Stark differences on crime electrify race for Seattle city attorney
The normally uncontroversial race for Seattle city attorney has been an eventful one this election cycle. Three-term incumbent Pete Holmes lost in the primary, so the next city attorney will be a newcomer — and for the first time in Seattle’s history, a woman. The two candidates, Ann Davison and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, have outlined dramatically different priorities for the city attorney’s civil and criminal efforts.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy is a former public defender. Ann Davison is an attorney in private practice.
The city attorney's office prosecutes misdemeanors ranging from offenses like graffiti and trespassing, to more serious charges like domestic violence and DUIs. Davison is pledging to prosecute misdemeanors more vigorously and to advocate for crime victims. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy has pledged to stop prosecuting most misdemeanors, and to seek alternatives outside the courts, while offering a city fund for restitution.
Thomas-Kennedy calls herself an "abolitionist," saying her ultimate goal would be to no longer need police or prisons to provide safety. She said her time as a public defender in Seattle Municipal Court fueled that view.
“I thought I’d be prepared for what I saw when I went to court there but I was wrong. It was mostly prosecution of poverty, a lot of prosecution of disability and mental illness. And it was just this endless stream of petty cases that I felt could be dealt with in better ways for everyone.”
She said her own life experience has also played a role in shaping her perspective. “I dropped out of high school and kind of left home early,” she said. “I was unstably sheltered for some of my teenage years, and I couldn’t get where I am today if people hadn’t been willing to help me out.”
Thomas-Kennedy has said for the time being, she believes it will still be necessary to prosecute cases involving interpersonal violence and repeat DUIs, but for most offenses she would look at alternative programs rather than filing charges.
Davison has said she doesn’t think the city is doing enough to respond to misdemeanor offenses currently. She said if people have no consequences, she thinks their behavior will get worse, not better. Davison has talked about the need to understand why someone is committing the crime to address root causes, but she said the city has to balance the needs of offenders with victims and other impacts of crime.
“Some places can’t find workers. Because they have been harassed or threatened at their place of employment,” she said. “That’s why misdemeanors matter. Some misdemeanors matter because they’re serious offenses, some misdemeanors matter because it’s a serious offender, and some misdemeanors matter because it’s business-ending which is job-ending which is tax revenue-ending for the city.”
Davison has been talking about concerns with the city’s handling of homelessness and crime for awhile. Two years ago she ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council against incumbent Debora Juarez. Last year she ran for lieutenant governor as a Republican. At the time, Davison said she made the switch because she was dismayed by local Democrats’ failures on addressing public safety and homelessness.
But now Davison is emphasizing her ties to moderate Democrats. She said she supported Biden and Clinton over President Trump, and she was recently endorsed by former Governors Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, as well as a group of retired judges.
“I think when traditional liberal views are, by some, categorized as out of place, or out of date, that’s the conversation that we need to look at — what’s happening for the people of Seattle,” she said.
Thomas-Kennedy has been endorsed by local Democratic organizations, several unions and Seattle City Council members Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda. Seattle mayoral candidate Lorena González told KUOW last month she also plans to vote for Thomas-Kennedy.
Whoever is elected will confront a backlog of 3,500 criminal cases at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, cases been frozen in time because of the pandemic. Both candidates said some of these cases may not need to proceed. Davison said she wants to address the backlog quickly to bring closure to everyone involved. Thomas-Kennedy said she would immediately dismiss any cases involving drug possession, or prostitution cases that involve “consensual sex work.” Beyond that, she said she’d review the remaining cases individually.
RELATIONSHIP WITH SPD
The city attorney’s office interacts with the Seattle Police Department in a number of ways, from defending the department in civil suits to receiving police reports for criminal cases. Some of Thomas-Kennedy’s tweets during Seattle's protests last summer have been widely circulated, in which she described her "rabid hatred" of police, calling them "pigs" and" serial killers."
If elected, Thomas-Kennedy said she would hope to build a relationship based on mutual respect, but she acknowledges the beginning could be “rocky.”
“I don’t think they’re going to like it very much. But at the same time I had to buy a teargas mask for my 9-year-old to use in our house so I didn’t like that very much either,” she said. “I think some of my comments have been a bit immature. Everyone has the right to say whatever they want on Twitter and it’s inherently sarcastic and satirical. But I don’t like the idea that we are not supposed to be speaking back to power or speaking back to cops.”
Thomas-Kennedy said she made these social media comments before she was a candidate, and if she’s elected she won’t use that kind of rhetoric. She also said she’d be ready to defend her client, and that means the city — including the police department.
Both she and Davison have used the word “accountable” in describing their approach to SPD. But Davison said Thomas-Kennedy’s comments were damaging to the city.
“I would lead with collaboration,” Davison said. “We are going to get a better so-called work product in the form of public safety when we are able to have people who can have civilized conversation, not dehumanizing, not demoralizing, not wishing ill harm and violence against other humans. We’ve had too much of that in the public space for too long.”
Davison said she would not seek jail time as a given and supports restorative justice initiatives and other alternatives if they will help break the cycle of repeat offenses. “But we can’t overlook that there’s been crime committed, that there’s been harm committed,” she said. “Otherwise I think we are inviting that sense of lawlessness and disorder which will only welcome in chaos and more harm and more crime victims. And then we’re talking about a whole other set of trauma.”
Thomas-Kennedy said Davison lacks experience in the courtroom, and predicts that increasing prosecutions would only make crime and disorder in Seattle worse, because the process is so destabilizing for people.
If elected Seattle city attorney, Thomas-Kennedy says she'll shrink the criminal division, and aim to see more funds go into support services at other city agencies. Thomas-Kennedy said she'd also plan to make full use of the city attorney’s civil division to defend legislation passed by the Seattle City Council in recent years, like pro-renter and pro-worker protections. Before the pandemic, the city attorney's office was also developing a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for contributing to climate change; Thomas-Kennedy said she'd look at reviving the legal action.
Davison said she would not reduce the city’s criminal division. Instead, she would try to provide good legal advice to city policymakers and defend city legislation. And, Davison says she would try to keep the focus on the city and not get involved in more national issues.
Their campaigns are now making national headlines. Thomas-Kennedy’s campaign reflects the priorities of progressive prosecutors in other jurisdictions, who are trying to look at the disparities and the impacts of fines and jail, and create more alternatives.
Locally, the candidates come from the two ends of Seattle’s own political spectrum, and promise very different priorities that could affect the city’s response to public safety.
In his concession statement, outgoing City Attorney Pete Holmes accused both candidates of distorting the city’s current practices. “I hope the public holds them accountable to making accurate claims,” Holmes said. “The City Attorney’s Office does not have jurisdiction over felonies like murders, burglaries, drug offenses, or auto theft. Low-level cases like shoplifting and trespass are referred to the newly-established Community Court where intervention and restoration are the outcome, not jail.” Holmes wished his competitors luck, adding, “With a city so ideologically splintered, whoever wins will certainly need it.”