The City Council Election: A Pox On Both Your Houses

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Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

As we enter the final days of the City Council election campaign, the candidates and their allies have coalesced into two camps, each with their own narrative. The “Progressive Left” says that the election is about whether we want to allow big business to run the city, while the “Moderate Left” says it’s about replacing an ineffective Council that prioritizes ideology over solving the city’s problems.

Two weeks ago Amazon, in an attempt to fortify the moderate-left’s message, kicked an own-goal by making a precedent-setting contribution to the Chamber of Commerce’s PAC and in so doing all but confirmed the progressive-left’s narrative.

This past week, the progressive-left returned the favor when Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez both endorsed Council member Sawant for re-election, after actively campaigning against her in the primary and harshly criticizing her for refusing to work with them because she saw them as “corporate Democrats.”

To both sides, I say this: just stop it. What you’re doing isn’t helping. In a city where nearly everyone is left of center, you’ve managed to polarize our politics and civic discourse to the point where we can no longer have thoughtful debates on policy issues. If this was fair Verona, then we’ve now reached the point in the story when the Duke would be laying down the law to both of you.

We all know how we got here, and there’s plenty of blame to spread around. Amazon notoriously spent years ignoring its responsibility to be an engaged, constructive corporate citizen while it reshaped South Lake Union (and the city as a whole) in its image. The City Council responded with a plan to tax Amazon and other big companies, branding the head tax an “Amazon tax” and staging a “progressive revenue task force” with a pre-ordained outcome to justify it — and then feigning outrage that Amazon dared to respond when directly attacked. But then after the Mayor brokered a compromise, a smaller head tax that by all reports the business community agreed not to fight, Amazon and other companies bankrolled a referendum effort and publicly humiliated the Council by forcing it to repeal the head tax. Council members Mosqueda and Herbold then flew to New York City to do their best to undermine Amazon’s attempt to establish “HQ2” there — and succeeded. And now Amazon has plowed nearly $1.5 million into a PAC to unseat two of the three incumbent Council members and install a replacement Council more to its liking.

We all get it: you despise each other. And there’s truth behind both of your narratives. Amazon is throwing its corporate muscle and wealth around too much, and the current City Council has recently become obsessed with placating its political base of unions and advocacy groups and issuing high-minded symbolic statements while making little visible progress on some of the city’s most pressing issues that affect both residents and businesses.

But now you’ve both committed to all-out war on each other, and you’re tearing our city apart. That’s right: our city. It’s not the City Council’s, nor is it Amazon’s. Remember us, the people who live and work here? The vast majority of us are left of center, and we agree on far more than we disagree on. We want more affordable housing. We want our homeless neighbors to get the help they need. We want cleaner, safer streets, and a clean, sustainable environment. We want good jobs, good benefits, good transportation, and a rich cultural life. We want equal opportunity for everyone. Sure, we have disagreements about how to achieve many of those things; in a diverse city, you get diverse viewpoints. But your obsessive battle with each other is making it harder to achieve our common goals, not easier.

Every time the progressive-left brands anyone who departs from its orthodoxy as “conservative,” it rips the stitches a little further. Every time the moderate-left declares City Hall to be “ineffective” and ignores the real accomplishments it has made, the gulf widens.

Here’s the nasty reality: there’s a recession coming, probably next year. When the bottom falls out under our local economy, we need to be united in our response. Your stupid, petty, political fight is all but assuring that we won’t be, and the most vulnerable people in our city will be the ones who suffer the most for your intransigence.

You’re our civic, economic, and political leaders; we need you to lead now. Be the better angels of our nature, take a moment for humble introspection, and call a political truce. Some have said that this election is a battle for the soul of our city. I hope they’re wrong, because simply allowing this battle to occur, let alone escalate, speaks more to what’s in our soul than the outcome does, regardless of which side “wins” on Election Day.

Once more, on behalf of all of us who are disgusted at what this election has become: just stop it, before this really does become a Shakespearean tragedy and you kill off the Seattle that we love.

18 COMMENTS

  1. “And now Amazon has plowed nearly $1.5 million into a PAC to unseat three incumbent Council members and install a replacement Council more to its liking.”

    Uh, no. Amazon is backing Juarez, one of the 3 incumbents running.

  2. “Recently becoming obsessed with placating its political base of unions”….This has been going on for quite a while and goes all the way to DC via Jayapal.

  3. Kevin,
    I think you’re generally right. The regional problems Seattle is in the epicenter of are not all of Seattle’s making. Some of the blame falls squarely on State Legislature (aka “Olympia”, which is actually also a municipality) and Tim Eyman initiatives handicapping the state plus local governments. Some of the blame also falls on incumbents not communicating civic successes well if at all – such as getting Alex Tsimerman banned for a year at a time from City Council, hiring a female police chief of color, and working towards constitutional policing.
    On the other hand, when average citizens experience homelessness with all of its moral and environmental and economic issues in their neighborhood or have contact with one of the 100 most prolific offenders or experience Alex Tsimerman at a federated board (e.g. Sound Transit, Puget Sound Regional Council) or have to suffer thru “The Seattle Process” to have basic bicycle infrastructure stopped the failure is right there. Heidi Wills, Phil Tavel and Ann Davison Sattler are the best hopes to lead the repairs to fix all of this.
    I just hope folks can learn this old trick called patience. It’s going to take time to clean up the mess, and it seems likely the mess is only going to get worse for a while before it gets better – and more money is needed but not the only fix. Not exactly an optimistic note, but an honest one.

  4. Apart from the misquote (It’s “a plague on both your houses.”) a very good assessment of the situation. Local politicians should make general ideological statements on their own time. And we can’t continue to be an Amazon company town.

  5. Out of curiosity, how would you prefer we refer to Democrats who receive large contributions from a trillion-dollar corporation and in turn do that corporation’s bidding? “Corporate Democrats” is so gently descriptive as to almost be a euphemism; there are far harsher words for what is actually being done here.

    Meanwhile, comparing activists with little to no wealth and limited access to power with people who being bankrolled by the richest man on earth is disingenuous at best.

  6. I see a lot of it being egged on by the Tim Eyman style conservatives who don’t actually live in Seattle, but are obsessed with Seattle politics, and tend to have an outsized voice and influence in local media.

    I’m not saying that everyone who doesn’t like the City Council is a conservative, but any discussion, especially online, you end up with some conservative guy who has never lived in Seattle ranting about the “socialist city council”. From there all reasonable debate tends to go out the window.

    The primary results show how off kilter the debate is. The incumbents didn’t do great, but they did way better than you would think if you were listening debate in the media, which again is dominated by people who live outside the city limits and can’t vote.

  7. Well I live in the CD. I’m elderly and African American. This Council has decimated my community with their asinine policies. They say they mean well but even when you explain unintended consequences, they go ahead anyway because they think they know best.

    They add insult to injury by claiming to be for social justice when everything they’re doing is screwing black and brown people and seniors right over. With social security and a small pension from Alaska, I make too much to qualify for senior exemption but not enough to live without help from my kids.

    I skip meds so I can pay taxes in order to provide free needles, injection sites and all kinds of other freebies to drug addicts who rob, steal, break into our cars and trash our neighborhoods. And then there’s the bangers. Its as if the Council doesnt care at all about the health and safety of the rest of us. They keep raising property taxes and utilities and then wondering why housing is unaffordable.

    If I didn’t have grandkids in the area, I’d have moved out a long time ago. If this Council is reelected, I’m doing so anyway. My grandkids are getting older and I can’t take this crazytown anymore.

  8. I completely agree that our municipal politics has become needlessly polarized, and we would all do well to step back from the brink. The problem with this analysis is its assumption that both sides of the fight are equally committed to ideological brinksmanship. I don’t think that’s quite right.

    One side of this fight generally believes in a politics oriented towards consensus and compromise, and prioritizes making incremental progress over ideological purity; the other side generally sees politics as inherently adversarial, a battle of white hats against black hats, and privileges standing strong for ideological purity over accepting what is possible.

    This fight wouldn’t be happening at all if “compromise” hadn’t become a dirty word — synonymous with “selling out” — on the second floor of City Hall.

    • What is this group that favors consensus and compromise? The anti-city council crowd has behaved like an angry mob repeatedly… Especially the NIMBY crowd. Maybe you mean some particular narrow subset of people you perceive as reasonable.

      On the city council side, Sawant isn’t a big compromiser, but she’s one council member out of 9. She’s frequently voting in opposition to the rest.

      I think in some ways, the unreasonableness of the anti-city council narrative has come from the insistence of characterizing everyone on the left as a fanatic. The absolute refusal to acknowledge that the current city council has a long list of accomplishments.

      Again, you say one side is reasonable, but the conservative groups saying we should send all the homeless to live on harbor island don’t sound that reasonable to me. Maybe those aren’t your views, but the most extreme views on the left aren’t mine either.

  9. “Every time the moderate-left declares City Hall to be “ineffective” and ignores the real accomplishments it has made,”

    Examples of which would be what, exactly? The EHT? The “Save The Showbox” lawsuit? (Those both passed without an opposing vote, BTW; so much for CM Sawant being alone!) Your narrative also forgot the tens of thousands of citizens who signed the Referendum petitions to repeal the EHT. Amazon can’t force anyone to sign.

    This Council has failed our City, and should just go away. Bring on some people who might actually listen to real citizens, not just to self-appointed ‘activists’ who demonize the rest of us for daring to note the failures of our Council.

    • CD4LIFE, I don’t believe you’re an African American living in the CD. If you were, you’d know that Madrona, CD and most of Rainier Valley was almost 100% black. In fact white people used to be scared to go south of I-90 or anywhere near Rainier or Empire (now MLK).

      Helen’s, DeCharleyne’s beauty salon, Thompson’s Point of View, Earls. All gone. Practically everyone still around has moved to Kent, Renton, Auburn and even as far as Tacoma. Heck even First AME and all the other smaller churches.

      Do you remember when Quincy Jones had to intervene to stop my friend and local jazz legend from losing her home in a property tax sale? Can you name her? Of course you can’t because you’re fake as a 3 dollar bill. Property taxes is the number one reason. And upzoning is the next. These, along with tech zillionaires bidding everything up, are the things that led to gentrification. Why else would people leave their homes, churches and communities to move to the boonducks?

      Because of freaking gentrifiers, lying sacks of white like you, that’s why!

  10. I too live in the CD. I’m not elderly, I’m a parent. And my grandma lives in the CD too, on a fixed income. She’s 86 and she has been here since the early 1970’s. We don’t want to leave! The CD is home and city council is not the reason the community has been decimated. If anything, council is the only group in gov trying to put a halt to all the harm being done by greedy people who are willing to rip and sell the entire soul of the neighborhood. I respectfully disagree with you. You don’t represent anyone but your own views, don’t pin your opinion on black people. I’m not even certain your comment is real…”and then there’s the bangers?” Huh? If you happen to move, I hope you sell to a family of color.

  11. I wonder if part of the problem of polarization is the absence of effective leadership. One place to look is the city council president, appointing good committee chairs, running meetings effectively, sticking to an agenda and priorities. (We’re about to have a donnybrook over the next council president, by the way.) The other place to look is the Mayor, who can set an agenda and organize a working majority on the council, as well as lead the public to supporting significant measures. The city council has always been fractious, and it can get more so when it feels dissed by the mayor (as happened with Mayor Nickels and Mayor McGinn), and when a weak mayor prompts many councilmembers to dream about ascending to the mayor’s office (Mayor Royer’s third term, Mayor Schell). I think we need to fix things the old fashioned way (effective, Pelosi-style leadership) rather than waiting for some miraculous change in our culture.

  12. Good op-ed. I get some odd looks when I tell people I strongly support Herbold and Sawant and also Pedersen. The polarization you describe so well is very destructive of both good governance and left liberal advocacy.

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