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Originally published November 15, 2013 at 9:39 PM | Page modified November 15, 2013 at 11:23 PM

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Conlin concession caps stunning turnaround in council election

Richard Conlin, the four-term city council member, conceded Friday, capping a stunning election turnaround and paving the way for Kshama Sawant, the city’s first socialist council member in recent memory.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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After eight minutes and just a dozen questions, Richard Conlin looked up at the television cameras assembled outside his Seattle City Hall office.

“Anything else?” he asked, smiling, to silence.

And that was that.

For 16 years, Seattle embraced Conlin as a fleece-vest-wearing, consensus-loving environmentalist. On Friday, he conceded his fifth term to challenger Kshama Sawant, capping a stunning turnaround and paving the way for the city’s first socialist council member in decades at least.

Sawant, a 41-year-old activist, will join the council in January.

“These exciting results show a majority of voters are fed up with the corporate politicians who have presided over the widening chasm between the superrich and the rest of us,” she said in a statement.

And Conlin, the 65-year-old two-time council president, said his career in public service is finished.

“Certainly I’m surprised and disappointed,” he said in the evening news conference. “I felt that we ran a strong campaign, and she obviously ran a stronger one.”

Conlin, who said he almost decided last year not to seek re-election, declined to speculate on why he lost. Some have said the longtime liberal became too conservative for Seattle.

“I don’t think socialism necessarily makes most people in Seattle afraid,” he said.

A vote update released before the news conference showed Conlin trailing Sawant by 1,640 votes, or 49.4 percent to 50.3 percent.

Sawant won 56.3 percent of the votes counted Friday, continuing a surge presumably fueled by late voters.

She had just 46.1 percent on election night, but steadily gained ground afterward. She took her first lead Tuesday and increased it each day since.

“Green revolution”

On Friday, as murmurs of a concession swirled, fellow council members expressed gratitude for Conlin’s leadership, especially on environmental issues.

“Probably no person more than him has led the green revolution in Seattle’s consciousness,” said Nick Licata, who is tied with Conlin for the longest current tenure on the council.

Tim Burgess called Conlin a mentor, stood with him during the news conference and said in a statement, “I will miss his wisdom.”

A former director of the community and environment division at the YMCA, Conlin joined the council in 1998. He didn’t sponsor many major bills in his first years, but helped shape policies, colleagues said.

In 2007 and 2009, Conlin was elected council president.

He also served as the council’s representative on the Sound Transit board of directors, where he worked on light-rail placement and emphasized the importance of building development near transit.

“He is just a really great listener,” said Joni Earl, Sound Transit’s CEO.

Conlin in 2008 sponsored a bill to establish a 20-cent surcharge on grocery bags. The proposal passed the council but was overturned by voters the next year.

Still, Councilmember Mike O’Brien said Conlin’s work on that issue, and others, helped lead to later successes, such as the bag ban passed in 2011 and an opt-out for yellow pages approved in 2010.

“I’ll always remember Richard as an environmental leader,” O’Brien said. “I saw it from a distance, and I saw it up close, and I hope Seattle remembers.”

Cared about the city

Conlin was so influential that after the 2009 election, The Stranger newspaper named him the “new mayor.”

The council member sometimes fought with Mike McGinn, including when the mayor accused him in 2010 of violating the city charter by signing a draft environmental-impact statement for the Highway 99 tunnel that McGinn refused to sign

But the pair worked on other issues, including streetcar planning and the transit-master plan.

On Friday, McGinn said Conlin “Really cared about the city.”

Conlin also led city efforts on a 2012 library-funding levy, which passed with 60 percent approval.

“He did a great job and a great service to the city,” said Marie McCaffrey, vice president of the Library Board of Trustees.

Recently, Conlin drew criticism for being in the minority on several major votes.

He and Licata were the only ones to vote no on the new Sodo sports arena, objecting to city funding.

And in a move that upset labor, Conlin was the lone no vote on the paid sick-leave ordinance. He said he supported the idea but disagreed on details.

Just four years after anointing him, The Stranger called Conlin “arguably the most destructive member of the Seattle City Council” and “a green-washing liberal fraud,” and campaigned for Sawant.

Occupy Seattle protester

The former Occupy Seattle protester, who began her political career by challenging state House Speaker Frank Chopp last year, ran as a proud socialist advocating three proposals: a millionaire’s tax, $15-per-hour minimum wage and rent control.

She took a surprising 35 percent in the primary, becoming the first socialist to advance to the general Seattle City Council election in 22 years.

She clamored for media attention but received little. So she took her ideas to those energized by Occupy Seattle, worker strikes and the push for a $15 wage in SeaTac.

On the campaign trail, she said she would lead mass movements rather than guide legislation peacefully through the usual process.

“Getting something done ... does not involve sitting with the other city council members with whom I have major disagreements,” she said during her kickoff speech, “but getting a mass movement involved so that the mass movement, which I will be a part of, will put pressure on the establishment to get things done.”

That could isolate her on the second floor of City Hall.

“She’s going to have some challenges,” Licata said. “She’s going to have to, at some point, decide if she is going to be an activist first or a legislator first, and that’s a hard balance sometimes to work.”

Sawant said she will do both things at once, organizing a rally to fight for $15-an-hour legislation she promises to introduce immediately.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he welcomes Sawant’s passion.

“She was elected because of her passion for the cause that she believes in, and the fire in her belly,” he said. “She brings a sense of urgency into the conversation, which is good.”

Times Staff reporters Emily Heffter and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal



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