Seattle's top political moments in 2021: Elections, pandemic response, and more
Political junkies in Seattle had a lot to binge on in 2021. The city held its regularly scheduled election, as well as a special election. Voters chose the first Republican for a city-wide seat in years.
All the while, Covid-19 variants were on the move. Government agencies joined with healthcare providers and private companies to get people vaccinated as quick as they could.
It's cliché but true: You cannot please everyone. These notable events yielded no exceptions. Like it or not, though, they're part of the foundation for Seattle's political landscape in 2022.
KUOW's Morning Edition host Angela King reflected on 2021 with political analyst and columnist Joni Balter and Essex Porter, the recently retired politics and government reporter for KIRO TV. Essex's departure from the local news scene became a headline itself.
Porter has covered many big stories in his impressive career, but one in particular stood out from his last year in the business.
Bruce Harrell elected as mayor of Seattle
"Even people who don’t live here and rarely visit look to Seattle as a symbol of the region’s political and civic health," Porter says. "In Harrell, they see someone who’s a known quantity that they think can better handle issues like homelessness, civil disorder, and crime."
Sure, it's yet to be seen whether Harrell will deliver. He took office on New Year's Day but won't be officially sworn in until Tuesday. His victory has largely been seen as a win for more moderate voters in Seattle.
National pundits have compared Harrell to Black moderates in other major U.S. cities, like New York’s incoming mayor Eric Adams – who also ran on plans to fund rather than defund the police.
But "moderate" is a label Harrell himself resists. He points to plans to help vulnerable Seattleites, including communities of color.
"When you have groups like the NAACP or the United Black Clergy and other groups that are fighting for underrepresented oppressed peoples supporting me wholeheartedly, I don't think there's anything moderate about that," Harrell told KUOW.
Perhaps, he suggests, it's a matter of style.
“My collaborative style, perhaps, could be confused with moderation because I try to spend as much time listening as I do talking," he explains. "And the very loud and vocal far-left, I think, often replicate what we see on the far-right.”
Harrell says Seattle will see what that collaborative style means in practice starting this week when he issues a series of executive orders.
Among them, he says he'll "double-down" on recruiting efforts at the Seattle Police Department, but also work harder towards eradicating unreasonable force.
After another year of focus on the police department spending and tactics, Joni Balter says Harrell's victory was a direct result of Seattle residents' frustration.
They had a chance to "vent," she says, "and vent they did" not only in the mayoral contest but also the race for city attorney.
Ann Davison elected as Seattle City Attorney
"That’s right, Seattle voted for a — shh, cover the children’s ears — a Republican for that job," Balter quips.
Attorney Ann Davison is the first Republican elected to a Seattle office in three decades. She won over former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.
During the campaign, they emerged as philosophical opposites. Davison talked about deteriorating public safety and the importance of paying attention to misdemeanor crimes. Thomas-Kennedy called herself an abolitionist and said if elected she would curtail most misdemeanor prosecutions, arguing that they were ineffective and simply criminalized poverty.
Balter says Thomas-Kennedy was a "bridge-too-far" candidate who appealed to voters supportive of calls to defund the police.
On the night of the election, Republican King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn had a similar interpretation of the result, saying: “I think it signals a seismic shift in the direction of where our community, the greater Seattle area, is choosing to go."
Opponents criticized Davison for taking part in a movement last year to officially “walk away” from the Democratic Party — a movement founded by someone who pleaded guilty to criminal charges for storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Davison has said she’s committed to avoiding party politics.
“I do really stress [the position] is nonpartisan,” she said in November. “And when we lose sight of that, then we again start to focus on what divides people instead of the unifying voice we can have together when we talk about issues as people.”
Essex Porter, having seen more than a few lofty political promises in his career, says she's be under tough scrutiny to see whether she can pull that off.
Seattle's push to get people vaccinated
The political highlights, and lowlights, of 2021 weren't all about individual officials.
Balter says the biggest win was Seattle, King County and Washington state's coordinated response to the coronavirus. That began early in the year with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and the high rate of vaccination Seattle, in particular, has enjoyed.
"The fact that Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Gov. Jay Inslee, all Democrats, were not squabbling among themselves — like officials in other states — mattered," Balter says. "Our unified response helped this region become one of the most vaccinated and boosted metro areas in the country ... The science-based culture of this place meant Seattleites largely bought the public health arguments and saved a lot of lives."
Harrell inherits the challenge of reinvigorating Downtown Seattle, for example, and officials are urging everyone eligible to get booster doses of the vaccine as soon as possible.
Winter weather has hindered Covid-19 testing in these early days of 2022, and Seattle Public Schools had to cancel classes on Monday because of long delays over the weekend.
Meanwhile, emergency shelter operators are trying to balance the risk of exposure against the risk of Covid.
Marc Dones of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority encourages people who have no where else to go to take shelter if they can.
"Crisis management is about probability balancing," Dones told KUOW in the final days of 2021. "What we know is the cold will kill you — Covid might. It is more important today to get people in from these frigid temperature."
Dones' concerns for unsheltered people across King County gets at one of the most significant issues facing Seattle today, the issue voters will likely be watching closely to see whether their chosen candidates can deliver: chronic homelessness and a lack of affordable housing.
Essex Porter retires
Gov. Jay Inslee himself recognized the weight of Porter's retirement after nearly four decades with KIRO 7.
"I have always been impressed by Essex’s professionalism, thoughtfulness and commitment to accuracy for his viewers," Inslee tweeted as he named Porter "Washingtonian of the Day" on November 18.
It's been about a month since Porter had to quell his urge to call the assignment desk, and already, it hasn't been easy to step away from the fray entirely.
He has his eye on a few U.S. House races to keep himself busy in the New Year.
"I’m looking to see if Seattle Congresswoman Pramilla Jaypal can get major pieces of the Build Back Better plan to President Biden’s desk as leader of the Progressives in Congress," he says. "That caucus has close to 100 members, so if she can succeed, it opens the door to top ranks in leadership, including speaker of the House when Nancy Pelosi steps away — if Democrats can keep their majority in the House."
KUOW politics reporters Amy Radil and David Hyde contributed to this report.