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Sunday, May 31, 2020

What Seattle Got Right: The New Establishment Shows Its Stuff

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

A remarkable achievement in the past month has been the emergence of what might be called the New Seattle Establishment. I count at least four areas where these new leaders have impressively stepped up, often leading the nation in pandemic responses. The four areas are global medicine, global businesses, the new wealth, and political teamwork.

Global Medicine. This story is told in a deeply reported New Yorker article that compares the way Seattle tamped down the coronavirus attacks, as opposed to the much less successful, tardy, and politically bumbling approach of New York City.

Seattle’s impressive medical organizations moved swiftly. This story of strong science, cooperation, and global connections begins when Dr. Francis Riedo, an infectious disease specialist at Kirkland’s Evergreen Health, spots that “it’s begun” and swings into action and sounds the alarm. These medical heroes followed a national protocol that stressed a communications strategy, edged the politicians off the stage, and deployed the vast global connections of this research-rich city.

There was a lot of good luck. Many of the key medical scientists were graduates of the CDC’s protocol program, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, so they knew the drill and shared a bond. By a fluke (and with a little defiance of national advice), they confirmed an early case that showed that the coronavirus was infecting the area broadly. It had begun. What followed was a breathtaking example of shrewd improvising-on-the-fly among deeply learned experts. It makes for a stirring and heroic story.

Global Corporations. The second, reinforcing saga is told in a deeply reported, gripping Fortune article that focuses on the way our global business community was also quickly off the

mark, impressively coordinated, and able to tap global connections to get equipment and scientific advice. One learns how Dr. Tom Lynch, only four weeks into his job as head of the Hutch, spots the early symptoms and sets an impressive medical/business network into action.

One of the key players turns out to be former Gov. Chris Gregoire, who deployed the Challenge Seattle network of big-company CEOs, which she heads, to round up equipment, keep on script, and clear up bottlenecks by a timely call to the White House. Gregoire’s friend, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, showed once again how he is the dean of business leaders in this region. It’s enough to make you (kinda) proud of our local corporate bigfeet, and also a bit worried about how big business has reclaimed the political agenda.

New Wealth. My third story is about an effort named All-In-Seattle, which was another lightning-fast effort to raise millions for relief in certain key areas (small business, housing, families, food). It began with only a dozen friends who cooked up the idea of asking their friends to donate. It has raised $30 million in just a few days. Friends know wealthy friends, not surprisingly, and these donors respond when asked by friends they trust, then being able to select a category and pick favorite charities.

Why so fast and so generous? The urgency of the frozen economy is the prime reason. But also, note that the money flows directly to the organizations you pick, and not through some complicated granting bureaucracy. Here may be important lessons for how to tap the new, tech-based wealth, which has have proven elusive for many fund drives. The list of donors is full of familiar names (Ballmer, Allen, Shirley, Gates, Hanauer, Wrights, Sinegal) and many from the fabulous new wealth in the region (Bezos, Nadella, Alberg, Schultz, McIlwain). At last!

Political Teamwork. The first example of this, as contrasted with Manhattan and the White House, is how much the local political leadership left it to medical experts to be out front stage and drive the unified messaging. It helps that we are now a one-party state, and the stepping down of the mavericky House Speaker Frank Chopp may also be a collaborative boost. Add some genuine friendships: Mayor Durkan with (former client) Gov. Gregoire and with County Executive Dow Constantine. Gov. Jay Inslee has greatly roused himself and created a playbook, driven by medical science, that others have followed, at least so far. The Republicans, unencumbered by any kind of serious race for governor this fall, also went along until some recent dissents over re-opening.

Mostly, I suspect, the shock of the pandemic put aside (for now) the kind of brutal struggles over funding cuts and priorities that are sure to follow. It’s helpful, as well, that there are no internal party struggles over high office, once Inslee declared his desire to seek a third term and the major Democratic aspirants had to fold their tents.

Laggards

Impressive as all of the above coherence and boldness and velocity were, some sectors did not keep up.

  • One is the Seattle School District, which put its equity concerns way above responding to the need for students (and parents) to move rapidly to good distance learning.
  • My sense is that the struggling Chamber of Commerce, still unnerved by its dramatic defeats in the recent Seattle City Council races, found itself upstaged by Challenge Seattle, where the big CEOs dine and scheme.
  • The Seattle City Council, still finding an agenda for its new progressive majority and trying to break free from the Kshama Sawant bullhorn, is pretending there’s enough money to feed a promise-rich council. Reality will bite soon!
  • Arts groups, momentarily sustained by PPP federal grants, also lack an experienced, trusted leader, as well as a political champion.

My early conclusions from all these dramatic developments? It was a moment of emergence for the new business forces of the region, though it may not have momentum. Some of these corporate powerhouses did well enough to fend off (or help shape) calls for new taxes and populist anger. Seattle’s iconic companies (and particularly Bill Gates) have regained status as national media darlings. Ad hoc strike forces have more appeal for fleetness and disruption than stodgy institutions. It’s a little too top-down to be sustainable in Seattle’s lefty mood.

If the mood and the gratitude last, Seattle’s love affair with globalism is not fading. Our science- and technology-based economy has proven its social benefits, at least in this moment of crisis. Lastly, our political leaders will be tempted to take credit for what other sectors have done, rather than be galvanized into boldness and unity.

The home team is on a roll, but you can’t win ’em all!

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is an excellent story that The Seattle Times missed completely. Did they fear that hints of approval for Seattle’s response would frame their reporters as small town Babbitts, rather than worldly, streetwise investigators?

  2. David, I appreciate your perspective on the excellent work that is happening in Seattle right now. We are indeed fortunate to live in a city filled with many heroes.

    However, to say that arts groups were laggards in their pandemic response is incorrect. The arts sector in our region has shown incredible ingenuity and resourcefulness.

    To wit: Artist Trust, 4Culture, ArtsFund, and many others pivoted immediately, pausing everyday work to respond directly to the emergent needs of individual artists and organizations. They created rapid relief funds, and within a week or two were distributing significant financial relief to artists across our state, sending money out to individuals well before any SBA or PPP loans were issued.

    Artists, galleries, performance space, and museums in King County have developed robust online access to exhibitions and other cultural opportunities, including Art-Walks, openings, artist talks, studio visits, art classes, and more. More than 30 gallerists from the Greater Seattle area have collaborated on plans to ensure safe public access to their spaces, and are, as a group, working together to be considered as low-risk businesses as the state develops plans for reopening.

    And these are just a few, off the top-of-my-head examples.

    Our region’s arts businesses and organizations were among the earliest to recognize the depth of impact in the cultural sector and have banded together to impressive effect, leading the way in providing much-needed aid while simultaneously developing compelling and accessible digital content for our new reality.

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