My COVID-clouded crystal ball tells me these things to watch for in 2022.
Seattle City Council will be Cautious
Seven of the nine members face reelection in 2023, and the voters just sent a moderate signal, so it’s no year to try strong-left initiatives such as defunding the police or rent control or sweeping away multi-family zoning. The new council president, Debora Juarez, is one of three moderates on the council, and her new position and the changed political weather at city hall may induce her to seek re-election. I also think labor unions, who drove the leftward swing in past years, will moderate in order to retain their favored members. Some council members might decide not to seek re-election, which would swing attention to these open seats and let other incumbents coast.
New Mayor Bruce Harrell will have a new team and it will need to find its feet and he will spend a lot of time courting councilmembers. Since outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan “won” the 2021 election in the sense that her general moderate approach was vindicated by the election results, I expect a lot of continuity by Harrell on such issues as homelessness (clearing the encampments), gradually rebuilding the Police Department, and nursing the downtown back to semi-health. Harrell was often the last vote to decide on the council, so I think he will continue to straddle issues (as his “One Seattle” inaugural theme indicates, rather than drawing hard lines), court public favor, and avoid making tough calls, as indicated by his desire to give the current interim police chief a chance to prove his worth. That might end after his rookie year. One big “get” in year one might be to land an NBA team, or at least show some real progress.
It’s the (Sluggish) Economy!
If the past year was one of political over-reach, the coming year will come back to earth and focus on the economy. Factors: Amazon is moving across the lake. Companies such as Nordstrom will ask for government support in reviving downtown (more tourists, more cops downtown, parking benefits). The Port of Seattle will emerge as an issue, now that there are new inexperienced commissioners, and a recognition the jammed airport is not able to keep up with rapid growth in passengers. The Eastside is now a full-on business competitor, led by Microsoft and the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, so the Seattle business leadership will stir back to life (but still be gun-shy and accommodationist to the Left). The looming clouds of COVID, racial injustice, political stalemate, and climate change (fires, floods) hang over us for at least another year, dampening new ideas, political truces, and the creation of new companies.
City Attorney Ann Davison, if she can put together a good team, could emerge (after a rocky first year) as enforcing “civility” laws and clearing sidewalks and parks of encampments. The last one who did that was City Attorney Mark Sidran (serving 1990-2002), who worked a bad-cop deal with the good-cop city council (Sidran was the enforcer, the council was the wink-wink Sidran-deplorer). Davison has a huge backlog of misdemeanor cases to clear up, and she could jettison most of them as a sign of political realism. Just maybe, there will be an effort to revive a modified version of the Compassion Seattle approach for voter approval, this time with new taxes to fund the expensive housing component.
The West Seattle Bridge will reopen, pumping more cars into the downtown. Metro will face a double crisis as bailout money fades and ridership fails to rebound. Sound Transit could be forced to fend off efforts to scuttle the second downtown tunnel or push out the schedule further, given falling demand and high costs. Both Sound Transit and Seattle Department of Transportation are seeking new leaders, so in the vacuum some of our old transit wars (streets vs. bike/bus lanes, bus vs. rail, cost-effectiveness) will revive.
Seattle government and local businesses have been riding the Amazon bubble, so there is a lot of dreaminess in our plans (sports, convention center, Seattle Center, diversity initiatives, low-income housing). As downtown businesses suffer, the tax surplus will evaporate, pinching the city budget for social services — which is why Mayor Harrell will come around to supporting the payroll tax. Given inflation, the loss of federal relief funds, and rising interest rates, Seattle’s period of taking business for granted (even dissing it) is about to end, possibly producing some serious shifts in local politics and labor unions. The city’s current approach to homelessness is very expensive, particularly as federal bailout bonanzas fade and as the state fails to fund mental health facilities. So Harrell and the council will have to decide to raise business taxes or shift to less expensive solutions or renege on campaign promises for much more housing. That debate will continue to tie city hall in knots.
Some Surprise Issues
A debate with tribes over the Skagit hydroelectric dams, pitting environmentally friendly hydropower against salmon passage.
An attempt to revive neighborhood-level decision-making, once a strong theme at city hall but dismantled by Mayor Ed Murray, who sent neighborhoods advocate Jim Diers packing. A way to broaden support for a package relief for downtown is to add in the neighborhood business districts, which have experienced a revival due to stay-at-home Covid patterns.
Homeless hangups. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority, the great hope for solving homelessness and a result of the Constantine/Durkan alliance, runs into political headwinds. The Seattle city council wants to reward its social-service backers by steering money to them, rather than leaving those allocations to the regional agency. And the tax-averse suburbs still think homelessness is a Seattle problem.
Seattle arts and cultural institutions face money woes and wary audiences, and if one of the majors sends up an SOS, we may be in for another effort to stabilize an over-leveraged and under-capitalized sector. Harrell’s wife, Joanne, Microsoft lifer and UW Regent who cares about the arts, might make this her signature issue. These arts organizations are now in a defensive crouch and there is no strong leadership to use the pandemic as a goad to reorient programs toward more excellence, broader bases, and more risk-taking.
Seattle Schools suffered another loss of public confidence as they delayed reopening and still can’t hire a durable, effective superintendent. I look to Tim Burgess on the Harrell strategic team to make some progress, particularly in electing (and paying) more effective boardmembers. It may be that unhappiness with public schools becomes a galvanizing issue for political reform, using racial inequity as an organizing theme.
Generational shift. Seattle voters are badly polarized at the 45-year-old line, and there is still no effective, broad-based organization for young, impatient idealists. I expect/hope a cross-generational, multi-issue group will start taking shape, particularly around the city council races and a few equity issues such as rent-relief. Other new political forces: neighborhood chambers and neighborhood councils, climate activists, Black Lives Matter, democratic socialists, opponents to district elections for schools and city council. Meanwhile, the usual local players in Seattle politics (labor, business alliances, and greens) are losing their financial leverage to national and voucher funding for local candidates.
In sum, things are a-changing locally, but slowly and imperceptibly. And the bloom is off the Seattle super-city rose.