What Seattle Mayoral Candidates Should be Debating

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(Image: Wikimedia)

There are issues that ought to be prominent in Seattle’s mayoral debates, but so far are evaded. The absence is not a surprise. Candidates don’t like to debate serious issues seriously. Consultants advise against it, the public tunes out. Better to attack others than risk inviting attack, better to run on up-from-poverty biographies, better for one’s future elections not to name names or draw lines or make specific, measurable proposals. 

The result is agreement on abstract and aspirational issues (build more housing), blame-shifting, bland bromides, evading of real problems and specific solutions, wishful Plan A’s and an absence of realistic Plan B’s. That’s a shame. Mayors’ races, particularly when there is an open seat (as this year), are a great chance to air policy disputes and options, to educate an attentive electorate. Also, hold-me-to-it campaigns can produce a voters’ consensus for the next regime, as well as ways to measure performance. Ideally.

Yet so far there is little actual debate among the candidates for Seattle mayor.  (There are some exceptions, notably Bruce Harrell and Jessyn Farrell.) Most of all, the positions reflect rather than challenge Seattle’s progressive monoculture and the fear of provoking vehement personal attack from the guardians of that ideology. And so we get a predictable litany: Do more for homeless and for housing, deplore “sweeps,” reform the police and reassign their budgets, tax the rich, steer more programs to ethnic communities, waffle on the homelessness charter amendment, empower more people under the diversity-equity-inclusion banner, push labor’s and the social service agencies’ agendas, deplore gentrification, remember (but don’t fund) the basics, bash business and the establishment, blame Trump.

I’m reminded of an axiom once delivered to me, with a wink, by former Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott: “Never take campaign statements seriously.” 

So here’s a list of what candidates ought to be debating:

  1. Homelessness is the public’s main concern, and about three-quarters of Seattle voters (and maybe one-quarter of the city council) want to reduce the number of encampments on streets, parks, and public spaces. But nearly all of the mayoral candidates describe any action as a “sweep” that cannot be tolerated, or advocate building thousands of units of housing that cannot be afforded or sited in NIMBY nabes. Another evasion: the suburbs will step up to the plate. Or this deflection, defining homelessness as an “upstream problem” with our capitalist system, rather than a situation that can be managed (not “solved” or “ended”) more effectively. Question: Do you favor the Compassion Seattle charter amendment as a good blueprint — more housing (fast), more temporary housing, more services, more personalized clearances of sidewalk and park encampments — for moving ahead?
  2. Crime, particularly homicides, property theft, and street misbehavior, is getting worse, and the next mayor has to pick a new police chief. That chief will have to be a turnaround artist, given the see-no-evil consensus among politicians, the low morale and numbers at Seattle Police, and the overwhelming focus on race issues rather than performance. So: describe the qualifications of the next chief, the most important appointment a mayor makes. Which past Seattle chiefs have you admired and why?
  3. Modifying our new by-district elections for 7 of 9 city councilmembers. Since few on our council pay much attention to district issues (the money for campaigns comes more broadly), this new system has instead become a way of getting less-qualified people into office (lower barriers to election), ignoring downtown and broader issues, making candidates beholden to a few generous interest groups, expecially labor unions, fending off any attack from the left by going along with its demands — thereby staying in office forever.  The result has been a takeover of the council by inexperienced movement activists, not public-good brokers. How would the next mayor get along with such a council? Or lead it and the city?
  4. Spreading equity and diversity agendas too broadly. City Hall now applies this lens extensively, blurring the focus and minimizing actual gains. There are some areas — economic revival, quality education, reviving downtown, flourishing arts — where an equity-first agenda is less likely to be effective. For instance, a more equitable downtown faces hurdles of absentee landlords and high prices. Better to target some areas, such as schools and gentrification, and make real progress. How would you target, and where would you back off?
  5. Seattle Schools. The mayor needs to appoint a few of the seven members, as a way to get more seriously qualified people on the board and deal city perspectives into a deeply troubled School District. Our schools are re-segregating, the achievement gap remains stuck, the school board micro-meddles, and the board sets unrealistic equity goals and then fires the superintendent for missing them.  You can’t make progress without a strong superintendent who stays around for a decade. Does the new mayor have a strategy or say it’s not his or her concern?
  6. Aversion to planning. We don’t have a plan, or even a pre-COVID plan, for downtown. Developers dislike planning, and politicians run from it because they like doing deals themselves. Nor do we have design controls with teeth, the way Portland does. Nor do we have taxes and other incentives (such as development agencies and tax-increment financing) to control urban planning. Big issues remain unresolved in SoDo, Interbay. Big opportunities elude, such as bike lanes, rezoning single-family homes, importing Barcelona’s idea for superblocks, turning streets to plazas (as Andrew Yang wants to do for New York City). Adopting a plan angers losers and can get mired in process, but you can’t make big progress without a plan and leadership. So would you create an empowered city planner, the first one in 50 years?
  7. Basic services such as fixing potholes, caring for parks, rebuilding bridges. Yes, we’re way behind, but other priorities (with better constituencies) force a postponement. As a city of “islands,” many neighborhoods worry about being cut off, as happened with West Seattle. Time for a charter amendment to stipulate spending levels? How much would you increase spending locally and where would you get the money? Forward Thrust II?
  8. Stemming the Seattle exodus. As tech companies decamp to the Eastside, and middle-class families seek better schools, affordable housing, telecommuting and safety, where will we get Seattle tax dollars to support a widening menu of social services? In the past decade Seattle has been a highly favored superstar city, which has meant growth in population, jobs, and wealth. Many expect these cities will now face an exodus. In the past, the city’s boom-and-bust cycles created a civic pattern of just waiting for something good to turn up, as happened with Amazon. Do you have a plan for a post-tech strategy you could articulate?
  9. Downtown doldrums. Again, polling shows the voters are very concerned about the steep hills our downtown must climb, post-pandemic. Yet the council typically regards downtown issues as elite and “establishment,” and the district election system means only three of nine councilmembers have a downtown constituency. Some of the big problems could be managed better, as many other cities have shown by focusing on crime, encampments, shoplifting, dirtiness. loss of characterful retail. Some examples to enhance downtown livability and workability: close some streets to cars midday and weekends such as First Avenue, more schools and daycare and playgrounds to encourage families, encourage more sidewalk and parking strip uses, roll back retail requirement for new buildings (too much retail means struggling shops), adaptive reuse of hotels and office towers. What are your specific proposals?
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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.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks David for another thoughtful read. You asked for suggestions that might actually address Seattle’s challenges:
    1. Eradicating homelessness – The UW has one of the top schools of social work in the U.S. Yet, the City of Seattle does not engage with professional social workers to give homeless persons a ‘hand up’ vs. a handout. There should be one, two or three ‘camps’ where emergency shelter and wrap around services can be provided…It is an emergency so it shold be treated as such;
    2. Best SPD Chief was Patrick Fitzimmons
    3. Replace district elected council members with all citywide – You are correct unqualified people have ridden their ideological bent to get elected
    4. Spreading equity – Again, I yield to professional social workers who support those in the most need whether job training, grants, housing, tutoring – it has less to do with ethnicity than economic opportunity for those in the most need
    5. Seattle Schools and the City of Seattle should be partners to help those in need succeed. Could the city provide a tutoring mentoring program for for Seattle students in need, by engaging those with staggering student debt to reduce that debt via the community student tutoring program?
    6. Planning – Things have changed since the Norm Rice inspired urban village approach. Zoning should be dictated by the area’s ‘walkable score’…check out http://www.walkscore.com … for areas of the city’s 85+ square miles that have a walk score of 70 or higher should be zoned multi-family
    7. Basic Services – Rely on the experts who say Seattle’s bridges are in dire condition. It should not take fatalities to prompt action to repair bridges, streets and sidewalks. Finally some safety measures on the Aurora Bridge. Alex Pedersen’s audit should be taken seriously.
    8. The exodus from Seattle will cease when the city council and mayor seek out partnerships with business to eradicate problems and moreover to create projects/programs that support business and the community vs. the one-sided ideologically driven policies we see
    9. Downtown doldrums – Safety first followed by vibrant programs that showcase Seattle’s art scene from music to SAM the Market, Westlake Belltown
    Just some thoughts David.

  2. The current political leadership, the rich entities propping it up, and the laws it has been adapting for forty years are ossified. This system is a caricature of progressivism: the land use policies the GMA dictates (Seattle and other local governments must implement these), the local excessive and regressive taxing regime, transportation policies, etc. all are intended to enrich landlords in urban centers. No other state or metro region in the country has done this. Now with large employers learning downtown Seattle isn’t needed for productive operations, and skilled knowledge workers able and desiring to avoid it, we all are seeing how the CBD and SLU largely are irrelevant. None of the candidates for Seattle’s government offices now can articulate the implications for current city policies this business practices sea change wrought without losing support of the special interests that hold sway here, so they parrot the hackneyed themes Seattle politicians have been mouthing for decades. I’m an optimist. At some point a political candidate here will allude to the truth and acknowledge 1) the “commute to a downtown office daily” model of living that dominated highly-educated workforces since the late 1940’s is an historical artifact, and 2) fundamental changes need to be made to the land use and transportation policies of this city and region. Until then we’ll be hearing the faux-progressive platitudes now coming from campaigns.

  3. David, i hope this is well read and considered as these questions should be addressed.

    Think maybe the citizen control via charters is a right move, until a Democratic Populist wins and “Drains The Swamp”………..

  4. David,
    This is a great overview and I appreciate you putting it together however I think you underestimate the council when you refer to them as “inexperienced”. It implies they do not know what they are doing or do not realize the consequences of the legislation they continue to pass from the dais. I would argue they know exactly what they are doing. The progressive wing of the council is very clear in their intent and each piece of legislation they pass is another step towards their vision for this city. For example, they know they can not implement rent control outright so instead they continue to pass more and more restrictive tenant protection measures as they did yesterday. Looking at the current crop of candidates for mayor I don’t see anyone with the political clout and courage to push back on the council but there are several who will enable them.

  5. What I’m waiting for is it to show up in Seattle housing prices. They seem to be maintaining themselves very well so maybe the voters simply are ignoring City Hall or simply ignorant of City Hall. But I’m genuinely concerned. There’s something truly dangerous about the Seattle City Council.
    (Much as I love Biden, I think the Republicans have a really strong shot in ‘24….Yes that does relate to our local Council.)

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