Just south of Seattle, the immigration debate took center stage in a closely watched election.
In Burien, four out of seven City Council seats were up for election. And three were still a tossup after initial vote results Tuesday night.
The races are largely viewed as progressive versus conservative, especially on the issues of immigration and homelessness.
Former Burien Mayor Sally Nelson served on the council 16 years and said she’s never seen such a contentious election. She supports the slate of “progressive” candidates and said early results are encouraging.
“If the other four had won, it would’ve been a sign of my greatest fear that we had indeed embraced hatred and divisiveness,” Nelson said. “That is not the case.”
Results so far show strong leads for one conservative and one progressive candidate, and tighter races for the two others.
But the Burien ballot box hit max capacity Tuesday night, and election officials brought in overflow containers to catch the last votes.
Many voters declined to comment on how they voted, saying the election was too heated.
“I’ve seen some nastiness, and it’s just weird,” said Mike Lamb as he dropped off his ballot. “It’s awkward for your city officials to be that way. Hopefully they can just be civil.”
Immigration tensions escalate
Controversy erupted in Burien this year over the city’s so-called sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants. Tensions further escalated as a group called Respect Washington, which is partly funded by an organization linked to white nationalist views, led an effort to repeal the policy.
Respect Washington also sent an inflammatory flier to Burien voters that purported to show the names and addresses of undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes.
Supporters for the separate slates of candidates gathered at watch parties, just a half block apart, as the initial results came in Tuesday.
“You’ve got two very distinct camps,” described Mark Bowie, who’s lived in Burien since 1978 and attended the party for a candidate group dubbed Burien Proud, Burien First.
“I voted the whole package,” Bowie said, outside the party at Angelo’s restaurant in downtown Burien. “They’re conservative and they’re fiscally conservative. The other group is a bunch of socialists.”
He then quickly apologized for name-calling in a race that’s already seen too much of that.
KUOW attempted to enter the party at Angelo’s and interview candidates, but candidate Darla Green denied access, declined requests for interviews, and prevented KUOW from seeking interviews from other candidates in the room.
Across the street, at the Black Zia Cantina, candidate Krystal Marx took the stage soon after the election results posted with some close margins.
“What this means is that our work is not done no matter who wins,” Marx told the crowd. “When races are this close it means communities are changing. And if we are going to be a part of that change and push it in the right direction, you have got to stay engaged.”
On Tuesday night, Marx led her race against Patty Janssen by a mere four votes.
“I’m feeling like a champion,” smirked Jimmy Matta, a 20-year Burien resident who’s running for one of the council seats, and trailed by 126 votes against incumbent Debi Wagner.
Nearly a quarter of Burien’s population is Latino, but none have ever been elected to City Council. Matta and a candidate for a different council seat, Pedro Olguin, could become the first, if elected. Olguin is behind by nearly 300 votes in his race.
“It doesn’t matter, because we have started something that I haven’t seen in 20 years in Burien,” Matta said. “Bringing people of all walks of life, all cultures, all languages together. I ran not to win but to plant the seed for future generations to come.”
'Let's bury the hatchet'
As the night wore on, Matta decided to walk across the street to extend a hand to his opponent, Debi Wagner.
“I honestly don’t know if I’ll be welcomed there,” Matta mused as he approached the restaurant. Throughout the race, he said he never spoke once with Wagner. This would be the first time.
Inside Angelo’s, several people recognized Matta as he walked in the room. They greeted him looks of surprise and polite hellos.
An assistant to candidate Darla Green again asked KUOW to leave and a security guard blocked access.
Inside, Matta talked briefly with Green, then walked out into the hall with Wagner.
Wagner welcomed the chance to talk with Matta — and an interview with KUOW.
“We have to work together, and we want to get along because we have mutual interests,” Wagner told Matta, as the two shook hands.
“So all this other stuff of mudslinging and racism and other things that got thrown in, I’m sorry about that," she said. "I want to bury the hatchet. I admire you for keeping those things out of our race.”
Matta's eyes glistened and he leaned back, letting out a deep breath.
“Burien has changed so much," Matta said. "I want the same thing for my children as you want for your children, right? Come tomorrow, I hope we can help heal the community because it’s really, really divided.”