Galvanized: When Seattle’s Civic Institutions Made Us Better

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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.

What next?

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.

We’re overdue. 

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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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The “Bandwagon” has sailed……..New reformers (socialists) have captured the power by convincing the masses that we are compassionate and can and should do better.
    The elimination of personal responsibility by our drugged culture has led us to a thinking that allows us to seek rather than to earn. This is true in the poor, rich, and in-between .

    Seattle WAS a great place to live and succeed through ambition .

  2. Bill Stafford, an acute observer of local politics, sends in this important point.

    “The broader-based organizations have been replaced by single-issue groups who will not compromise. These groups even have stubborn subgroups, such as housing for homeless vs mental health. Seven district members of the Council are up in less than two years. The recent election and the close recall seem to show a changed mood in the voters. The interesting question: Will the recent votes have any impact on the ones running for re-election?”

  3. 1. The city council was stripped of primary authority over land use (via the state Growth Management Act) and transit (via state laws creating the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle/King County and Sound Transit). The city council also recently ceded control of the homelessness response to the new regional body. Unofficially the city government gave up prosecuting street crimes and misdemeanors. It’s become in key respects ceremonial, kind of like the British royal family.

    2. As Gil Scott-Heron foretold, the revolution was not televised. The spark for the revolution in Seattle two years ago was Covid, and large employers and most of populace became the insurgents that toppled the governments’ elaborate plans for downtown Seattle to continue growing as the regional economic engine. Business (and public administration) now don’t happen where the reactionary officials and longstanding civic institutions have been planning for it to happen — Seattle’s multitudinous economic engines are widely-dispersed throughout the city as residents now work primarily from their residences.

  4. I misstated the date for Chris Bayley’s toppling of Charles O. Carroll in the King County Prosecutor’s primary. It was 1970, not 1980. Carroll was the leader of the conservatives in King County, so his removal was a boon to the Dan Evans’ side of the GOP.

  5. The major issues of the day (equity, racial justice, homelessness, climate change, school reform) are too vast — manageable but not solvable.”

    As a lifelong atheist I have been struck by the complex place of religion in our city. Predominantly white churches are being torn down and sold to developers at a breathtaking rate. Smaller Black churches have been gentrified out of the city. A majority of residents identify as non religious. And yet the worst of religion, it’s moral certitude and inflexibility, has been taken up by the left as an operating system. Omitted is the signature value held by liberal activist churches: tolerance. Only with tolerance can you build coalitions. Your story of Republicans and Democrats working together is unimaginable here today.

  6. I accidentally deleted the second paragraph while editing:

    “Equity” is a word that has been inserted into the mission statement of every city agency, school and liberal political party, without acknowledging the importance of its truly activist cousin, “accountability.” The liberal left that controls Seattle politics valorizes victimhood over personal agency. The organizations that are hired by the city to combat homelessness are never asked to prove their worth or demonstrate results to continue getting funding. At Bitter Lake we had a man being paid to “clear the camp” who was a recovering addict doing meth with campers. “Harm reduction” groups hand out free needles without the most minimal accountability, asking for the used needles back, what was once quaintly called a “needle exchange.” As a result our public parks and play fields are contaminated citywide. There is no permanent way up of out of addiction or homelessness without personal responsibility, at all levels, including the organizational level.

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