Sizing Up the State of Seattle Politics

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Image by youzx from Pixabay

Drawing voter attention to a seminal election during high summer in Seattle evokes a long-ago lament from one local minister: “Our congregation has its ups and downs this time of year.  They’re up in the mountains or down on the Sound.”

The electorate does have vital reasons to tune in, despite a dismal campaign.  The election in the Emerald City has unfolded along familiar lines. Candidates for Mayor and City Council court special interest groups at forums. It’s the politics of tell them what they want to hear, with genuine debate almost nonexistent. The pursuit of endorsements consumes inordinate time.

“We do the thinking for you,” The Stranger once told readers, touting its endorsements.  The Seattle Times has headed down the right lane, pretty much staying in that lane since Fairview Fannie touted reelection of gambling tolerance-policy kingpin, King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, when I voted in my first Seattle primary back in 1970. (Carroll lost.)

In the years since, while its reporting flourishes, the Times’ editorial page has boosted the election and reelection of would-be governors Dino Rossi and Rob McKenna; aspiring Attorney General Reagan Dunn; wannabe U.S. Sens. Rod Chandler and Mike McGavick; and hopeful Congresspersons John Koster and Dino Rossi – yep, him again. The paper boosted a bevy of losing Seattle City Council hopefuls two years ago.

Where do they get these candidates?  Of more consequence, why don’t Seattle voters strike out and make their own, better choices?  By endorsing a weak primary candidate in Cary Moon – a rich white woman who kept running down “white people” – The Stranger in 2017 shot down State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, who could have run even with and possibly beaten Jenny Durkan.

The Times, this go-round, is backing Bruce Harrell.  The Stranger, Publicola, MLKing County Labor Council, and Sen. Bernie Sanders are lined up on the left behind Seattle City Council President Lorena Gonzalez.  Every day, it seems, the Gonzalez campaign emails me another endorsement in case I missed it.

Voters should be taking a long, hard look at two other mayoral candidates, ex-Rep. Farrell with her record on transportation and role in shaping the state’s minimum wage, and ex-Chief Seattle Council executive director Colleen Echohawk, who has a superior record to the city in building affordable housing, in her case for the homeless Native community.

Tuning in isn’t easy.  Until the date of the primary was moved forward (August 3 this year), we were used to paying attention to politics starting with Labor Day. (A mid-summer “Hacks and Flacks” party did give campaign managers the opportunity to talk to each other.) Summer weather aside, this is a fine time to size up the state of Seattle, its increasingly hard-left politics, left-activist City Council and the revolving door mayor’s office on the seventh floor of City Hall.  Decisions we make with ballots stand to impact lives of a squeezed, discontented city that has added more than 100,000 residents since 2000.

As example, the new Seattle Mayor faces no more important task than to pick a new police chief.  It’s hard to think of drawing top-notch candidates after the City Council cut the Seattle Police budget and undercut Chief Carmen Best during last year’s Capitol Hill occupation crisis. A possible election result could put a new chief’s confirmation in the hands of a council with two members – incumbent Kshama Sawant and 2021 candidate Nikkita Oliver – who’ve accused Seattle Police of murder.

Voices on the left would put City Council actions of the past year on steroids. When Mayor Durkan told a presser that 250 officers have left the SPD in the last 17 months, Demand Progress campaign coordinator (and ex-Mike McGinn aide) Robert Cruickshank Tweeted: “Some good news today.”  A second missive: “Ten years after the latest police reform process began, Seattle police continue to be racist. They cannot be reformed. Time to defund and use that money to address public safety in an anti-racist way.”

Agree with him? After a weekend that witnessed multiple murders in the city?

New York voters, nearly one million strong, recently followed a different path.  Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams won the Democratic nomination for NYC Mayor on a platform of public safety, more police hiring, AND police reform.  Close runner up was Kathryn Garcia, a former sanitation commissioner touting her ability to competently govern.

The left turn in local politics has come at the expense of the “Seattle process,” which was ponderous but made the town work. “The thing about this city is that everybody needs to be consulted about everything,” the Very Rev. Fred Northup, former dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, once reflected.  “Process” produced, for example the business-labor panel that worked out Seattle’s plan ramping up to a $15-an-hour minimum wage, with phasing in for small business.

In this year’s campaign, however, we’ve seen Lorena Gonzalez make a big deal out of her refusal to fill out a candidate questionnaire from the Downtown Seattle Association.  The DSA understandably puts emphasis on restoring life to what was a vibrant downtown and magnet for the region.  But, says Gonzalez, courting The Stranger’s endorsement, “Big corporations have too much say.”

How can the city bring everyone to the table – a prerequisite for recovery – with a mayor who cold shoulders major employers?  A city divided against itself works only for benefit of professional dividers. Instead of “most livable,” our politics has descended into tactics of intimidation, as when anti-police protesters show up at councilmembers’ homes.  Sawant has consistently sought to strong-arm colleagues by packing council chambers.

Seattle used to get a lot of things right, albeit taking its time.  Protests in the 1960s challenged redlining and brought government services to the Central Area.  The City Council in the 1970s refused to let City Light invest in two Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear plants, a courageous act that later triggered the largest municipal bond default in American history. The Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square were not given over to parking lots.

The best recent legislator on the City Council, Tim Burgess, steered the city’s response to police reform requirements of the Justice Department’s consent decree. Burgess managed to bundle a balky, overmatched Mayor Mike McGinn onto a train leaving the station. Burgess also was architect of a preschool program that may finally narrow the city’s learning gap. We badly need a Burgess replacement.

The 2021 election offers voters an opportunity to take corrective action.  Surveys show a lot of anger out there, much of it directed at the City Council.  Does the city ratify and expand on the council’s behavior, a path taken by the Gonzalez campaign? Do we turn to Bruce Harrell, who is avuncular, supremely self-confident, and not one to rock the boat?

The Seattle left buys into class conflict, hoping to use the city as a laboratory for taxing employers, and targeting the police. Bernie Sanders has reason to be turned on by such an agenda. More likely, in my view, local voters want a city of safe parks and paths, where petty crime does not drive out small business, and where government delivers services better.

In summertime Seattle, the living is easy, but electoral homework beckons.  Do your own thinking. It’ll do the town good.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Wish it was Burgess himself running in that lane with Farrell as our final options…..and hope his housing option is passed.

  2. Excellent analysis of what looks to be more of what’s undermining the city—a centrist mayor and far leftist Council. And no real issue debate between mayoral candidates. What should Farrell and Echohawk do to break out and get a folllowing—late tho it is? And, if polls show the Council in deep disfavor, how should community groups work to install a Council majority that is intent on real problem-solving rather than performative leftism. And how to get rid of Sawant. Even her constituents must see her as extreme and disruptive.

  3. The lack of actual substantive debates between the mayoral candidates during this primary campaign has been absolutely disheartening. Remember in the days of yore when there used to be debates, with clarifying questions posed to the candidates by journalists who were striving to be even-handed? Seems so quaint now in this era of endless forums put on by highly ideological interest groups where all the questions are leading and the candidates all know there’s one expected “correct” answer to every question and there’s every incentive to stick to bland progressive bromides and not break from the pack.

  4. “Voters should be taking a long, hard look at two other mayoral candidates, ex-Rep. Farrell with her record on transportation and role in shaping the state’s minimum wage”

    Ms. Farrell’s “role in transportation” had nothing to do with how VMT is way down in Seattle, nor did it account for any of the regional GHG emissions reductions (down 20% last year). Those benefits stem from local employers using distributed workforces and the sharp drop off of business travel.

    This Mass. report on the future of work has lots of findings relevant to the Seattle area:

    https://www.mass.gov/doc/future-of-work-in-massachusetts-report/download

    Here are examples: “The report concludes that changing ways of working – such as hybrid and remote work – may shift the “center of gravity” away from the urban core.”
    “The shifting center of gravity away from the urban core will be especially significant to Boston/Cambridge; of the 245,000 net-inflow of commuters into Boston in 2019, 34% work in roles that could be performed remotely – higher than most other cities” Not higher than around Seattle though!

    Ms. Farrell is all about mass transit, which now increasingly is irrelevant to transportation needs because of remote work practices AND it is staggeringly expensive to households of little wealth because of the monumental levels of sales taxes.

    Ms. Farrell’s “role in transportation” is making things worse for Seattle residents and she’s still beholden to those overly powerful interest groups.

  5. Doubt if The Seattle Times actually endorsed “Bruce Farrell” (see sixth paragraph). Could it be that the Times edit board meant to endorse Jessyn Echohawk or Art Sixkiller? Inquiring minds want to know.

  6. I’m not sure returning to the Seattle Process, as Joel advocates, would go down well. One of the factors motivating the more extreme wings of the left and right is fury over how slowly we address (if at all) serious problems like climate change, income disparities, and tax reform. One outlet for this frustration is taking issues directly to the voters, which is happening with Recall Sawant and the Compassion Seattle charter amendment. It might happen with an effort to reform district elections and the way we elect Seattle’s school board. The other problem with restoring the Seattle Process is that it involved a willingness by labor and business to work out solutions and settle on a mayoral candidate acceptable to both sides. That willingness has been lost to polarization, aggravated by the left’s decision to make big business the big villain. The GOP has exiled moderate Republicans, and the Ds have sent “business Democrats” to Siberia.

  7. Jean: Typo noted, along with underlying lesson. When a scribe writes critically about or pokes fun at a politician, never do they forget. I delivered the chance to get zinged.

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