Seattle City Politics: Locked between the Left and Left-Left

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A critical moment in Seattle’s political history was the failure to strike a late summer deal between Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President Lorena Gonzalez. The deal, centering on the Mayor’s veto of an activist-pleasing 2020 budget that the council passed, could have led to a productive truce. Its fizzle and ensuing bad feelings may polarize local politics for years to come — at a crisis time in the city.

Several factors led to this pivotal moment. First was the emotional reaction of the majority of the council to the racial justice protests, leading to the pledge to defund police, sorta, by 50%. Then came Police Chief Carmen Best’s sudden decision to defy the police cuts and quit, which produced a flurry of backpedaling by some councilmembers.

This change in the political weather from Chief Best’s bombshell at first produced several weeks of seeking a compromise between Gonzalez and Durkan. According to sources close to the Mayor, Durkan gave a good deal of ground and thought she had a deal with Gonzalez to let the mayoral veto stand and quickly adopt a half-loaf package. Two newly minted councilmembers, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis, seemed inclined to join Gonzalez, giving all three some cover. 

It was not to be. Furious lobbying by the organizations mobilized by the street protests strong-armed the three back into the veto-overriding majority of seven. It was largely a symbolic show of force, since the 2020 budget, coming late in the budget year, barely scaled back the police forces. But symbolic showdowns like this can shed a lot of political blood and poison chances for progress. The Durkan forces, including her business and moderate-left backers, felt betrayed. They, like the Mayor, have concluded that the council is incorrigible, at least for now. Now comes the higher-stakes battle over the 2021 budget, to be adopted over Thanksgiving. One city hall insider calls it “World War III.” 

With Congress and national politics polarized into stalemate at a time of multiple crises (pandemic, recession, racial justice, Trump mania), this local version of standoff hardly seems like the best course for Seattle politics. Instead, we are on the brink of falling into a protracted civil war between Center-Left and Left-Left. Complicating it all is the looming mayor’s race in 2021, and both sides are gearing up for this Gettysburg. 

The council majority is led by Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales on the Left-Left flank. Gonzalez, Mosqueda, and Lisa Herbold are stalwarts, with Strauss and Lewis (both very new to the job) possibly unsteady allies. The more moderate wing consists of Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen. In the 2021 elections, the two at-large candidates, Gonzalez and Mosqueda, are up for reelection, with each of them possibly running for Mayor.

The battle strategies can be described this way. The Left-Left majority thinks the city (full of young newcomers) is really going hard left, stirred up by the racial justice marches, hostility to Durkan, the Trump effect, and the well-organized, well-funded legions of the movement left. The recent Crosscut/Elway polling is ambiguous, with voters supporting Black Lives Matter but wary of Defunding the Police.

The Left-Left strategy might pay off, given enough time and a precipitating event such as another police shooting. They might also prevail because the Center-Left is so weakened. No organizations like the Municipal League or the League of Women Voters remain to fund candidates. No real mayoral candidate is apparent aside from Durkan, who is now beset with opponents. Also, moderate, public-interest candidates who could get elected flee the bitterness, the feuds, and the vicious attacks of being on the activist-dominated council. 

When Durkan was elected in 2017, she followed the familiar path in Seattle politics of seeking consensus particularly with a business-labor coalition, much as her father, Martin Durkan, did in Olympia. It worked for a while, particularly on police reform and coping with Covid. Then came the street protests. The Mayor could not find negotiating partners during the CHOP warfare, particularly as Black Lives Matter was pushed aside by white radicals. Labor is split between hard- and soft-left unions, and the business community, its nose bloodied in the 2017-19 council races, is demoralized.

Durkan ended up the major casualty of the CHOP Summer, with even fewer friends and a tattered base. The council majority, smelling blood, turned Durkan into a scapegoat. The Mayor is now drifting into a political strategy of letting the council go around the bend, drawing a firm line of difference (particularly over the Navigation teams), and then watching the council get blamed as backlash sets in. The other route would be to negotiate with the difficult Gonzalez, find some common ground, put together a working coalition on the council. Then get back to the more pressing questions of coping with the pandemic, the recession, Boeing’s out-migration, the need for revenue to plug budget holes, and dealing with our amazing disappearing downtown.

But is there a negotiating partner? Probably not after the collapse of the attempted late-summer deal. (Obama faced a similar problem of finding a tango partner with the Republicans.) And now? The city council seems determined to honor its pledge to activists to use the 2021 budget for imposing deep cuts on police. The council majority probably has the votes to defy the Mayor’s expected veto. Howls from residents will ensue, and some councilmembers might (as happened in Minneapolis) hustle to the center. That’s the big gamble.

Will Durkan, a tough, independent Irish pol, be there to welcome chastened councilmembers back to negotiatons? I doubt it.

Will Durkan give up on finding the center and go back to energizing her backlash base? I’d bet on that. 

Will either Mosqueda or Gonzalez be vulnerable to challengers in their 2021 races for council? The search is on.

Will Durkan decide to seek a second term? She seems inclined that way for now. And can Durkan rally enough of a base to get elected against an AOC-and-Jayapal-style opponent? And will the momentum of the Left-Left produce an unelectable mayoral candidate?

Big questions. It adds up to a discouraging political landscape as Seattle seems bent on street-fighting rather than fixing its deepening problems.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A quibble with your excellent analysis: I would not characterize the results of the recent Crosscut/Elway Poll as ambiguous.
    In Seattle, solid majorities of poll respondents supported the Black Lives Matter protests and believed there to be systemic racism in the police department. They supported reforms like re-allocating some of the police budget to community programs, more training and less use of force. But “defunding the police” or cutting their budget by 50% was a bridge too far. Nine out of 10 voters in Seattle wanted the same or more police presence in their neighborhood. And that support for more training included “keep[ing] the same number of officers.”
    Outside Seattle, there was more support for local police, but still majority support for the BLM protests and the same pattern of support for policing reforms, albeit less widely held (pluralities rather than majorities).
    Advocates for re-imagining policing have a way to go before the public is on board. Developing sustainable public policy requires that sizable majorities of voters first agree on the problem then agree on solutions. To gain the necessary public support, the solutions will have to match the problems as the voters define them. We are in the first phase of this process. Most Seattle respondents agreed that there is a policing problem and agreed with the nature of that problem.
    Moving into the solutions phase, most voters did not support an overhaul of the department, but did agree with proposed reforms, opening the door to a discussion of the details. In the long slog to sustainable public policy, that counts as significant progress.

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