By Doug Trumm
The King County Council could get a shakeup this election, and those odds went up last week as Republican incumbent Kathy Lambert lost her Seattle Times endorsement after sending out a racist mailer. The ad depicted her opponent, Sarah Perry, as a marionette doll controlled on puppet strings by County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the only Black member on County Council. Vice President Kamala Harris, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant are also pictured at the puppet-master level.
Not aiming for subtlety, the headline of the ad reads, “Sarah Perry would be a SOCIALIST on the Eastside pushing their agenda.” A quote bubble from Perry’s mouth says “Don’t investigate many crimes” and text states “Sarah Perry is backed by Seattle socialist leader Girmay Zahilay who wants to defund the police.”
Lambert’s critics quickly seized on the mailer, saying it was odd to single out two Black leaders, Kshama Sawant, and Sanders, a Jewish Democratic Socialist. The puppet strings trope managed to hit anti-Semitic themes in the process of blowing an anti-Black racist dogwhistle.
“Councilmember Kathy Lambert sent the mailer below to thousands in her district. Given that every police-related policy I’ve supported has had majority Council approval, I wonder why she singled out and used her only Black colleague’s face for fear mongering on the East Side,” Councilmember Zahilay said in a tweeted statement. “Some might say it’s because I endorsed her Democratic opponent. Actually, six of Councilmember Lambert’s colleagues endorsed her opponent. And yet, of those six, it’s only my face in a big red bow tie and my name in red boogie man letters that she chose to distribute to thousands of voters.”
All six Democratic members of the County Council issued a joint letter condemning the attack. “Planning, authorizing and mailing a communication like this betrays ignorance at best, deep seated racism at worst,” they wrote. Additionally, the King County Council voted Tuesday to remove Lambert from her committee leadership roles, Erica Barnett reported. King County Executive Dow Constantine also condemned the “hyper partisan dog whistle attack.”
Perry is a Democrat, but she has not advocated for defunding the police, as Lambert’s claim strongly suggests. Apparently, the Seattle Times reached out to Lambert to explain her decision but she failed to do so, as David Gutman reported Thursday. In fact, Lambert doubled down in the immediate aftermath.
“Girmay is the only socialist on the county council and Sarah has chosen to campaign with him,” Lambert wrote in a statement to the Seattle Times. “They share policies that will bring more homelessness and crime to the Eastside. Sarah is the person campaigning with a socialist. They know the voters don’t want socialism on the eastside which is why they are making these outrageous statements.”
Hence, the Seattle Times Editorial Board pulled its Lambert endorsement on Thursday and endorsed Perry.
“This racist, antisemitic sexism, it has no place here,” Perry told the Seattle Times. “That hyperpartisan tone is not in keeping with our Eastside values, it is a national Trump kind of thing.”
Perhaps realizing she had blundered, Lambert reversed course and fired the political consultant that made the ad, seeking to distance herself from the controversy. However, unlike most negative attack mailers, this one came directly from her campaign rather than a political action committee (PAC) running an independent expenditure. That makes it harder for Lambert to separate herself for the decision to mail out a misleading and racist mailer across the 3rd District, which spans from Issaquah, Sammamish, and east Redmond to the eastern edge of King County.
Lambert is in a tough race to hold onto a County Council seat she’s held since 2002. In the primary she finished with just 40% of the vote, which is very low for an incumbent. Perry pulled in 36% to best fellow Democrat Joe Cohen, who got 23%, and advance to the general. In recent years the district has grown more diverse and increasingly trended toward Democrats. If Cohen’s supporters go over to Perry, she will win easily, which helps explain Lambert’s desperation.
The Seattle Times endorsement was not the only one Lambert lost. Former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, a local civil rights icon, also pulled his endorsement in reaction to the mailer.
Why endorse Lambert in the first place?
The Seattle Times Editorial Board has a reputation of endorsing Republicans in close races, and their initial endorsement of Lambert fell into that pattern. But even they have their limits, and Lambert finally overstepped them, after counting on their endorsement as a given in every race.
“Lambert isn’t given to flashy photo ops or slick news conferences,” the Seattle Times Editorial Board wrote in their glowing primary endorsement. “Her council web page eschews soaring rhetoric for items like a solid waste feasibility study and a primer on property taxes. Lambert’s joke — that she’s becoming the county’s ‘landfill queen’ — contains an important truth. Constituents can count on her to dig deep into the bread-and-butter issues that keep the county running.”
But far from keeping her nose down, Lambert descended into partisan mudslinging and racebaiting that supposedly wasn’t part of the brand that the Editorial Board — and her former colleague Gossett — were peddling. The Editorial Board, by the way, was sure to channel Gossett in their writeup: “As her former council colleague and civil rights icon Larry Gossett wrote in his endorsement of her reelection, ‘Kathy’s effectiveness at working across party and geographic lines has clearly earned her the right to be re-elected.'”
Far from working across from the aisle, Lambert’s attack against her colleague Zahilay hinted at how little she valued her relationships with her Democratic colleagues. Instead of working across the aisle, Lambert delayed and opposed a much-needed renter rights package spearheaded by Zahilay and Jeanne Kohl-Welles. In retrospect, little of the Seattle Times’ initial characterization was accurate.
In their explanation of their initial decision to back Lambert, the Seattle Times Editorial Board also wrote “the County Council is nonpartisan, as it should be,” but proceeded to paint Sarah Perry as “an experienced fundraiser with strong ties in Democratic circles” rather than listing any of her other qualifications. It's not clear simply labeling a race as "nonpartisan" makes it so.
King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer (District 5), a long-time Republican who continues to get elected in a Democratic district, who led the movement to take partisan affiliations off the ballot in 2008.
Other King County Council races
Von Reichbauer is also up for reelection, as are fellow Republican Reagan Dunn (District 9) and Democrat Dave Upthegrove (District 5). Both other Republicans fared better than Lambert in the primary: von Reichbauer pulled in 52.6% and Dunn got 55.4%. Upthegrove only has one challenger — Democrat Shukri Olow — so neither appeared on the primary ballot since both automatically advanced to the general.
Von Reichbauer faces brewery owner Dominque Torgerson and Dunn squares off against Renton City Councilmember Kim-Khánh Văn in the general election.
Neither seems in nearly as much danger as Lambert of losing their seat, but von Reichbauer is close enough to the 50% mark to not be completely safe either. With Lambert reminding voters how partisan the Republicans hiding behind their nonpartisan labels truly are, voters could be ready to make a switch.