Week in Review: August 13, 2021 - David Kroman

Week in Review: August 13, 2021 - David Kroman

Today Crosscut political reporter David Kroman joins Crystal to discuss the Seattle City Attorney primary election results, the massive impact of primary endorsements from the Seattle Times and The Stranger, the lawsuit being brought against Compassion Seattle, Seattle Police Department consent decree updates, and local governments having a responsibility to protect residents from dangerous heat and toxic, smoky air.

About the Guest

David Kroman

David Kroman is a Crosscut political reporter.

Find David Kroman on Twitter/X at @KromanDavid.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week with a cohost. 

Welcome back to the program friend of the show, today's co-host, Crosscut political reporter, David Kroman.

[00:00:51] David Kroman: Hey Crystal.

[00:00:52] Crystal Fincher: Hey, how's it going?

[00:00:54] David Kroman: It's going well. How are you doing?

[00:00:57] Crystal Fincher: I'm doing okay. Well, we have got a number of things to talk about today. I think we will start off just putting an exclamation point on the primary results. We spoke a bit about that last week, but we got some clarity this week on a few races - particularly, probably top of mind, is the City Attorney's race. What are your thoughts about that result?

[00:01:25] David Kroman: My thoughts is - well, on the one hand, I want to be surprised because I think it's a position that people - I think maybe don't often understand exactly what it is. And for good reason, because the City Attorney is not really a job that exists in a lot of other places. Most places like Philadelphia or San Francisco, you have one prosecutor which is basically our Dan Satterberg, our King County prosecuting attorney. For most places, that's it. But in Seattle, we have this weird position where there's this guy who, or soon to be woman, who only prosecutes misdemeanors and then does civil litigation for the City. So it's a weird position and I don't think a lot of people really understand that.

And so my baseline assumption going in was - you have a huge advantage as an incumbent because especially someone who's been there for three terms, it would take a lot, I think, to motivate people to want to shift gears on that. At the same time, I'm also not surprised because there's been a lot of conversation from both the left and the right - on the left about reforming how we do criminal justice, a lot of introspection around whether prosecuting misdemeanors makes any sense at all. And then from the right, this feeling like, Pete Holmes has been too light on low-level crime and this broken windows view of things - which is, if you don't clean up low-level crime, it leads to more serious crime - that sort of thing. 

And then I think the icing on the cake was the endorsements, which maybe we'll talk about more later - where Nicole Thomas-Kennedy gets The Stranger's endorsement and Ann Davison gets Seattle Times. And so, it's a surprising result that it led there, but I think by election night, we all understood that this was a real possibility - that Pete Holmes could win or could lose, rather. In fact, Pete Holmes was saying that he could lose. So it's surprising, and it's going to make for what I think is going to be probably the most interesting and contentious race Seattle has seen in a really long time.

[00:03:35] Crystal Fincher: I agree. And I think you hit the nail on the head talking about some of the dynamics there, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of a role people's understanding of what the City Attorney is plays in that race and how different people may try and exploit that. Because just looking at messaging and rhetoric, particularly from Republican Ann Davison, who made it through in addition to Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, it's very much, "Oh, he's letting dangerous criminals back on the street. It's a revolving door." And it seems like a lot of people do not know that the City Attorney does not handle felonies - and really thinking about violent crime - some of the more serious crime that is associated with felonies. And this is really a different conversation, so it'll be interesting to see how that conversation unfolds. 

Going into this, I don't think many people were surprised that there were a strong competitor or strong competitors, but yeah, definitely the weakness of Pete Holmes - and some of it, it appears that he did a lot of this to himself. One, just trying to not do anything to rock the boat, it seemed like for a majority of the election - just act like he didn't really have opponents, just try and be an incumbent, don't make any waves. That didn't seem to work out really well. Then he realized that, "Hey, this is really competitive." Polling came out showing that it was really competitive. And then a last minute push with an odd interview with, I think it was Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times, where Pete Holmes admitted that he changed his decision to sue the Seattle Times and ended up dropping the lawsuit, in part, because a State Representative threatened to withdraw his endorsement for his campaign. So it just looked really odd that, okay, are you making decisions based on your responsibilities as City Attorney, or just fear based on where you stand and in terms of voters and funders and all that kind of stuff.

So, and there's been so much conversation about public safety. Certainly the City Council has been held to account for their decisions and a lot of examination, and the mayor and the police department. The City Attorney does have a lot of influence there, and he was also silent throughout so much of that process. And I think people were certainly dissatisfied with just what they were seeing, and where we stand on so many big issues - and were searching for an alternative. The endorsements by The Seattle Times and The Stranger of his opponents certainly didn't help. And you brought up an interesting question online - I mean, I'll let you pose the question - but thinking about how The Times and Stranger endorsements matter, what was your question and thinking there?

[00:06:49] David Kroman: Well, I guess it's just that every primary election, we see - Danny Westneat always comes out with his analysis pretty quickly on election night. And we see columns and hand-wringing around what happened. But at the end of the day, the people who won are the people who got either The Stranger or the Seattle Times endorsement. So in some ways, there's this obvious answer around who wins - which is, especially in a race where I think people maybe don't always understand exactly what the office does. People turn to the newspaper that they feel aligns most closely with their politics and goes that direction. And I don't think that is as important in the general election when it's just two people, but in the primary, when you have a lot of people running and a lot of decisions to make, and a few points can make a big difference - I think it really matters. 

That said, I will caveat that a little bit and agree with you that Pete Holmes certainly did not help himself. He didn't campaign hardly at all, as far as I can tell, until maybe the last week or two. And at the end of the day, he didn't lose by that many votes - because when you have three people in a low turnout primary, you don't need to win that many more votes to make a difference. And so, I think there was a path when he could have overcome the fact that he didn't get those endorsements, had he taken this race more seriously from the beginning. But I think the fact that - a day before the filing deadline, no one had really filed against him - I think created this impression that he was just going to waltz to a fourth term. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy decides, basically last minute, that with hours to go, that she's going to do this. And so I think that beginning to the season - my sense is, and I hear this from talking to allies of Pete Holmes, that he just never really - he was just caught flat footed. That he didn't think that this was going to be as challenging of a race as it was. 

And I don't think it was until those endorsements came out that he started to understand that his position was really in danger. Which I think there's a broader message there too for Pete Holmes' whole tenure, which is even people who were basically backers of Pete Holmes and preferred him to the other two people say - I think he was progressive on a lot of fronts, but he never quite did enough to fill this void that was being left around. He's saying basically - there are better ways to handle public safety than prosecutions, but he wasn't really saying what those ways were. And he wasn't throwing the full weight of his office behind - we can do this for people, here are all these things we can do for people, and we should be pushing really hard for them instead of prosecution. So, because he didn't really have a good answer to those things, it left a lot of room for someone like Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, to say, "I'm going to come in and I'm going to fill that void by not prosecuting and offering a lot more service or whatever it might be." And then on the other hand, Ann Davison, who's saying, "Pete Holmes doesn't know what he's doing. He needs to be prosecuting more people and so I'm going to run." So, I just think he never had really a strong - he never really had anything like a competitive race for City Attorney since he was first elected, and I think he got complacent. I just think he didn't have a good strategy and it came back to bite him.

[00:10:28] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. And on top of that, the dynamic of the middle is a challenging place to be in a primary. Particularly in a three-person primary where you're offering stark choices, where people are unhappy with what is happening now - maybe for different reasons that they're unhappy - but it gives them somewhere to go for people who are presenting strong, bold visions on one side or another. But that middle of the road position, it is just really challenging in a primary. 

And I think in terms of the endorsements, particularly from The Times and Stranger, you had two lesser known people, in Ann Davison and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. Ann Davison had previously run for Lieutenant Governor as a Republican candidate. Nicole Thomas-Kennedy was largely unknown before she threw her hat in the ring. So when Seattleites aren't that familiar with someone, I think those endorsements matter much more than they do in races where they have already formed an opinion, or there's been a lot of coverage already. As voters get more familiar with candidates, then those endorsements matter less because they can already form their opinion. They don't have to rely on someone else's, but certainly in a race like that, it is impactful. 

And when these races are being decided within 10 points, that boils down to communication. I know a number of consultants have talked previously - we before have compared those endorsements to basically being the equivalent to a citywide mail piece or two where - in terms of communication, a lot of times it's like, Well, usually you figure a communication can give a candidate a 10ish point bump if it's good and effective. And that is what those endorsements generally can do also. And in close races that can determine who wins and who loses. And I think that's what we saw. Do want to pivot to talking about a lawsuit that was filed this week against Compassion Seattle Charter Amendment 29 in the City of Seattle. What is happening with that?

[00:12:51] David Kroman: I always caveat talking about lawsuits that I'm not a lawyer, so I don't have any prediction as to the merit of this particular lawsuit, but it's interesting because in Washington State with initiatives, usually what happens is there's not a lot of recourse for preventing an initiative from going to voters in the first place. Usually what happens is it goes to voters and then if it's approved, then you start to see these lawsuits - people fight over whether it's constitutional or not. We've seen this a ton of times with Tim Eyman's initiatives, where they pass, go to court, get struck down, sometimes with gun control related initiatives or things like that. 

But this lawsuit is basically arguing that a city's response to homelessness and how it handles homelessness should not be a subject of an initiative vote at all. It's the same argument as was made against a measure to stop or to ban safe injection, safe consumption sites, which is that, it's a matter of public health. And it's basically the city's prerogative to decide how they want to do this for the health and safety of people involved. And so that's what this is saying - is it's trying to get ahead of the normal legal proceedings that happen around initiatives and say, This shouldn't be on the ballot at all.

[00:14:14] Crystal Fincher: So who are the parties who are bringing this lawsuit?

[00:14:18] David Kroman: So, it's a few parties - the ACLU, Real Change is involved, I believe the Tenants Union, or is it the Transit Riders Union? I need to actually pull up the actual case itself, but it's a few different advocacy organizations who have been pretty skeptical and opposed to this possible charter amendment from the start.

[00:14:46] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And it'll be really interesting to see how this proceeds - the ACLU of Washington - again, I'm also not a lawyer, but certainly they have brought a number of successful lawsuits in a range of policy and issue areas before. And so, certainly having them attached to this makes a lot of people pay attention and say, "Hey, maybe there's something here," because they typically are very thorough in what they choose to pursue and not pursue. And usually only pursue things they feel they have a good chance at winning and they often do. So certainly an interesting development - we've talked a lot about Charter Amendment 29 on this show and the differences between the rhetoric from the pro campaign and what the actual initiative says. So this conversation throughout the general election will be interesting, and this is going to be competitive. This charter amendment, as we were talking about - we did a consultants roundtable last night - and the people who are putting on this initiative have very deep pockets. There's a lot of downtown business associated with it. There was just an article this past week by Danny Westneat talking about some of the funders involved with this. And one of Trump's biggest boosters and financial supporters in the State of Washington is a big supporter of the Compassion Seattle campaign, also Bruce Harrell's campaign. So it'll be interesting to see just how House Our Neighbors, the ACLU of Washington - those on the record as opposing the initiative - are able to respond to this campaign, which certainly has a lot of slick messaging. But really debunking and fact checking that is going to be a tall task because of the differences in resources. But certainly there are some organizations involved who are very capable of doing that. So we'll see how that unfolds. 

Also, want to talk about updates on the consent decree process and the federal judge who is in charge of that. What is happening there?

[00:17:17] David Kroman: What is happening there is, I think, a lot of uncertainty around what comes next. I will preface this - it's really difficult to talk about the consent decree and not get too far into the weeds. But what we're seeing, I think, is some tension between essentially branches of government - which is you have this consent decree, which is basically under the ownership of this federal judge. And that consent decree, I think people forget, is not really - it's actually pretty narrow. It's not really just about - make the police department a better place. I mean, that's part of it, but it has pretty specific goals around use of force, and training, and things like that. And so, because the goals are so specific, anything that the judge thinks might get in the way of those goals becomes the subject of his skepticism and ire.

And so, that recently has become - the City Council's actions around "re-imagining" or possibly even defunding the police - because it gets right at the heart of this debate around how do you make public safety better? Is it by funding more police? Some people think that is the case, or is it by moving police dollars into something else? And I think for the federal judge, James Robart, he comes clearly more down on that depriving police departments of resources will make it more difficult for Seattle to meet its obligations of this consent decree, which is pretty much in direct conflict with a lot of the cries of the protestors and things of the last summer who wanted to move away from this model of policing. 

And so I think right now I don't really know what the path forward is. I think the judge is a little stumped. I think the people involved in this consent decree are a little stumped. This thing has been going on for almost 10 years when it was supposed to go on for 5 years, it costs a ton of money. And so I think the federal judge the other day was basically saying, "I'm skeptical of what the City is doing, but you guys need to give me a plan for how you're going to finish this thing." And I don't think that plan really exists right now.

[00:19:48] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and particularly because that plan is the policy, the politics of it. It really is a matter of perspective. I think you are correct when you talk about the federal judge has hesitations about the direction that the Council is taking. But residents of Seattle elected the Council based on the positions that they said they were going to take. They're taking the positions that they were elected to carry through. The challenge is them attempting to do that can be overturned by this judge, and that's an element in this reform discussion and through re-imagining discussion, that's confounding to everyone. Activists are pushing hard. Electeds are pushing hard trying to move in a different direction and get some of these changes that they've been talking about implemented. And that can actually be rejected by the judge, so there's this extra unelected element influencing policy in the City. And there have been decisions that the City Council had to basically walk back, or not make, or revise because it may be rejected by this federal judge. So in essence, they're negotiating with a federal judge regarding police department policy. And if it doesn't meet his approval, he'll just reject it. That's a very powerful position for an unelected person to be in, in terms of such impactful policy with the residents of Seattle. And I don't think this is what people on any side envisioned at the outset of this consent decree process.

[00:21:51] David Kroman: Yeah. I agree with that. The one tweak I would make to that is it's - I think it's not so much that people are - that the City is beholden to an unelected judge. I mean, that is true. That is true. But I think what he would argue - I think what's really happening is the City is beholden to the people who were elected in 2010, because this settlement agreement that the judge is enforcing was written by the people who were in office or in the Department of Justice in 2010. And so - it's like if you imagine the 2010 City Council passing a piece of legislation and the 2020-2021 City Council still negotiating over whether or not - how to implement it. And that's what's going on. And so, it's this - and as we all know, the notion of police reform or what police reform looks like has changed fairly dramatically since 2010. So I think that's the main tension - is that the City is negotiating against its past self when negotiating the settlement with the Department of Justice was what they viewed at the time as the best option. And now their view of that has shifted and yet they are still obligated to fulfill the parameters of that 2010 settlement agreement.

[00:23:20] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, yeah. That's a great point. And this is a reminder, I mean, that was the Council that had, I believe, Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, Richard Conlin - certainly a much more conservative Council than we currently have. And a completely different conversation on police reform. I mean, they hadn't even gotten to the point of body cameras at that time, I don't think. That was basically on the bleeding edge of consideration at that time. Certainly a lot different than we're looking at today. And there were people, including Mike McGinn, at the time who were calling it out as, "Hey, we're setting ourselves up for some problems here. And this policy is going to wind up different than Seattle voters seem to want at that time." Those calls weren't heeded, here we are - but it'll be interesting to see how we continue to proceed here and who we place as the next mayor in Seattle, who the Councilmembers are going to be coming in - could dramatically impact the way this conversation and policy unfolds.

I also want to talk just a little bit about the situation we find ourselves in again - today, here, Friday, August 13th, we have hazy, unhealthy skies again because of wildfire smoke. We're in the middle of a heat advisory - temperatures in the upper 90s once again - and heat is something that we are going to be dealing with increasingly. This extreme heat, it's lethal heat. Absolutely dangerous to people's health and wellbeing. And we've talked about on this show, the responsibility that particularly local governments have in protecting their populations from threats to their health. And I think it's pretty clear that heat and the impacts and effects of heat were not top of mind on many cities' radars for a long time. And now that we are here, cities are trying to reckon with this. 

Last time in June, when we had extreme heat over - we reported over a 100 people, over 115 people died. It was the most lethal heat event that we've had in the state to date. There was a story that came out in the New York Times, I believe it was, this week talking about in the Pacific Northwest - there were actually over 600 excess deaths during that heat wave, which is far higher than any of the governments reported. No matter what lens we examine this through, heat is a major problem and a major threat to our health and wellbeing. And that's even before we get to the effects that it has on our ecosystem, the changes that it's making to the organisms and fish that inhabit our waters, our - we rely heavily on agriculture. It's a huge industry here. That is jeopardized by extreme heat. So we're going to have to deal with this and governments are not only going to have to take action to make sure that we keep this from getting worse than it already will be, but also protect their populations from the impacts that are happening right now.

And I am looking at governments providing cooling centers. It's great. It looks like this is on - getting further on the radar of governments. But for example, a lot of suburban cities have cooling centers that close at 5:00 PM, which we're still dealing with lethal heat far after 5:00 PM. And the Seattle Times did some great reporting the end of June about heat islands. And because of the lack of a tree canopy, the extent of pavement - there are some areas in King County, particularly South King County, looking at like Kent, Auburn, Burien - that are routinely 20 degrees higher than other areas in our county and in our region at 8:00 PM, far after the highs of the day have been reached. Other areas are cooling down rapidly, but particularly in South King County, some areas just aren't cooling, so the threat of heat carries on well into the evening and night. And so I just hope that as we all listen and continue to move through this, that we all hold our government at all levels to account for making sure that they are protecting people from heat. We demand this when it comes to hurricanes, floods, other emergencies, and this is predictable. We know it's going to happen more frequently. We have to do a better job protecting our population because man, this is just highly lethal to people. And with significant unhoused populations, with one of the largest populations that doesn't have air conditioning in our homes and our region - this just continues to be a big threat. So I will hop off my soap box on that, but feel very strongly that we have to be more proactive in addressing this and in protecting people. 

With that, I am very thankful for you joining me today, David - lots of excellent insight and information. Appreciate it.

[00:29:18] David Kroman: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:29:19] Crystal Fincher: And I want to thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 this Friday, August 13th, 2021. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler, assisted by Shannon Cheng. And our wonderful co-host today is Crosscut political reporter, David Kroman. You can find David on Twitter @KromanDavid that's K-R-O-M-A-N David. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live show and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks - it really helps. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. 

Thanks for tuning in, we'll talk to you next time.