In Seattle’s civil war between coalitionist liberals and divisive radicals, the former gained some ground in the November election, but the latter kept control of the City Council and narrowly beat back an effort to recall Kshama Sawant. The standoff will probably continue to define our stalemated politics for the coming year.
One reason that liberals have a steep hill to climb is the absence of organizational heft to build a broader and more sustainable base of support. So many of those integrative institutions the city used to have have faded away: Allied Arts, the Municipal League, the League of Women Voters. Those organizations built support networks, refined public positions, established networks of young talent, and fed ideas into the media landscapt (tearing down the Viaduct, saving Pioneer Square buildings, limiting building heights, rail transit, growth management). These groups could be quite small, but in those earlier days of a more tightly inter-related Seattle and a compelling narrative of urban renaissance, they had a lot of clout, moved the civic needle, and launched many careers.
Those days are gone, and the earlier broad-based action coalitions have faded. Absent organizational clout, reformers get little traction and become whining societies. Public-interest gains have become modest and discouraging on such immense issues as crime, housing, homelessness, and effective governance. Our politics is in a terminal funk.
There are three Seattle examples of when effective organizations were created to push for broad-based — and hence lasting — changes for the better. Each holds some lessons for such an institutional revival today.
Three Seattle Coalitions for Change
1884 and the Apple Orchardists. In this era and aided by the state’s giving women the vote in 1883, reformers grew tired of the wide-open town, the hold of the saloon trade over politicians, and lax enforcement of liquor laws. A call went out to reformers to form a committee and create a slate for the election of 1884. The meeting was held amid apple trees, hence the name Apple Orchardists. Their mayoral candidate, John Kinnear, lost to John Leary, but other reformers won.
The Apple Orchardists quickly touched off a reaction, particularly when they closed saloons on Sunday and when the national economy hit an air pocket. Soon, the business candidate for mayor, Henry Yesler, tossed out Orchardists, and the public lost its appetite for reform. (My source for this is a fine short book, Seattle in the 1880s, by my Post Alley colleague David Buerge.)
Some patterns in the Apple Orchard: Women were key drivers. “Respectable” and family-focused issues like temperance and Sunday closing were strong motivators. Corruption and bloat (patronage) at city hall were another organizing theme. And reform groups prompted quick backlash and had a short half-life, so they need to move fast.
1935 and the New Order of Cincinnatus. We are in the heart of the Depression, with leftist and Communist groups on the rise. Mayors had a hard time surviving the crossfire, and Mayor Frank Edwards was recalled in 1931 for firing J.D. Ross, the revered head of City Light. The leftist Unemployed Citizens League helped elect John F. Dore as mayor, but he got in trouble with his base for laying off city workers. A conservative group in the Municipal League (a Progressive-Era good-government group) formed the New Order of Cincinnatus in 1933, restricting membership to men under 35 and pushing for reduced taxes and purging left radicals. The group launched the career of Arthur Langlie, who trounced bandleader Vic Meyers in the mayor’s race of 1938.
Again, this group did not have a long life, though Langlie served as mayor and as governor (for three terms) and cemented moderate Republicanism in the state and city. If Seattle in the 1880s was overwhelmed by racist efforts to expel Chinese, Seattle in the 1930s initiated the rise of Dave Beck, who pretty much ran the town from 1936-56, using the strong-man promise of labor peace. Lessons to take: focus on young people, organize around resisting the far left, and rally behind a rising leader.
1967 and the rise of CHECC. Seattle was stirring to modern life, roused by the 1962 World’s Fair. Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC) was created in 1966 by young lawyers, young architects, and equal parts young Democrats and Republicans. They threw parties, discussed issues, networked among the ambitious, rising professionals (many of them imports) and decided to pool funds and support to elect two reform city councilmembers each election cycle, shaking up the low-tax, low-energy “musty, crusty city council.” Each election included endorsements for one Democrat and one Republican, which began with success for Democrat Phyllis Lamphere and one Republican Tim Hill in 1967. The story is beautifully told in HistoryLink by one of its early leaders, Democratic attorney Peter LeSourd.
By 1973, the CHECC candidates had a 5-4 majority of the city council as well as a progressive Mayor Wes Uhlman and a boatload of new federal money. In 1980, Chris Bayley, a Republican founder of CHECC, toppled the conservative and feared Republican boss in King County, Prosecutor Charles Carroll, capping the reform movement. CHECC had some issues to fill their sails: fighting freeways, saving the Pike Place Market, funding arts. But the bipartisan approach didn’t last long, and the CHECC agenda was an amenities platform (such as undergrounding wires, fighting billboards, allowing sidewalk cafes) that meant it was too silent on divisive issues like equality, race, and schools.
Paralleling CHECC was Allied Arts, which focused on design issues such as saving old buildings, funding the arts and historic preservation, and enhancing street life. It helped make arts a major component of the World’s Fair and Seattle Center, and it was a vehicle for rising politicians such as future mayor Paul Schell. But it fell into division between the founding generation and a smaller activist cadre.
Civic organizations 1960-80 grew in clusters as Seattle aspired to be a modern, pace-setting city. The League of Women Voters was a notable training ground for women, and a source of courageous studies of local issues. The Municipal League (born in 1910) briefly became a powerful, well-staffed convener to solve problems (notably school desegregation), and an influential evaluator of candidates. Again, a short half-life: Once the law firms stopped funding the Municipal League generously and sending young associates to join, it faded into insignificance.
These relatively short-lived organizations really do galvanize a network of reform-minded, energetic, ambitious young activists. They normally have some defined and achievable goals (winning the next election, saving the Market, enacting open-government laws). They arise from a semi-conservative impatience with corruption or ideological polarization or crime, but they are soon made more effective by ripening into pluralistic and non-ideological groups. Also, the conservative start helps with early funding. Someone has to drive it, but in an inclusive, additive way. And these spurts are fueled by an underlying moral desire to make Seattle into a more just and better city. It also helps if there are clear villains, like the highway lobby or the old Central Association, to take the bait.
Can it happen again? One problem is that we may be crippled by our economic success. Seattle has certainly achieved major-city stature, and there is (so far) no economic crisis as in the 1880s and 1930s or the 1960s Boeing Bust. The major issues of the day (equity, racial justice, homelessness, climate change, school reform) are too vast — manageable but not solvable. Another obstacle: Millennials are deeply distrustful of institutions. Political breadth and compromise seem anathema to ambitious rising political leaders, who know that the Left is far better organized for support and new ideas. Local civic organizations, once much more nonpartisan, are now forcibly aligned on the Left (unions, greens, minorities, media, arts, churches, social-service nonprofits) and impatient with moderate heresies. And what’s left to reform? Freeways have been stopped, the Market has been saved, arts are thick — so where is the urgency to rally young idealists?
Daunting obstacles, to be sure. But perhaps there is inspiration from the periodic civic coalescing that once moved Seattle forward and found strength in numbers. These public-interest organizations spring up every 30 years: Apple Orchardists in 1880s, Municipal League and Progressive reforms in 1910s, Cincinnatus in 1930s, CHECC and others in 1960s, Commons and Monorail and Viaduct in the 1990s.