Ann Davison, a candidate for city attorney in Seattle, is on the verge of doing something that may have seemed nearly impossible in this liberal city – win a political race as a Republican.
Davison, who campaigned on a message of restoring a sense of public safety in the city, received 59 percent of the vote following the initial round of ballots on Tuesday, far ahead of her Democratic opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a former public defender who is a self-described police and prison “abolitionist.” If she wins, which appears likely, Davison will be the first Republican elected to a major office in Seattle in over a decade.
But Davison, who ran as a Republican for lieutenant governor last year and previously ran for city council, is not a prototypical Republican. Until recently she wasn’t a Republican at all.
On her campaign website, Davison describes herself as a pragmatist with liberal values, “an independent thinker and a Seattle mom.” She doesn’t see herself as a partisan or as an “activist ideologue.” The city attorney position is nonpartisan, not a place to pursue a radical political agenda, she said. That’s how she ran her race and how she intends to serve if her vote holds up.
In an interview with National Review on Wednesday, Davison said she really just sees herself “as a member of the general public,” but also as someone who’s long been focused on service.
“I’m not someone who fits into a cookie cutter for probably most of anything,” she said.
As a moderate Democrat, she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She caucused for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump last year. She’s pro-choice, supports “marriage equality,” and strongly supports paid family leave and access to affordable birth control, according to her website. She’s pro vaccine and follows mask mandates.
But she’s seen extreme ideology take over Seattle’s politics as the city has veered hard left.
“Traditional liberal ideas – including the need to provide safety on our streets and in our parks for everyone – had been pushed to the sidelines and, in many cases, were no longer even respected as a legitimate point of view,” she wrote on her website.
Davison ran as an unapologetic supporter of police and public safety, vowing to be an independent city attorney who will show compassion to those with mental health and chronic addiction challenges while also promising to prosecute repeat offenders “responsible for so much crime and mayhem on our streets that impacts all of us.”
The issue that initially drew her into politics was Seattle’s homeless problem, she said. As a young woman, she worked for a time in a refugee camp on the Cambodia border. She realized the people in the refugee camp had lived in more humane and hygienic conditions than most of Seattle’s homeless. She struggled with how to talk about the issue with her kids.
Davison also has grown concerned about rising crime in Seattle. She used to work in a downtown law firm, and often walked a few blocks to the courthouse. That area is now struggling with surging crime. In July, a woman was assaulted in a courthouse bathroom.
“That’s been the direction we’ve been heading,” Davison said.
Davison was endorsed by three former Washington governors, including two Democrats. She said she sees herself as coming from the same mold as Dan Evans, a three-term moderate Republican governor, who also endorsed her. She wants to be a Republican who is diplomatic, collaborative, who understands different perspectives, and who blends those perspectives into solutions. And she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by any political label, she said.
In Seattle, the city attorney is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor crimes and traffic infractions, representing the city in lawsuits, and advising city leaders on the legality of policies.
Some media outlets portrayed the race between Davison and Thomas-Kennedy as a race of two extremes – a tough law-and-order Republican and a police abolitionist Democrat. But Davison doesn’t view her politics or her views on public safety as extreme at all.
“I don’t put myself in that category whatsoever,” she said.
Joshua Freed, chairman of the King County Republican Party, described Davison as a moderate Republican, and someone whose views on crime and policing are in line with mainstream Seattle residents. Democrats in Seattle have moved far to the left, he said, leaving an opening for moderate candidates like Davison. Freed said it’s important for Republican leaders in big cities like Seattle to find candidates who align with the city’s demographics and values.
“Ann would struggle to win in eastern Washington in a more conservative community,” he said. “But in Seattle she was, as you can see with the very strong results, welcomed with open arms.”
Davison is one of three more conservative pro-police candidates who finished Tuesday with strong leads over their progressive opponents. Former City Council president Bruce Harrell, a Democrat who ran supporting police, had a nearly 30-point advantage over his opponent, a supporter of the “defund the police” movement. Sara Nelson, a city council candidate and local business owner, had a large lead over her opponent who proposed slashing the police budget.
“The constituents in Seattle and in Washington, King County are not as extreme as the leadership of the Democrat Party today,” Freed said. “I think that’s a great opportunity for us in the Republican Party to say, come this way, we support the police, we want to protect your personal safety, we’re not for out-of-control taxes.”
Aseem Prakash, a political science professor at the University of Washington, said that voters in Seattle joined voters in Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota on Tuesday in rejecting extremes. Seattle voters, he said, “are reclaiming the radical center.”
“They want politicians to solve problems,” Prakash said. “They don’t want politics of division. They want politics in a way that unites people.”
Like Davison, other conservatives looking to impact elections in overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive cities like Seattle should focus on being problem solvers, Prakash said.
Freed said Republicans and Democrats both have a tendency to impose litmus tests on candidates until the candidates aren’t relevant. He said Republicans hoping to win in big cities need to be open to working with candidates who don’t check all the typical Republican boxes.
“It’s the Reagan principle, agree with us 80 percent of the time, you’re part of us,” he said. “I think a lot of people are leaving the Democrat Party, and they’re looking for a place to land.”
For her part, Davison said she doesn’t see her candidacy as a model for other Republicans looking to have success in big Democratic city elections.
“I’m just somebody looking from the outside in going, ‘This is just not working,’” she said. “I want people to be genuine, and be themselves. So, for someone to mimic me and what I did in this race, if it’s not them, I don’t think it would really work.”