History will remember the 2021 Sammamish City Council election for how incredibly close it was.
In three out of four races, the margin of victory was less than 4%. Two of those races had a margin of less than 250 votes.
Throughout the campaign, candidates roughly split into two camps. The faction that currently dominates city council, and is staunchly anti-development, narrowly lost three races to a new block of candidates who advocated for a more nuanced and inclusive approach to improving the city’s livability. Karen Moran was the only anti-development candidate to survive.
These results suggest that a narrow majority of Sammamish voters are starting to take nuance into account, rather than support an absolute view that all development is bad. That nuance includes issues such as housing affordability, services at a future town center, a focused effort to manage traffic at peak hours, and more action on climate change.
“The issues I’m concerned about in this election are climate change, controlling development in Sammamish, affordable housing, and equity for all people,” said Dawn Nguyen, a Sammamish voter who is in her 50s. “I tried to vote for candidates who represented my position on those topics.”
The victories of Kali Clark, Karen Howe and Amy Lam — candidates who strongly advocated for a more inclusive approach at city hall — demonstrate a noticeable shift in how residents view the city’s needs. Voters have also caught on to how the anti-development faction has scapegoated the proposed town center development while ignoring other problems.
“The slate of candidates (Moran, Richard Benack, Melanie Kelsey) running together seemed to just present one option, stop the town center project,” Alexandra Toepke, 45, said. “I didn’t hear much from them about other developments, the slew of huge homes on tiny lots that are being built everywhere in Sammamish.”
Toepke, who supported an anti-development slate led by Christie Malchow in 2019, flipped her support this time and voted for Clark, Lam, Howe, and Nazir Harb Michel. She now believes the city cannot simply put the brakes on growth, and appreciated their more nuanced viewpoints on the issue.
Voters also seemed to de-emphasize traffic problems, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has made much of the congestion go away. Benack, Amato, and Moran repeated the 2019 playbook and campaigned on traffic as a serious issue, with Benack even posting the message “Tired of Traffic?” on his campaign signs.
In candidate forums, both Lam and Howe said that traffic in Sammamish now only increases during commuting hours around the city’s schools. Their victory signals that traffic is no longer an urgent voter priority, especially with many Sammamish residents now permanently working from home.
Some voters were turned off by the negative tactics that the anti-development side used to falsely paint their opponents as being propped by developers.
“This negativity really turned me off and made me question did I really want to have the vast majority of our city council all share the same viewpoints,” Toepke said. “I also really appreciated the positive way these candidates ran their campaigns, especially Kali and Nazir.”
Climate change may also have been a top concern for voters, especially after Sammamish suffered its worst-ever heat wave this past summer. Although all candidates advocated for preserving trees, Clark, Lam and Howe called for an action plan that addresses more aspects of sustainability.
One race stood out for not being close. Moran, the only incumbent, won in a landslide against Harb Michel by a margin of over 50%.
A critical mistake by Moran’s opponent may have boosted her chances. Harb Michel failed to submit a candidate statement to the county voter pamphlet, which gave some voters the impression that he was not a serious candidate.
“Irrespective of how good Nazir might be, when he can’t take the time to meet the deadline to enter the paragraph that everyone is going to read, then how can I trust him to take care of the city goals, to do the right work for the city,” said 47-year-old voter Mudit Goel.
In a recent Facebook post, Harb Michel attributed the mistake to a “technicality” that prevented him from logging into the platform to submit his statement.
The new city council will be the most diverse in Sammamish history. Lam is the first woman of color and Asian American elected to council, while Clark will be the first openly LGBT member, and at 36, the youngest to ever be elected. The next council will also be the first with a women majority.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a guiding principle for me and I’m proud to represent everyone who has felt that their voices were not heard,” Lam said in an email to the Sammamish Independent.
Lam will take office on Nov. 24 to immediately replace Tom Odell, who was appointed to position 1. Both Clark and Howe will take their seats on Jan. 1.
Howe finally won a council seat after her third attempt.
She attributes her success this time around to engaging actively and positively on local Facebook groups, and sticking with a message of bringing more “data-driven planning and problem-solving skills” for voters who “want to see the council actively address residents’ needs and concerns.”
Howe was also incredibly grateful for the residents and volunteers who believed in her.
“During the campaign, anytime I had a rough day, a friend or neighbor would give me a thumbs up or ask for a sign for their yard or ask how they could help,” Howe said. “Being uplifted by community is incredibly powerful and humbling at the same time.”