Recently, a draft of a letter appeared that represented the first organized opposition to the campaign for district-based elections. It looks like it may end up as a fight between progressive allies.
Two weeks ago, Steve Lansing, a community organizer with grocery and retail workers' union UFCW 21, sent an e-mail to the union's community partners saying that UFCW 21 and SEIU Healthcare 775NW, as well as some community groups, had "serious concerns" about the current districting proposal put forth by coalition Seattle Districts Now.
The letter argued that this proposal runs the risk of "undermining the voting power of people of color and immigrants in Seattle by concentrating them heavily in one council district." Their solution? Seattle Districts Now should "re-evaluate their proposal and work with us to find an alternative." Lansing asked partners to sign on to the letter, already supported by OneAmerica Votes, Washington CAN, and the Win-Win Network. They planned a press release on the matter for last week.
But the idea they wanted to sell the media, that this is all about minority representation, rings a little hollow.
The letter says they all generally support the idea of city council elections by district, they just disapprove of this current version. But a call for the district campaign to redo their proposal, after they've already begun gathering petition signatures and their map has been public knowledge since last fall, seems disingenuous.
Could it be that the union groups are a little more afraid of how much less money and political connections—particularly their money and their political connections—may matter in district elections? I called them to ask.
"The answer is no, that’s not what's going on," says UFCW 21 community affairs director Steve Williamson. He would only speak for his union, and he said they hadn't yet released a letter or press release for a reason: "We didn’t think we were quite ready," he says. "We wanted to do more research." But they're "not convinced" that the map put forth by Seattle Districts Now is "the best proposal."
"We feel districts would serve us," he says, and likely, their "time has come, whether it's this year or another." UFCW 21 and other groups were "in dialogue" with Seattle Districts Now, and he calls it "a good discussion that led to a disagreement... This is a structural change to the way we do politics," and "we wouldn’t want one that might... conceivably be worse than the status quo."
And no, he doesn't feel like it's late in the game to be calling for a do-over. "Nothing has reached a point of no return; we’re just expressing our opinion."
For their part, Seattle Districts Now spokesman Eugene Wasserman says, "We did stop what we were doing and try to talk to them and work with them." But ultimately, says Wasserman, "we want a proposal that would win." He says the conversations took place in early December and in January, and "we decided to go our own way. We think we have a great map." He says the groups now looking to oppose the current plan wanted maps that cut neighborhoods in half and that his coalition didn't think would pass—council district elections have already failed at the ballot in Seattle three times. This one "respects Seattle's physical neighborhoods" and is "not gerrymandered at all," says Wasserman.
On the argument that their map disenfranchises voters of color, Wasserman says his group wanted to base their map not on current ethnic, racial, or economic demographics, which can change over time, but on the geography and neighborhoods of the city and general population numbers. Also, he points out, majority-minority districts, which he says the opposition was looking to create more of, don't always equal more diverse candidates. "Look at Adam Smith: You can't get any whiter than him," quips Wasserman of the representative for Seattle's diverse 9th Congressional District.
The unions and community groups are still talking, and they haven't committed to getting in this fight, says Williamson.
The original draft of the opposition letter is below.
As organizations representing low-wage workers, people of color, and immigrants in Seattle and across the state, we believe that at-large elections often make it difficult for people of color, immigrants, and low-wage workers to win elected offices, and that district elections can increase representation and engagement for underrepresented communities. Our organizations support the Washington Voting Rights Act, have worked to support district elections in Yakima, and generally support creating district elections in Seattle that would promote fair representation and accountable local government.
However, after a review of the Seattle Districts Now proposal, we have serious concerns that this proposal will move us in the wrong direction, undermining the voting power of people of color and immigrants in Seattle by concentrating them heavily in one council district.
An analysis of the Seattle Districts Now proposal by the Win-Win Network, using its sophisticated statewide voter file, showed that their proposal creates a 72% people of color district in South Seattle, with no other district at more than 34% people of color.
While it is true that people of color are concentrated in certain neighborhoods, the 7 district proposal exacerbates this and provides significantly less representation than other possible options.
For example, a 9-district (no at-large) model developed by the Win-Win Network creates two majority people of color districts, one in SE Seattle and one in Beacon Hill/White Center/Georgetown, with a third district at 36% people of color in Capitol Hill and the Central District. And an alternative 5-district proposal still creates a 62% majority people of color district, with several others in the low 30s - similar to the 7-district proposal but with more opportunities for people of color to also be elected citywide.
Of all the options we reviewed, the 7 district proposal actually created the most concentration of people of color in a single council district and could lead to the weakest representation of people of color. We encourage the Seattle Districts Now campaign to re-evaluate their proposal and work with us to find an alternative that increases electoral opportunities and civic engagement in underrepresented communities.