Election Analysis Part II: What happened in the Oly city council races?
by Matthew Green
Four Olympia City Council seats were up for election this year, but only two races were competitive. [Disclosure: The author worked on the campaigns of Julie Hankins and Darren Mills. If anyone with the opposing campaigns has a different analysis, write us.]
Hankins vs. Volz: Two years ago, Julie Hankins was appointed to fill a council vacancy. Now, she sought to defend her seat against challenger Mike Volz.
Hankins came out of the traditional mold for Olympia councilmembers: moderately liberal, active in her neighborhood association, a community volunteer, on good terms with the local Democratic Party. (City council seats are officially non-partisan, but political parties often support candidates.) She was endorsed by most other councilmembers, many other local elected officials, and environmental groups and unions.
Volz was quite untraditional. He was an active member of the Republican Party and very conservative by Olympia standards. On his website, he called himself “the strong leader Olympia needs”. He owned a small downtown business, which is not unusual for council candidate, but had few connections to civic organizations, even downtown and/or business groups.
Volz’s most notable supporter was councilmember Karen Rogers. She clashed with the rest of the council for much of her term, and lost races for Olympia mayor and county commissioner, in the process angering the Democratic Party that once supported her. Rogers chose not to run for re-election, instead recruiting Volz.
On issues, Hankins emphasized her support for local trails and services for homeless people, expressed her desire to “clean up derelict buildings” in downtown, and called for neighborhood-level planning “to promote the kind of development we want”. Volz talked about “family, justice, and prosperity,” complained that downtown was unsafe due to street people, and promised “to make neighborhoods safe by cracking down on graffiti, break-ins and speeders.” Volz also criticized the city council’s “luxury spending,” and was generally angry at city government, echoing criticism from Rogers.
However, specific issues probably mattered less than Hankins’ broadly liberal image, and endorsements from liberal public officials and organizations, compared to Volz’s conservative image.
Volz managed to raise the same amount of campaign money as Hankins, about $12,000 each. And in a more conservative city, a candidate like Volz might do well. But in liberal Olympia, Hankins defeated him 66%-34%.
The pattern of the results also followed tradition. In Olympia, the most liberal voters live in the neighborhoods close to downtown, especially in the northwest neighborhood around the Olympia Food Co-op, in the northeast around Bigelow Park, and in South Capitol and Governor Stevens neighborhoods. Ten of Hankins’ twelve best precincts were in these areas. More conservative voters (there are some; Mitt Romney won 25% in Olympia) live in subdivisions further from downtown, especially in the southeast areas around Olympia High School. Hankin’s fourteen worst precincts were all either in the southeast or in other conservative outskirts of the city. In short, unsurprisingly, liberal voters elected the liberal candidate.
Selby vs. Mills: The outcome of the other city council race, however, was much harder to predict. In the end, it was nearly as one-sided, but for very different reasons.
Cheryl Selby and Darren Mills both owned small businesses in downtown, both won endorsements from the Democratic Party and liberal community leaders and organizations, and were both active in the downtown Parking & Business Improvement Area (PBIA) and other community efforts. Many voters seemed to find it hard to distinguish between them.
Compared to the Hankins-Volz campaign, policy issues may have had even less impact on the Selby-Mills campaign. Selby talked a bit about the arts, public safety, and economic development, but in only broad, vague terms. Her final campaign flyer did not mention a single issue, instead focusing on endorsements and her “readiness” to serve in elected office. Mills talked about public communication, the city budget, and downtown, but also in somewhat vague terms.
The most significant policy difference was over the proposed low-barrier homeless shelter. Mills supported locating a shelter in downtown Olympia “where the problem is,” while Selby advocated for placing it in an industrial area or along Martin Way. Mills’ final campaign flyer focused on the candidates’ different approaches to the shelter. (For more discussion of the impact of the shelter on the election, see below.)
Instead of issues, the campaign revolved primarily around endorsements and the backgrounds and personality of each candidates. Importantly, though the Democrats officially co-endorsed both candidates, Selby had volunteered as a Democratic Party activist for the past two years, which paid off in endorsements from popular Democratic leaders such as State Senator Karen Fraser and County Commissioner Sandra Romero. Mills had fewer comparable endorsements from political leaders. They split union support, Selby winning the firefighters, SEIU, and teachers, Mills winning state employees, plumbers, and the local labor council. Environmental groups endorsed neither.
Selby presented a longer list of her “memberships and affiliations,” such as Rotary Club and League of Women Voters, even though neither group endorses candidates. Mills countered by suggesting that, though he had fewer community connections, he was more of a leader in those he had. For example, the candidates served together on the PBIA boad, but that group selected Mills to serve as chair.
Selby raised more campaign money than Mills, $28,000 to $19,000. Much of it came from the usual Democratic and liberal groups and individuals that typically contribute to Olympia campaigns, but a significant portion came from sources that usually fund conservative candidates: the Olympia Master Builders, the realtors association, other property developers, and Kevin Stormans (of the family that owns Bayview and Ralph’s Thriftways). Mills’ campaign donors skewed more liberal.
When the election came, Selby won 59%-41%. Though her margin of victory approached that of Hankins, Selby won a very different set of voters. Of Selby’s ten best precincts, seven were in southeast Olympia, and the other three were relatively far from downtown on the westside – all places where Republicans do relatively well in Olympia. Of her ten worst precincts, nine were in the liberal eastside or westside neighborhoods close to downtown.
Taking the two elections together, we can divide the electorate roughly into thirds. The most liberal third of voters cast ballots for Hankins and Mills. The most conservative third went for Selby and Volz. The middle third broke the tie by supporting Hankins and Selby. (Remember, the “middle” in Olympia is noticably to the left of middle elsewhere.)
Again, the outcome was easier to predict in the Hankins-Volz race, where the difference between the liberal and conservative candidates was more stark. In the Selby-Mills race, Selby managed to capture those conservative voters while holding the support of the middle. Undoubtedly she was helped in this by her many Democratic endorsements. Volz’s presence may also have benefited her, to the extent he served as a more conservative contrast that made her look more moderate. Furthermore, the relative scarcity of issue debates left those middle voters to make their decision based more on endorsements and personality, and apparently they just liked Selby better.
The Homeless Shelter: Did the proposed low-barrier homeless shelter affect the election? Perhaps, but not in the most obvious way.
No candidate supported placing the shelter in or near a residential neighborhood. Hankins and Mills advocated for it to be downtown. (However, the Olympian confused the issue by misinterpreting Hankins’ opposition to the neighborhood location as opposition to the shelter overall. This may have been willful self-delusion by an editorial board that wanted to endorse Hankins but also wanted to make opposition to a shelter into a litmus test.) Selby and Volz called for a shelter, if there had to be one, to be located outside of town, in an industrial area or along Martin Way (where one of Selby’s campaign supporters owned land that she suggested be purchased for the shelter).
If there was an election effect, it did not show up in the eastside neighborhood where the shelter was originally to be located. (About a month before the election, shelter organizers abandoned that site.) In the precinct where the shelter was proposed and in the precincts immediately adjacent, there was no “shelter bump” in the vote totals. The results there followed the same liberal/conservative pattern as the rest of the city. These precincts lean liberal, and were relatively good precincts for both Hankins and Mills; Selby beat Mills in these precincts, but by no more than expected given results elsewhere.
It is possible the shelter affected the race more subtly, by helping Selby win a few votes in each precinct, rather than many votes in that one neighborhood. If so, however, it is hard to explain why Volz did so poorly, after he opposed the shelter even more aggressively. If the shelter issue helped him, it didn’t help much.
More likely, the debate over the shelter merely confirmed the prior judgements of voters. Liberals gravitated to the candidates that were more sympathetic to the shelter and homeless people, while conservatives gravitated to the candidates who were more critical. The issue may have polarized the election, but not decided it. The middle group of voters picked one shelter supporter (Hankins) and one shelter critic (Selby), likely despite the shelter rather than because of it. ◙
In the next issue of OP&L, an analysis of the Tumwater and Lacey city council elections.