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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?