This story in Crosscut provides a valuable survey of the rise, fall, and sorta-rise again of the bike lobby. It’s a classic example of a new force in politics, its over-extension and internal dissension, and its regrouping after backlash sets in. In this case, the major backlash was over extending bike lanes to 35th Ave. NE, right through the bastion of well-lawyered neighborhood protectionists.
It used to be in Seattle 20-50 years ago that the organizations with clout were: developers, municipal unions (especially police and fire), other unions like the Teamsters, civic organizations such as the Municipal League and the League of Women Voters, The Seattle Times, and assorted neighborhood and anti-freeway activists. Most of these (except developers and unions) are losing clout. Interest groups have a half-life of about 30 years in the fluid, non-partisan world of Seattle politics.
The new groups with clout began to make themselves felt at the ballot box with the election of Greg Nickels in 2001, and particularly Mayor Mike McGinn in 2009. Among the new major players: Service Employees International Union 775 and its shrewd leader David Rolf, term-limited in his post; the culinary workers union; the nightlife lobby (who succeeded in getting elected the City Attorney Pete Holmes); the bike lobby; the density hawks such as Transportation Choices (tied into Sound Transit’s political machine and with developers); gays and The Stranger alliances; poverty agencies; deep-green organizations such as the Sierra Club (newly energized by the urgency of addressing climate change); Latinx organizations; and the low-income housing and social-service groups.
Neighborhood groups and homeowners are energized by the impacts of too much density and the homeless population, but they remain scattered and disorganized, with no real leader on the council. Business groups have long been unable to unify Seattle and Eastside companies, or big corporations and small business. Recently the Downtown Seattle Association and industry-specific groups such as the Technology Alliance have stolen some of the thunder from the Chamber of Commerce.
Mayor Ed Murray, a veteran of legislative politics in Olympia, tended to welcome and reward new groups with clout, particularly unions, but he was a difficult and temperamental ally. Mayor Jenny Durkan also cultivates rising groups with power. But Mayor Durkan also is inclined to cut back on unrealistic commitments made by Mayors McGinn (a bike and density guy) and Murray (scripted by unions). She is facing serious pushback on crime and homelessness and ugly apartments and micro-regulations of small business.
One way to think about the politics of the past 20 years is that the “movement left” (labor, greens, social-justice groups) has been in control of the mayor’s office and city council, after the more broad-based and business-friendly regimes of Mayors Paul Schell, Norm Rice, and Charles Royer. The past 20 years has meant more spending (fueled by all the tax revenue from real estate) directed to homelessness, transit, ethnic groups, and low-income housing. It has also been two decades of quasi-labor regulations for the broad economy (minimum wage, scheduling requirements, family leave). Commercial developers have a field day under the density banner. The police are tied in knots by union resistance to federally-forced reforms.
Now the movement left may have reached its half life. The City Council, particularly the business-bashing Kshama Sawant, is so unpopular that four incumbents (of seven) chose not to seek re-election this year. Many Boomer-idealists who staff city hall are retiring. The Chamber of Commerce, after years of going along with the progressive agenda (in order to have a voice at the table), is now much more oppositional. Companies such as Amazon, which has put $400,000 into the effort to get a more pragmatic city council, are now fully mobilized. A new coalition of business interests and neighborhood activists, People for Seattle, has been created to fund centrist candidates.
The center-left forces were slow in organizing for the 2019 race, and the likely outcome is that the city council will remain divided between the movement left and the center-left, with figures such as Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) and Lorena Gonzalez (at large) as power brokers. I put Teresa Mosqueda (citywide) and likely winner Tammy Morales (Southeast Seattle) firmly in the movement-left camp; while Debora Juarez (north end) and likely victor Alex Pedersen (Laurelhurst and NE Seattle) hold down the moderate wing. The other viable candidates are much harder to predict. Think three (left)-three (swing)-three (moderate) on the council.
Mayor Durkan’s heart is with the center-left coalition, but she will continue to be a straddler in this big divide, accumulating disappointed voters in this purist and polarized age. Forecast: partly cloudy and unstable. The real showdown will be delayed until the 2021 election, when Durkan will draw serious opposition and may decline to run.