Through a COVID Glass Darkly: Predictions for the Coming Year

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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.

Mayoral Inertia

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.

That Again! 

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.

Transit trauma. 

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.

Money Woes

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.

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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.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Nitpick: It was Nickels who fired Jim Diers, not Murray. Murray continued in the same direction, but after Nickels there wasn’t much real neighborhood autonomy to dismantle. Murray’s “contribution” was elaborate community engagement that essentially amounted to a costly and politically correct fig leaf for downtown decision making. I believe that’s still the culture at city hall today. There’s a lot of room for Harrell to bring in someone like Diers and work towards more authentic citizen involvement, but it will be a huge transformation.

    • Thanks for the good catch on Diers. I have often wondered why Seattle hasn’t followed the lead of cities like Portland and driven local decisions down to local councils. There is still a great deal of pride in neighborhoods and their business districts, and the Covid shift from downtown offices to working at home will just make these districts more important. Diers had built a separate power base, which made him difficult for mayors to manage, but that development makes me wonder if any mayor or council would allow such a shift to decentralization.

      • The “urbanist” / real estate developer booster contingent that has held sway in city hall since then, has worked hard to turn public opinion against community councils. In the context of the particularly intense conflict 2016-2019 over the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, HALA/MHA and O’Brien’s ADU/DADU ordinance, the community councils were very active opponents – particularly Wallingford, Queen Anne and West Seattle, so it was easy to paint them as wealthy white homeowners. Community councils will have to be “rehabilitated” before it will be politically possible for Harrell or a successor to even think about giving them any kind of decision making.

        And that probably isn’t exactly the right direction anyway. Our community councils are essentially clubs, who can claim to represent their neighborhoods but don’t do so in the electoral sense. Just at a glance, Portland’s Neighborhood Associations are essentially similar, except that they’re prohibited from having overlapping boundaries – and from what I can make out, they don’t have any decision making authority, they’re advisory at most. That seems like a reasonable model.

        • Yes, I think you have it pretty well pegged. One thing I’ve seen grow all over on the Left Coast is a Liberal way of thinking on national issues and a reactionary way of thinking on uber-local issues. So a neighborhood like Wallingford is for affordable housing in the general sense, as long as it’s not in Wallingford. Neighborhood councils have played a huge role in promoting this thinking and I have no idea how to reinvent them into something more progressive or positive.

  2. These are some real good guesses! The idea that Seattle could somehow reverse things and go in different direction quickly is still popular with the Left and younger voters, but the Good Ship Seattle is a huge lumbering vessel and changing course takes time (measured in years)

    The only thing you left out that I see coming is more never ending protests. These nightly battles with the police are a chance for frustrated young people and the political Left to project power and organize. I’d say they are as much a party of a political event and I don’t see them spurring the Mayor’s office towards change. They will highlight all the problems Seattle has in the national spotlight however and the difficultly cities have with problems like homelessness and drugs.

    • What “nightly battles with police”? At what “never-ending protests”? Seattle has not had any big protests in at least 16 months. Even Portland’s anarchist-driven protests/battles are largely gone for now.

      • Ah, I wouldn’t say the NW protest culture is gone…. I’d say it’s currently sleeping. As the article above points out, Seattle has a lot of problems with few easy answers. Add to that big political spilts between elected officials (Left vs. Center Left), young vs. old, homeowners vs. renters and Seattle is primed for a Summer of protests after the next police shooting. Has the underlying political unrest in Seattle changed any since the big CHOP protest?

  3. Not a cheerful forecast but insightful with some threads of hope.

    Looking at transit woes, I would add the ferry system. Crew shortages and backlog of repairs continue to hamper and disrupt service.

  4. Yep, it’s a box. Seattle can’t both tax the crap out of business and compete with across the lake. And the per head employee tax is just way wicked stupid…in the modern WFH era it’s an accounting entity whether someone is hoteling at an east of the lake office or downtown. Lets tax jobs in the city…just brilliant.

    Bottom line, if the left gets what it wants, folks with gigs will slowly bail for east of the lake. the left degrades the schools for the middle class and up for equity…we played that game in the 70’s. It hollowed out the public schools and drove suburban expansion. Homeless casual, same ditto. There will have to be a regional effort and coordination, or Seattle will lose out.

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