By Nicholas Johnson

The primary election results are in! But what do they tell us, aside from which Burien City Council candidates will face off in November? In large part, the answer depends on who you ask, so we asked the candidates themselves.

As you might expect, they don’t agree as to whether the outcome amounts to a referendum on the current city council or whether it tells us anything reliable about how November’s general election might play out.

The candidates do generally agree on one thing, however: Mayor Jimmy Matta challenger Mark Dorsey came out punching above his weight – especially considering the first-time candidate’s relative lack of financial support and campaign activity – as he claimed 40.67 percent of the vote to Matta’s 47.17 percent in the three-way Position No. 3 contest.

“I felt my chances to make it through the primary were strong given the state of our city and the change our residents are pushing for,” said Dorsey, an executive mentor, entrepreneur and 26-year Burien resident who was outspent 100-to-1 as incumbent Matta spent more than $50,000 while Dorsey spent less than $500.

“We were not going to win the money game,” Dorsey said. “We were being strategic. My intuition told me to not go and fight my opponents hand to hand and try to win at the game they were playing. I did not need to have an active primary campaign.”

When fellow Position No. 3 candidate Charles Schaefer, who claimed 12 percent of the vote, met up with Dorsey on Sunday to get to know the candidate and his politics, Dorsey credited his primary success to voters’ desire for change as well as “a little luck,” Schaefer said.

Matta – who in the past week has seen his lead over Dorsey grow by more than six percentage points, from 16 votes on Election Night to 647 votes a week later – called his lead “a slimmer margin than I’d like to see,” but said he is focused on reaching more voters ahead of the general election and looking forward to debating Dorsey on the issues.

“I want to hear his ideas,” Matta said. “He may have good ideas, but honestly I haven’t heard him talking about solutions. This election will determine the direction of the city council, so I’m eager to find out how he plans to solve the problems facing our city.”

For his part, Dorsey said he is “very much open to a debate in a mutually fair-and-square forum without one side hosting it,” noting that he missed July’s in-person candidate forum because he had a prior commitment to attend executive mentorship meetings on Monday evenings. Those meetings concluded Aug. 9, he said, freeing up his schedule for the foreseeable future.

Burien’s voter turnout in this year’s primary hit 35.1 percent as of Monday evening’s tally, topping turnout in 2019 and 2017. As of Tuesday, more than 98 percent of ballots cast by Burien voters had been counted.

On Election Night, incumbent Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx told The B-Town Blog that she expected her share of votes to rise in the days ahead. She was right. Already at the top of Position No. 7’s six-candidate heap with 29 percent of the vote on Election Night, her share has risen by 4.46 percentage points while her challengers have all lost ground.

“In a race with six people, to still be leading with an increasing margin, I think that’s a testament to my campaign,” Marx said. “Voters are not so dissatisfied with the current council that they want to vote us out of office in order to see the things they care about addressed.”

Marx said she recognizes there is still a lot of race to run before November, adding that the primary has affected how she’s looking at certain issues. Her opponent, Stephanie Mora, said she too recognizes that she has much work left to do.

“I look forward to continue meeting the residents of Burien, talking about the issues and earning their vote,” Mora said.

Like Marx, other candidates have also seen a post-Election Day boost while their competitors have lost ground.

Matta’s share of the votes rose 3.74 percentage points while Dorsey’s fell 2.43 points, and Position No. 5 candidate Sarah Moore’s share rose 2.28 points while candidate Alex Simkus saw his share fall 2 points.
Position No. 1 candidate Hugo Garcia’s share rose 4.52 points while candidate Martin Barrett’s fell 4.14 points, however Barrett maintains a more than four-point lead in that race with 50.9 percent of the vote.

“I know I still have a lot of work to do and that it’s going to be a hard race all the way down to the end,” Barrett said, noting he’s glad that his message of fulfilling Burien’s destiny to become “the gem of the Sound” seems to be resonating with at least half of the city’s voters.

Despite trailing Barrett by more than four points, Garcia said he believes his campaign is well positioned heading into the general election, “based on these numbers and the historical voting trends in Burien.

“I am very pleased about the results of the primary,” Garcia said, “because across all of the positions, I think it shows Burien voters want to continue the progress we as residents have helped create over the past few years.”

Barrett reads the overall results a bit differently than Garcia, acknowledging that neither incumbent received more than 50 percent of the vote and saying that outcome suggests the public is open to new ideas and new leadership.

“Whether they are voting for a different philosophy or a different person,” Barrett said, “they are voting for something new.”

Dorsey echoed that idea, suggesting that in the Position No. 3 race in particular, 40 percent of voters are signaling their frustration with the current council by supporting “an opponent who does the minimum they have to do because they feel there is a high chance they will move forward to the general.

“It would seem that if you were doing a reasonable job for the city as an incumbent, you would garner a majority of votes rather than have such a tight race,” Dorsey said.

Matta, however, said he’s not so sure that’s an accurate conclusion to draw from these results, particularly when you consider similar multi-candidate primary races in the recent past.

In 2017, incumbent Debi Wagner claimed 56 percent of the vote in a three-way primary where then-challenger Matta garnered 22 points less before going on to unseat Wagner in the general election.

Also in 2017, incumbent Nancy Tosta won re-election after a four-way primary race in which Tosta came in 21 votes behind challenger Darla Green.

“November is for keeps, and my campaign is going to work very hard to reach more voters,” Matta said, noting that he hopes to connect with those who voted for Dorsey. “Also, there are many people who did not vote in this primary who will be voting in the general.”

Many voters, as well as many candidates, are concerned about how Burien is changing and growing demographically, Matta said, and about how the current council has worked to address rising homelessness and public-safety concerns within the city.

“I think there are some people who see the community changing and it scares them,” Matta said, referring to increasing racial diversity as well as the greater visibility of poverty and despair.

Matta and Dorsey are not the only candidates who say they are ready to address the critical issues facing the city in a formal debate or candidate forum. While Simkus could not be reached for comment, his opponent, Moore, said she is eager to answer residents’ questions in another hopefully in-person candidate forum similar to that held in July.

The same is true for Marx and Mora, as well as Barrett and Garcia. Mora declined to say why she was unable to attend July’s candidate forum, but Barrett said he opted to sit it out because he was not ready and “it was not necessary” because “it was clear that in the general it would be Hugo and myself.

“I was just starting my campaign, and I was aware that I needed to actually learn about what Burien residents want and care about,” said Barrett, who like most of his fellow candidates has never before run for elected office.

“It’s one thing to think you know what the residents of Burien want and it’s another to knock on 5,700 doors and actually listen to what they want. Now that I’ve done that work, I am ready.”