X-Factor: Is Seattle’s Sleeping Giant Stirring?

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nothing like a roaring recession to focus the mind on economic recovery, and to goad the Seattle-area business community to bestir itself. Let me cite the ways. And the obstacles.

Challenge Seattle challenges the Guv. The group, now five years old and consisting of CEOs of 20 local mega-companies, has just put pressure on Gov. Inslee in the form of a six-point plan (more covid testing, help for small business, reopening elementary schools). Inslee quickly found another $85 million for relief. The letter broke the spell in which Inslee mostly avoided criticism since he did well on public health and by contrast with the hapless Trump. No more.

Challenge Seattle was started in 2015 as a way to get local CEOs at least talking about public issues at occasional dinners. (Jeff Bezos was a predictable no-show.) The driver was Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, who is the dominant business figure in the region. Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Smith pal, was signed up to lead Challenge Seattle. At first its nostrums were pretty familiar fare (ease congestion, help higher ed, recruit more foreign investment), but since the coronavirus hit, it has found its stride. Originally a five-year experiment, the members recently voted to continue at least five more years.

The Challengers have three problems. It’s very elitist, since you have to be a CEO of a large company to be invited, and you can’t send underlings. Second, these people spend a lot of time on airplanes and tending to global empires. Third, muscling into the region’s economic development turf created a good deal of resentment, which went along with the ruffled feathers from Gregoire’s take-charge style. 

Changes at the Chamber. The Chamber of Commerce initially blessed the idea of the Challenge, only to find itself eclipsed by it. The Chamber has had a lot of problems recently. It was demoralized after it lost badly on its gamble to try to boot out the progressive wing of the Seattle City Council. It has eggs in too many baskets, and lost focus on a few big issues. Marilyn Strickland was brought in from being Tacoma mayor to run the place but she didn’t really know the players (she’s just been elected to Congress from the Tacoma-Olympia district). The Chamber was mostly playing defense, and meanwhile the region coasted on Amazon’s economic wings.

Suddenly, after a protracted executive search, the Chamber has a very promising new leader, Rachel Smith, who is deep in local political experience working for Mayor Greg Nickels, Sound Transit, and Executive Dow Constantine, where she was recently in charge of COVID relief efforts. The Chamber has almost become a branch of local government (and nonprofits) — a downside of its many-baskets approach — so Smith’s deep political connections will be a benefit. The gamble is how well she will do on business and economic issues — where the Chamber has been gun-shy, given Seattle’s suspicion of business — and whether the Chamber can be restored to health.

Seattle Politics, Again. Numerous groups are maneuvering to reoccupy the center of Seattle politics and to find good candidates for the 2021 election, where the mayor, two at-large councilmembers (Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda), and City Attorney Pete Holmes are on the ballot. As you can imagine, convincing good candidates to aspire to City Hall, the land of feuds, is no easy task, and the progressive movement is organized and ready to pounce. The big question — will Mayor Durkan seek a second term? — remains unanswered, as is the question of whether either or both councilmembers Gonzalez and Mosqueda will seek a new term or angle for the mayor’s chair.

The Pendulum. Some factors might swing the council back to a more pragmatic stance, as opposed to the current performative Leftism of the majority. One is clearly the economy, especially Boeing and the sorry state of downtown. Another factor is the overreach of the council majority, particularly on defunding police and permissiveness on crime and homelessness. As in other cities, the pendulum is clearly nudging away from the emotional pledges of the Black Lives Matter protests and demands, and the council is backpedalling (maybe enough, maybe too late?). The special tax on Amazon has reportedly infuriated Bezos, who is said to have quietly ruled that there will be no expansion in Seattle. 

X-Factors. One of the big showdowns in Olympia in the 2021 session will be whether the Democrats are able to enact new taxes, either a high-earner payroll tax like Seattle’s or a tax on capital gains. As revenue forecasts get rosier, the urgency diminishes for a new tax. Democrats didn’t gain seats in the last election (the expectation is one reason they avoided a special session), but they did gain more liberals. My guess is the Democrats will direct eyes to Uncle Joe’s D.C. and therefore edge away from a statewide increase.

And does Gov. Jay really care about and know enough about Seattle? The distance is fairly great from the liberal heartland in Seattle to the anti-Seattle gatherings in Olympia, particularly as Seattle dailies have dropped coverage of Olympia. Since Dan Evans, Seattle has relied more on its own funding and help from the Potomac. Governors (aside from Mike Lowry and Gary Locke, both with county bases) have not really been rooted in Seattle. Inslee has a chance to shake up his quite-insular staff and open diplomatic relations. Legislative leaders for the Democrats are Andy Billig in the Senate, co-owner of a Spokane minor league baseball team, and Tacoman Laurie Jinkins in the House, an expert in public health. Not a lot to work with there.

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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.

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