Lorena Gonzalez and Bruce Harrell let this happen.”

Some 2021 Seattle mayoral campaigns are spending $25,000 to $30,000 per week now on TV ads like that one, which was put out this week by homeless advocate Colleen Echohawk’s campaign.

It’s an attack ad titled "They Had Their Chance," which targets both Bruce Harrell, who served on the Seattle City Council for over a decade until 2019, and current Council President Lorena González, who was first elected in 2015.

John Wyble, Echohawk’s campaign’s director, calls it a “contrast” ad.

“Six years ago, the City Council and the mayor declared a homelessness emergency. And six years later, the problem has only got worse,” he explains.

Echohawk is positioning herself as a political outsider, with experience working on homelessness, most recently as head of the Chief Seattle Club, a non-profit focused on the rapid rehousing of urban Natives and affordable housing.

Her critics say she’s never held elected office. In contrast, Harrell and González emphasize their experience in government, although Harrell left the council in 2019 after announcing he would not seek re-election.

Harrell's TV ads feature upbeat music and his personal story of growing up in Seattle as the son of a Japanese-American mom and Black dad, with centrist liberal messages about bringing people together to tackle big issues like homelessness.

Christian Sinderman, who runs the Harrell campaign, indicated there are two sides to their messaging on homelessness, which has emerged as the top issue in the race.

On one hand, the campaign believes Seattle voters want a clear plan and more investment to help tackle homelessness. On the other hand, Sinderman said they also want those policies to lead to fewer people occupying “incompatible spaces,” such as parks and playfields, or near schools.

City Council President Lorena González is running further left to Harrell's campaign, and is against the sweeps of homeless encampments. Her ads focus more on systemic inequalities.

“The gap between the rich and the rest of us makes living here too hard for too many. So let's finally close by making big corporations finally pay their fair share,” she said in one.

Campaign director Alex Koren said their messaging also emphasizes González's life story growing up in a migrant farm working family in central Washington before becoming a prominent Seattle civil rights lawyer and later City Council President.

“It really connects who Lorena is and where she comes from to what she is going to do as mayor,” Koren said.

Cash flows into Seattle

Nearly $3.2 million has poured into campaign coffers so far, most of it being spent to win voters' attention through direct mail, digital and TV ads. If you add up all the money in this year's mayor's race, including money the campaigns raised themselves as well as Political Action Committee (PAC) or Independent Expenditure money (which is independent from campaigns), then González has the most behind her campaign.

Most of that — over $450,000 — was raised by a PAC run by Unite Here, a union that represents hotel, casino and other service industry workers all over the country including Seattle. Unite Here member Nuris Deras Murlos is a housekeeper at the Hilton in downtown Seattle, and said González has been a reliable ally to labor; she expects that González will continue to help protect workers if she becomes mayor.

But about two thirds of the Unite Here PAC money backing González comes from cities on the opposite coast of Seattle: New York and Washington, DC.

Harrell is in second place in the overall money race, and most of his support comes from people who can afford large donations. He has a PAC that’s backing him with over $350,000, but less than 1% of that comes from out-of-state.

Echohawk is third in the overall money count, and so far most of the funds backing her are from democracy vouchers, Seattle's taxpayer-funded campaign financing system.

Four other mayoral candidates have also qualified for the program including Harrell, and González, as well as former State Representative Jessyn Farrell, and architect Andrew Grant Houston who leads the voucher race.

Houston's campaign says to conserve funds they're shunning expensive cable TV ads, and focusing instead more on digital spaces like Spotify, where younger voters they want to reach hang out.

“If we are going to be the community that I know we can be, then we must divest from SPD,” Houston said.

“Our base of voters are very left. They're people that that might be struggling right now just like Andrew Grant Houston is with the rent and everything,” said Kelsey Hamlin, Houston's campaign manager.

Hamlin says she expects Houston's no compromise messaging on issues like defunding Seattle police, and ending single-family zoning will resonate with Seattle voters on the left.

Wherever the money comes from, you can expect to see plenty of campaign ads online and on cable TV between now and the August 3 primary. Only the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.

Gracie Todd is a Roy Howard Investigative Fellow at KUOW.

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