SEATTLE — In the campaign to become Seattle’s next city attorney, the two candidates would like to tell you that their past remarks are not representative of who they are.
One of the candidates, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, is a self-described “abolitionist” who seeks to upend the criminal justice system. In Twitter posts last year, she celebrated those who set fires at a youth detention facility, called property destruction “a moral imperative” and praised whoever apparently triggered an explosive inside a police precinct as a “hero.”
Over that same period, her opponent, Ann Davison, was moving in the opposite direction. A former Democrat, she declared herself a Republican appalled by what she saw as a lack of order in Seattle. In a city where Republicans have long been cast out of city politics, Ms. Davison filmed a why-I’m-not-a-Democrat video for a supporter of Donald Trump who later stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Initially viewed as long shots who joined the campaign just hours before a filing deadline, Ms. Thomas-Kennedy and Ms. Davison have emerged as the two finalists to be city attorney, which represents the city in legal matters and leads prosecutions of low-level crimes. The extreme range in their political views has left some residents feeling unmoored ahead of Tuesday’s election. They said they are worried about worsening polarization surrounding the urgent issues facing the city: homelessness, housing affordability, crime, mental health and police reform.
“I think a lot of us are disappointed in the choices that we have before us,” said State Senator David Frockt, a Democrat who represents Seattle. “I am wary of both of them.”
The campaign has stirred a conversation about what it means to be a Democrat in a city where eight of the nine council members are Democrats —- the only departure being a socialist.
Gary Locke, a former Democratic governor who worked as President Obama’s ambassador to China, said he didn’t consider the race through a partisan lens.
“Sometimes you have to look at the candidates and their positions, not just at the party label,” Mr. Locke said.
Mr. Locke decried Ms. Thomas-Kennedy’s past statements and said her call for fewer prosecutions would exacerbate problems in the city. He has joined with another former Democratic governor, Christine Gregoire, to endorse Ms. Davison.
But other Democratic Party groups and leaders have rallied around Ms. Thomas-Kennedy, with each of the Democratic caucuses representing the city’s seven legislative districts endorsing her.
Shasti Conrad, the chair of the King County Democrats, who has done consulting work for the Thomas-Kennedy campaign, said she was shocked and disheartened to see Mr. Locke and Ms. Gregoire back a candidate like Ms. Davison. People can’t call themselves Democrats and endorse a Republican for the job, she said, adding that the former governors were simply not in touch with the people living in Seattle.
While she understands that some people have concerns about Ms. Thomas-Kennedy’s past remarks, she said that when people consider the vision and experience that Ms. Thomas-Kennedy would bring to the office, there was no question about who would be the better choice.
“Things feel so broken that we need someone who is visionary and need someone who is going to address racial equity and take this office in a direction that will yield better results,” she said.
Many local elections around the country on Tuesday have been shaped by debates around crime and how to overhaul the criminal justice system. Seattle’s mayoral election features one candidate, Lorena González, who last year was among those who endorsed a 50 percent cut in the police budget, running against Bruce Harrell, who has campaigned on a message for more police.
Seattle recorded more homicides last year than in any year over the past quarter-century, although property crimes that would be handled by the city attorney’s office have not followed a similar rise. In a city that has become one of the nation’s most expensive places to live, there has been a surge in visible homelessness, with researchers counting a 50 percent increase in tents within the urban core since the start of the pandemic.
Ms. Thomas-Kennedy was a public defender who said she grew appalled watching how the city handled misdemeanor crimes, prosecuting people for things that were essentially crimes of poverty. She got into the race but didn’t expect to be competitive against the three-term incumbent, Pete Holmes.
“I thought I would have a blurb in the voter’s pamphlet about what’s happening at Seattle Municipal Court and how we could be doing things better, but I expected to kind of largely be ignored,” Ms. Thomas-Kennedy said. She said she was surprised to see herself come in first in the primary, carrying 36 percent of the vote, but she said it was evidence of how much people are yearning for substantial change.
Ms. Thomas-Kennedy said the tweets she sent last year, before even considering a run for office, came at a time when she was angry after police were shooting tear gas into her neighborhood, forcing her to buy a gas mask for her child. But she said the remarks were inappropriate for someone running for office.
“A lot of those things are just hyperbolic,” she said. “They were very flippant. And I will say that I think, more than anything, they were kind of childish. And do I think that’s appropriate for someone that’s running for office? No. Would I tweet like that anymore? No.”
While she campaigns on a platform of eventually abolishing the criminal justice system as we know it, she said she knows that the process of reaching her goals won’t happen overnight. She envisions that the city first needs to have systems in place to support health care, education, job training and treatment services.
For the city attorney’s office, she said she sees an opportunity to use the office’s civil division to go after corporations who commit wage theft and to protect tenant’s rights. She expects she would still prosecute things like serious assault or repeat DUIs because there aren’t yet alternative systems in place to address those crimes.
Ms. Davison came to the election from an opposite viewpoint: that the city was already letting prosecutions slide in too many cases.
Ms. Davison said the office in recent years has focused so much on helping support people accused of crimes and not enough representing the interests of victims of crimes. She contends that the lack of consequences for those committing crimes is making the city less safe. She also said the residents of the city want to see both police reforms and enforcement.
Although she is a lawyer, she focuses mostly on civil contract law and arbitration. She said in an interview that she hadn’t handled a case in a courtroom since she left a downtown law firm more than a decade ago. But she contended that such experience isn’t necessary for the job.
“The role is being a leader, and you hire subject-matter experts,” Ms. Davison said.
A year ago, Ms. Davison was running for the state’s lieutenant governor position as a Republican and recorded a video explaining why she was a former Democrat as part of a “WalkAway” campaign — a pro-Trump effort. The founder of the WalkAway campaign, Brandon Straka, pleaded guilty this year to disorderly conduct during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
As part of the video, Ms. Davison decried what she said was Democratic leadership in Seattle moving too far to the left.
“I just can’t be part of that anymore,” she said. On Twitter, she decried that the far left was pulling the city toward “Marxism.” She joined conservative efforts to repeal a sex-education law.
But although she was running as a Republican and courting Republican endorsements, Ms. Davison has tried to distance herself from the declaration. She notes that the office she is running for is technically nonpartisan. She said she actually voted for Joe Biden and voted for the Democratic candidate in the three prior presidential races.
Republicans are still supporting Ms. Davison, hoping she has an opportunity to turn what seemed like an unstoppable tide in Seattle. Cynthia Cole, the chair of the King County Republican Party, laughed when she was asked when the last Republican was elected in the city.
After some research, she found a Republican that served as mayor in the 1960s. But one did serve in the city attorney position more recently: He departed the office 32 years ago.