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 to advance in the officially nonpartisan race.
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.”
Still, even last month her campaign posted a photo of Thomas-Kennedy with her campaign manager, who was wearing a shirt featuring an image of a burning Seattle police car with the words, “This is a policy proposal.”
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 and has little criminal law experience.
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.
Saying her views were not welcome among Seattle progressives, she recorded a video about leaving “the Democrat Party” for the #WalkAway project launched by Trump supporter Brandon Straka. Straka went on to plead guilty for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
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.
“We can provide strategies that are creative so that we are getting people help and intervening in a way that is compassionate for individuals and is maintaining public safety,” Davison said. “To dismantle the prosecution of misdemeanor crime, to dismantle police, when we’re a city of almost 800,000 people, is not putting the safety of the city first.”
Matt Humphrey, the owner of Steele Barber, a high-end barbershop with two locations, said he’s supporting Davison. He acknowledged he doesn’t know much about her, but said he knows more than enough about her opponent.
Last fall, two thieves took goods worth $4,000 wholesale in an early morning break-in at one of his stores. His insurance company paid for the losses — and promptly canceled his policy, forcing him to scramble to find another.
Last week, he said, someone shoplifted $3,000 worth of items. He’s trying to figure out how he can afford private security. Any talk of not prosecuting crime concerns him.
“Criminals may not watch the news or read the paper, but they sure are good at passing along word that you can get away with this,” Humphrey said. “And I’m the one who’s going to pay the price.”