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'Tough on crime' backlash didn't happen in King County elections

Seattle Municipal Court
Ted S. Warren
/
AP
A U.S. flag flies at half-staff outside Seattle Municipal Court next to Seattle Police Headquarters, Friday, July 8, 2016, in downtown Seattle.

Since the pandemic, violent crime has spiked in Seattle to levels not seen since the '90s, by some analyses. Last year, voters elected a Republican for city attorney who promised to crack down on small crimes and misdemeanors.

So the question this election cycle was whether that would continue — whether King County voters wanted to respond to rising crime in the city by changing the status quo in the courts.

"I thought there would be a backlash because of what's going on crime-wise — not that it's necessarily a crime wave, but crime and disorder are definitely up," said John Urquhart, former King County Sheriff.

The answer seems to be "no" — and maybe the opposite. Candidates for King County prosecutor and municipal court judge who wanted to limit alternatives to jail have lost to candidates endorsed by progressive organizations.

Three key races

There were three key races in Seattle and King County's criminal justice system this year: County prosecuting attorney, and two of Seattle's municipal court judge seats.

Leesa Manion leads the race for county prosecutor. She's chief of staff for the current county prosecutor, Dan Satterberg, and promised to largely continue his push toward alternatives to jail for young people accused of misdemeanors. Her opponent, Federal Way mayor Jim Ferrell, has conceded. He was endorsed by several large police unions, including the Seattle Police Officers' Guild.

"I think there's been a hard shift towards alternatives to sentencing. And frankly, even as a police officer — a 40-year police officer — I'm not against that," said Urquhart, who endorsed Ferrell in the county prosecutor race. Urquhart and Ferrell both feel these programs have gone too far.

"Dan [Satterberg] has really been a leader on this and I'm sure that Leesa [Manion] will continue in his footsteps," Urquhart said. "The question is, how far are we going to go? How far are we willing to go along those lines? And clearly, the electorate thought that where we have gone is just fine."

For one municipal judge seat, incumbent judge Damon Shadid — a champion of so-called community court as an alternative to jail — is far ahead of his challenger, Nyjat Rose-Akins, an assistant city attorney endorsed by the King County Republican Party.

In the other Seattle municipal court judge race that drew a challenger — most judges this year and every election year tend to run unopposed — incumbent judge Adam Eisenberg appears to be ousted, but by a young Indian-American woman to his left, public defender Pooja Vaddadi.

These races tend to be more complicated than left-right or "progressive" and "tough on crime" labels.

Ferrell drew endorsements from many high-profile Democrats, including U.S. Representative Adam Smith, who represents a large chunk of King County in Congress. Manion is endorsed by former city attorney Mark Sidran, who was sometimes called "Seattle's Rudy Giuliani" for his harsh policies such as the downtown sit-lie ordinance.

But it's quite clear there's little desire to respond to a crime wave with more jail time or a drastic change in leadership. One possible reason is that while crime is higher than it's been, a survey this year found fear of crime is actually at its lowest in Seattle since 2015.

Another is that in last year's race for city attorney, Seattle voters had two stark choices at two ends of the spectrum: a Republican and a candidate who wanted to work toward abolishing prisons and police.

Degrees of "progressiveness"

This year was a "balancing out toward the middle," said Sean Goode, director of Choose 180, an organization that works with the county to find alternatives to jail for young people.

"If on the grand scale of things, right, you look at the candidates that ran immediately after the murder of George Floyd and what is often referred to as a 'racial reckoning,' that type of progressiveness didn't play in this election," Goode said.

Liberal candidates who want to keep reforming the system and find alternatives to jail did better than leftists or conservatives.

"Leesa Manion, as a candidate, is a very moderate progressive as it comes to the grand scheme of justice reform nationally, for example," Goode said.

"I do see the work that Leesa has put in in her role in that administration, to stand up work like ours and other programs that are similarly aligned. And I have faith that because of that time we spent working together, that we'll continue to journey towards justice in a way that that honors the humanity of those who have been impacted by crime and those who have been accused of causing it."

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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