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Nov. 29, 2021

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‘Abolitionist’ or Republican?: Stark choice faces voters in Seattle city attorney race

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A painting by Shepard Fairey, based on a photo taken by Ted Soqui during a Black Lives Matter protest, is projected onto a building near the Space Needle in Seattle in September. November's election for Seattle city attorney pits a Republican versus an extreme liberal candidate who wants to cease most prosecutions of misdemeanor cases, saying the existing system is racist.
A painting by Shepard Fairey, based on a photo taken by Ted Soqui during a Black Lives Matter protest, is projected onto a building near the Space Needle in Seattle in September. November's election for Seattle city attorney pits a Republican versus an extreme liberal candidate who wants to cease most prosecutions of misdemeanor cases, saying the existing system is racist. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — As police repeatedly filled her Seattle neighborhood with tear gas amid the racial justice demonstrations of 2020, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy bought a gas mask to protect her 9-year-old daughter from the irritants seeping into their home.

She served as a legal observer of the department’s heavy-handed response to the rowdy protests. And she took to Twitter.

“Can only tweet about my rabid hatred of the police,” Thomas-Kennedy wrote. Over a span of months she called property damage a “moral imperative”; described law enforcement as “scum” and “militant thugs”; and responded to a Christmas Eve message from the police chief by suggesting officers “eat COVID-laced” excrement.

Now, the former public defender is one of two candidates to become Seattle’s city attorney — a position that involves managing a $35 million budget and 200 employees; advising elected officials; representing the city in litigation; and working closely with police to prosecute low-level crimes.

Thomas-Kennedy’s opponent, Seattle lawyer Ann Davison, and many current and former officials say those writings should preclude her from being elected.

Three former Seattle police chiefs weighed in Sunday with a Seattle Times essay warning the city not to embrace anarchy. The department is already down about 300 officers due to retirements and resignations following the protests and talk of defunding, and electing an “abolitionist” would only make it harder to hire and retain officers, they said.

But Davison has her own baggage in heavily liberal Seattle: She pronounced herself a Republican in 2020.

“A lot of people are having significant buyer’s remorse that these are the choices we’re left with,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. “There is no excuse for anybody to advocate property destruction. It is also extremely problematic, in a deep blue city that just spent four years being traumatized by Donald Trump, for someone to pick that time to align with the GOP.”

Davison, 53, and Thomas-Kennedy, 46, each took about one-third of the vote in the August primary, edging out three-term incumbent Pete Holmes.

Holmes struggled with criticism from the left he had done too little to advance alternatives to jail for homeless, mentally ill or addicted defendants, and from the right he was soft on street disorder. In 2019, his office prosecuted 7,300 of 13,000 case referrals from police.

As the Nov. 2 election approaches, Davison and Thomas-Kennedy have tried to minimize the politically challenging aspects of their backgrounds while stressing the divergent approaches they would bring. The campaign has largely overshadowed mayor’s race in the Pacific Northwest’s largest city.

Thomas-Kennedy generally wants to end traditional prosecutions of misdemeanors, which include theft of items worth under $750. Prosecution would remain an option, especially for violence or repeat DUIs, but most cases would be diverted to mental health, addiction or restorative-justice programs, which would need to be expanded to carry out her vision.

Most defendants in Seattle Municipal Court are poor enough to qualify for a public defender, and many cases she handled were crimes of poverty, she says. Prosecuting people for shoplifting a sandwich or sleeping on private property is expensive, ineffective and can further destabilize their lives, she says.

She would seek to create a victim’s compensation account for businesses not otherwise able to recoup losses for minor theft.

An attorney for five years, Thomas-Kennedy is endorsed by Democratic party organizations, labor unions, and dozens of criminal defense and civil rights attorneys who wrote in an open letter that Davison would serve as “a Republican veto over a progressive Mayor and City Council.” She says she would be excited to use the office’s civil division to defend progressive city laws such as newly passed renter protections and progressive taxation from legal challenges.

Some of Davison’s biggest backers are wealthy tech and real-estate executives who are challenging those laws, Thomas-Kennedy notes.

She says her tweets were sometimes over-the-top or satirical, and were posted before she ever conceived of running for office. She deleted many and said she understands they might scare voters.

“It would be weird if I was a middle-aged mom who went to law school, then practiced law for a bunch of years, then decided to run for city attorney because really what I want to do is raze the city to the ground,” she said. “I think what bothers people is that I’m not adhering to that narrative of more punishment makes more safety.”

Davison is making her third run for office in three years, after failed bids as a Democrat for City Council in 2019 and as a Republican for lieutenant governor in 2020. She has been a commercial lawyer for almost 17 years, but has been the attorney of record in few matters.

In recent years, Davison has advocated for sweeping homeless encampments and moving residents into relief shelters set up in warehouses, and she has opposed safe-injection sites.

Davison has stressed she is “not a partisan” and would represent the city even to defend laws she disagrees with. She says she voted for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for president — not Trump — and considers the attack on the Capitol abhorrent. Former Democratic Govs. Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke have endorsed her, along with 30 former judges who said she would protect the rights of victims as well as defendants.

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