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Inside the grueling, quirky political process shaping Seattle primaries

 A brunette white woman with her hair pulled back looks at a smartphone she's holding in her hand. She's sitting next to a window with lots of plants around her; it's night.
Scott Greenstone
Seattle city council candidate Alex Hudson looks at The Stranger endorsement post on her phone on July 13, 2023.

It’s just after midnight, and Alex Hudson is waiting on a web post that could change her life.

She’s a Seattle City Council candidate, and she’s been waiting an entire month for word of this endorsement – this one endorsement, which will likely propel her to the top of the upcoming primary on August 1.

Like most local candidates, Hudson has spent a ton of time this year trying to secure a myriad of endorsements. On her computer, there’s a spreadsheet with scores of rows, each one an invite from an organization to compete for their stamp of approval. It's a who’s who of powers-that-be in Seattle: Unions, advocacy groups, local arms of the Democratic party, media outlets.

The spreadsheet is color-coded; Hudson updates a pending endorsement to “Won!” and it turns mauve. She’s a Virgo Rising; organized.

Hudson’s spent so much time working on these endorsements, she’s begun to have dreams of typing out answers to questionnaires, or speaking at local forums.

“It feels like what’s happening is that I’m working while I’m sleeping,” she said.

But the one she’s awake, waiting for, is probably the one that will make or break her primary campaign: An endorsement from The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative newspaper.

Ben Anderstone, a political consultant, said even the best doorbelling and mail campaigns can only get a candidate so far in a city with as many voters as Seattle.

“So much of what you do is just inching the needle towards you by a point or two, through grueling work,” Anderstone said. “And oftentimes something like The Stranger endorsement, frankly, can move the needle, more than a few percentage points overnight.”

'The endorsement posts...and the world changes'

Endorsements are a key but somewhat mysterious part of politics, not well studied at the local level. It's often hard to measure whether, as a rule, powerful endorsers lend their chosen candidates cache and viability, or whether they choose the candidates who already have momentum.

"It's tough to pick apart what is a candidate who's picking up endorsements because they've got compelling strengths as a candidate," Anderstone said, "and what is a candidate who's compelling because they've picked up endorsements."

As newspapers have folded or people get more of their local news from TV, media endorsements have become less and less important. Last year, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital announced none of its papers would endorse for president, governor or a slew of other seats.

But the few newspapers and alt-weeklies that have survived can wield a lot of power — especially in an odd-year election like this one in Washington, when many elected offices are nonpartisan. Without the “Democrat” or “Republican” flags to go off, voters use endorsements to signal what "lane" a candidate occupies.

"There are a fair number of major cities in the U.S. that have an alt-weekly that's more progressive, and then a more establishment-y local newspaper," Anderstone said. "But Seattle does have these defined lanes, and has for a number of years at this point — or decades, arguably — that are more defined than a lot of cities. And they continue even as institutional media has declined."

In Seattle, consultants often say there are two parties: the leftist Stranger, and the more moderate Seattle Times. (From 2017 to 2022, this reporter worked in The Seattle Times newsroom, which is separate from the editorial board that endorses candidates.)

In the last ten years, only one candidate has managed to win a general election in Seattle without the endorsement of either: City councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who had the backing of Seattle's powerful labor unions.

Hudson’s district is among those where The Stranger endorsement matters the most. It stretches from Capitol Hill to the Lake Washington waterfront. It’s young and left-leaning. Socialist Kshama Sawant has represented the district for a decade, during which she became famous for her criticism of the Democratic establishment in town. Leftists are hoping for someone to take up her torch.

2021 Seattle District 3 Election Results

The Stranger endorsement tends to have more pull in Seattle's District 3, but not always. In 2021, about 15% of voters who went for the Stranger-endorsed candidates for city attorney and city council-- two "Defund the Police" abolitionists who lost in the rest of the city -- then switched and also voted for the Seattle Times-endorsed candidate for mayor: pro-cop moderate Bruce Harrell.

Seattle Times Endorsement
Stranger Endorsement
✓ Bruce Harrell
M. Lorena Gonzalez
City Attorney
✓ Ann Davison
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy
City Council
✓ Sara Nelson
Nikkita Oliver

✓ Indicate which candidate won citywide.

Source: Progressive Strategies NW and King County Elections | Credit: Parker Miles Blohm/KNKX

The Seattle Times has already endorsed Joy Hollingsworth, who will be hard to beat, for District 3. She’s the top fundraiser in the race; a queer cannabis businesswoman who grew up in the Central District, the part of this council district that was historically Black and is now heavily gentrified. Mayor Bruce Harrell has also endorsed her, and he narrowly won this district in 2021 over The Stranger's pick.

Hudson is a white woman who grew up in East King County. One voter said she has “cool mom” energy, but her platform is nothing flashy: a levy for transit, more affordable housing, and “neighborhood vitality.”

Though Hudson has raised more than any candidate except Hollingsworth, she’s hardly a shoo-in. The Stranger called her “shaky” and “wishy-washy” earlier this year in a story because she didn’t take tough stances on things like a capital gains tax or a ballot measure on social housing.

There are six other candidates, largely to her left. The Stranger endorsement could rocket any of them to the top of the pack. Anderstone has seen it happen many times.

“There is a degree to which you just sort of wake up the day of the endorsement posts,” Anderstone said, “and just, like, the world changes.”

But Hudson isn’t going to bed.

Please,” she groaned, as 1 a.m. crawled by in her First Hill apartment. She hit the ‘refresh’ button on The Stranger's homepage yet again, fruitlessly.

How The Stranger shaped Seattle politics

Created in the ‘90s by a cartoonist and a co-founder of The Onion, The Stranger found their niche “among the queers and weirdos who (used to) populate Capitol Hill,” Seattle’s historic "gayborhood."

By the late 2000s, The Stranger was a tastemaker in the local music scene. Rich Smith moved to Seattle in 2011 to go to grad school. He would pick it up for the event listings.

“I was a poet at the time, and so I knew if I was going to, like, get someone to come to my reading, I wanted to be in The Stranger, especially the Stranger Suggests page that we had, which told you one great thing to do every day,” Smith said.

Now, he's The Stranger's news editor and runs the "Stranger Election Control Board," the newspaper's internal group of staff who decide on endorsements. The Stranger originally published "cheat sheets" of preferred candidates that were designed for voters to cut out and take into the voting booth, before Washington fully switched to vote-by-mail in 2011.

The Stranger doesn't shy away from their influence, and rejects the idea of neutrality: candidates are expected to bring little gifts as "bribes." It's all tongue-in-cheek, but in the last 15 years, their influence on Seattle politics has become anything but a joke.

In 2009, The Stranger endorsed Mike McGinn for mayor – a nonprofit director without a single paid campaign staffer.

“He’s our only chance for an actual debate,” their glowing front page read.

McGinn led the primary, knocking incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels out, and in the general, beat a T-Mobile exec with deep pockets. He didn’t win reelection, and the Times’ endorsees have won every mayoral race since then. But for the last decade in odd-year local primaries, The Stranger picks on average got as many or more votes percentage-wise than The Seattle Times.

The Stranger has persuaded some voters to go for little-known, perennial, or even Republican candidates, when the endorsement board didn’t like the mainstream choice.

“There's some people that, they're like, 'Yeah, I just vote Stranger every time,'” said Efrain Hudnell, one of Hudson’s competitors for the council seat, and a former attorney for the county prosecutor’s office.

“People see The Stranger endorsement as the signal to the left. That's the person you coalesce around,” Hudnell said. He doesn’t think he’ll make it out of the primary without it.

That’s a lot of pressure. And the way The Stranger does their endorsements only adds to it.

Stranger prep

Rewind to June, the middle of the endorsement season. Alex Hudson is fresh out of an urbanist endorsement forum, and is prepping for The Stranger endorsement meeting, which is just days away at this point.

“Obviously, we’re here to do Stranger prep,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a political consultant who used to work for The Stranger. He’s done this many times, as has Anderstone, for The Stranger and Times endorsement processes. It’s a yearly ritual in Seattle.

“My first recommendation is, never lose your cool. Right?” Kaushik told Hudson. “I've said this to probably 50 candidates over the years and at least in, like, 15 to 20 cases, they heard me and then went in and lost their cool, right? So don’t do that.”

While most endorsement groups interview candidates one at a time, The Stranger brings them all in at once and pits them against each other. Cross-talk is encouraged. Yelling isn’t off the table. Stranger staff lob off-the-wall questions like “boxers or briefs?” at candidates. Once, in 2011, a candidate unbuckled his pants to check the color of his underwear in a meeting.

“No matter what happens in that room, like, you're centered, you're Alex, you know who you are, what you stand for,” Kaushik continued. “There's gonna be a lot of people in that room all claiming the progressive banner, right? But you're the progressive who will deliver big results. Bold results. You are the progressive who's not gonna back down from a fight, but also won't lose every fight.”

On a dry erase board on the wall, there are a bunch of draft slogans: “make progress now,” “Progressive Results Now!”

Kaushik dove into practice questions, pretending to be a Stranger writer.

“Mayor McSweepy here, is sweeping here, there and everywhere,” Kaushik said, referring to the mayor ramping up homeless camp removals in the last year and a half. “So where do you stand on sweeps?”

“We can't –" Hudson started before succumbing to laughter. "Sorry, that ‘sweepin’ here, there and everywhere’ threw me off a little bit."

“Sorry,” Kaushik chuckled. “But you know, The Stranger is gonna come at you on this.”

After two prep sessions and a tarot card reading, Hudson felt as ready as possible. She brought frankincense as a gift.

The Stranger no longer posts videos of their endorsement meetings, and doesn’t allow anyone but the candidates and staff in the room. But Hudson said she kept her cool, before she had to run on to the next endorsement meeting with the Teamsters’ union.

 A brunette woman with long hair adjusts the phone carrier on her bike, sitting on the ground in a park.
Scott Greenstone
Seattle city council candidate Alex Hudson adjusts her bike's phone carrier on June 13, 2023. The Stranger endorsement went long, and with no time to get back to the office, she had to take her next endorsement call with the Teamsters Union in Hing Hay Park.

Around the corner, three of her competitors for the seat decompressed as they wait for the streetcar.

“It was pretty intense,” said Ry Armstrong, an actor and Democratic socialist. “Good, though.”

Attorney Efrain Hudnell is there too, and Andrew Ashiofu, a queer activist and Nigerian immigrant. It’s his second time; last year, he didn’t get the endorsement in a state House race and got third. He has no idea who will get it this time.

“It’s called The Stranger because strange things happen,” Ashiofu laughed.

Ahead of them all is an excruciating month of waiting.

The result

About a mile away and a month later, voter Liam Merk is outside his neighborhood coffee shop, Squirrel Chops. He’s just about to look at The Stranger endorsements. He’s in I.T. and moved here in 2020, and he’s never physically held a copy of The Stranger – it stopped printing weekly during the pandemic – but he trusts the endorsements.

“All right, district three,” Merk said, looking at his phone and flipping through the voter pamphlet.

He’s only met one candidate in the race: Alex Cooley, a pro-drug legalization candidate who woke him up one morning by knocking on his door.

Merk is very open to being persuaded, and by the end of reading The Stranger endorsements, he said his vote was 90% secured.

Back at Hudson’s apartment, just hours earlier, Hudson is furiously running her finger down the freshly-posted list.

“I don't even think I can keep scrolling,” Hudson said, feeling sick.

Her daughter stopped playing Minecraft and looked over at Hudson’s face.

“No way, did you make it?” her daughter asked.

"It's me," Hudson said. "It's me."

"Hudson inarguably boasts the broadest and deepest technical knowledge of the housing and transportation issues that will come before the council in the next few years, she knows how City Hall works, and she’s in the best financial position to beat the more corporate candidate who will most likely to make it through to the general election," The Stranger Election Control Board wrote.

They still called her "lackluster" on taxing the rich and policing, and said they almost gave the endorsement to Ashiofu or Hudnell, "but neither of them have built up the campaign infrastructure necessary to take on cannabis business-owner Joy Hollingsworth, the clear corporate favorite in this race."

Hudson said she didn’t actually expect to get the endorsement: for the last two weeks, “person after person after person” in the political sphere had been telling her why she won’t.

“Wow,” she said, sniffling. Then, she started laughing. “Oh my god. We’re going to have to keep doing this until November. So many more questionnaires."

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Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.