By Miki Mullor
The Sammamish City Council election was decided by a landslide vote almost two weeks ago. This is the first time in the history of the city that all three contested seats have swept with large margins.
Other than the issues, what else in this election was different?
Big business money
In a first time, a single out-of -town developer directly got involved in the Sammamish City Council elections. Merrill Company, the joint venture partner of STCA in developing the Town Center project, through former Mayor Don Gerend’s PAC, Livable Sammamish, poured over $110,000 into supporting Karen McKnight, Karen Howe and Rituja Indapure.
The backlash against an outside developer influencing the election was strong, especially since the Town Center project is mired with controversy over a concurrency manipulation that led an issuance of a concurrency certificate that the majority of the City Council considered invalid.
A concurrency certificate is required before a development project can move forward. It is administered by City Staff and is not subject to City Council approval.
In the past, the development community supported candidates in modest ways through the Master Builders Assoc.,their trade association and lobbying group. In 2017, Master Builders spent about $8,000 each to support Pam Stuart, Indapure and Karen Moran).
However, this year, the scale of Livable Sammamish’s influence and their direct attacks on Christie Malchow, Ken Gamblin and Kent Treen were unprecedented–drawing much unwanted attention to the candidates they supported. Late in the election cycle, Indapure and Howe attempted to distance themselves from Livable Sammamish. However, the damage was already done.
Similarly, in Seattle, candidates supported by big business PAC, The Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, infamous for Amazon’s $1.5 million contribution, experienced voter backlash.
With the decline of mainstream media nationwide, social media is taking the center stage of the political discussion. For better or worse, social media is enabling politicians to interact directly with voters. In Sammamish, Facebook and Nextdoor have been the dominant social media outlets in this election. Social media savvy Malchow and Gamblin engaged voters heavily during this election cycle. Both were active on social media before the elections and built online personas of accessibility and engagement with the public.
In direct contrast, Indapure, Howe and McKnight avoided engagement on social media–and were criticized for ignoring voters. McKnight attracted additional criticism for posting selfies and vague quotes on social media but failing to address pointed questions on those by voters. Indapure retreated to a few posts on her Facebook page but otherwise left the medium to her surrogates to engage with voters.
In former years, a developer-friendly narrative was dominant in the public discussion. Themes such as “Growth pays for growth,” “GMA makes us grow,” “Mandated growth targets we must meet” and “Town Center absorbs growth” were advanced by former city councils, administrations and pro-growth advocates.
Throughout the last two years, and more so during election cycles, counter information was put out to the public. While the issues are still complex, and largely not understood by the broad public, groups of residents who became informed were pushing back online and offline on the pro-growth narrative. The pushbacks were largely left unchallenged other than being mischaracterized as “attacks” on the pro-development arguments.
The public record of candidates played a big role in this election, even though only one candidate was an incumbent (Malchow). In 2017, virtually all candidates were newcomers with no public record (Moran was the exception for being a water commissioner, a role that produces little public record).
Indapure, McKnight and Treen all had public record that was used against them. Indapure endorsed and supported the Planning Commission’s “eggs splat” vision for high density throughout the city. McKnight made public comment at a City Council meeting that “we are a developer friendly city.”
Both statements were used effectively by the Sammamish Life PAC (the residents’ PAC headed by Michael Scoles) to highlight Indapure and McKnight’s policy positions.
Treen, with a history of “off the cuff” public comments, made an awkward statement about affordable housing and the needs of teachers and firefighters, that was used against him by Livable Sammamish PAC. (Treen is a teacher and a former volunteer firefighter.)
Malchow, being an incumbent, had the most public record of all candidates. With consistent voting on development issues on the side of residents, Malchow already built a solid record for the informed voters. Malchow’s opposition largely ignored her public record, except for one misrepresented vote on a Human Services Plan, that was brought up after a tragedy hit the community early in the campaign.
Record turn out
With nearly 20,000 (or 52%) ballots returned out of 37,000 registered voters, this election is a record turn out compared to 2017, with about 16,000 (or 44%) ballots returned (out of 36,000 registered voters) and a 35% turnout in 2015.
The conventional wisdom is that high turnouts are associated with ”establishment” voting. In presidential election years, Sammamish will normally see a 85%-90% turnout. Sammamish City Council election take place on off years, which is normally associated with lower turnouts.
This year, the high turn out was favorable to the grassroots, non-establishment campaigns of Malchow, Gamblin and Treen, calling to question whether a late push by the Livable Sammamish PAC, supporting McKnight, Indapure and Howe, may have backfired. The PAC spent a whopping $38,000 in the week before election day (of its total $110,000 spend).
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