Kate Akyuz is a Girl Scout troop leader who drives a pale-blue Toyota Sienna minivan around her island community—a place full of Teslas and BMWs, surrounded by a large freshwater lake that marks Seattle’s eastern edge. She works for the county government on flood safety and salmon-habitat restoration. But two years ago, she made her first foray into local politics, declaring her candidacy for Mercer Island City Council Position No. 6. Soon after, Akyuz became the unlikely target of what appears to have been a misinformation campaign meant to influence the election.
At the time, residents of major cities all along the West Coast, including Seattle, were expressing concern and anger over an ongoing homelessness crisis that local leaders are still struggling to address. Mercer Island is one of the most expensive places to live in America—the estate of Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder, sold a waterfront mansion and other properties for $67 million last year—and its public spaces are generally pristine. The population is nearly 70 percent white, the median household income is $170,000, and fears of Seattle-style problems run deep. In February 2021, the island’s city council voted to ban camping on sidewalks and prohibit sleeping overnight in vehicles.
Akyuz, a Democrat, had opposed this vote; she wanted any action against camping to be coupled with better addiction treatment and mental-health services on Mercer Island. After she launched her novice candidacy, a well-known council incumbent, Lisa Anderl, decided to switch seats to run against her, presenting the island with a sharp contrast on the fall ballot. Anderl was pro–camping ban. In a three-way primary-election contest meant to winnow the field down to two general-election candidates, Akyuz ended up ahead of Anderl by 471 votes, with the third candidate trailing far behind both of them.