(Editor’s Note: Folio the Seattle Athenaeum streamed a forum (“All Blue but Deeply Divided“) on the changing state of Seattle politics, with Sandeep Kaushik, Folio boardmember and Post Alley writer, as moderator. Here are some comments by Post Alley writers in response.
Tom Corddry: I was fascinated to hear pretty much across-the-board agreement that City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, now the longest-serving councilmember, is something of a “relic,” not a city-wide force for change. There also seemed to be broad agreement that the Seattle metro area is on the fast track to being a bigger, denser, more cosmopolitan city. And I noted a shared surprise among the panelists at how quickly higher housing density seems to be accepted, in a city long zoned for vast swathes of single family houses. Very interesting discussion!
David Brewster. One of the panelists, Zach Silk, noted the rise of what he called “anti-institutional populism” in recent Seattle politics, adding his caution that it takes durable institutions (schools, police, courts) to protect individual liberties and past progressive gains. That’s an interesting observation on what ails Seattle politics, along with factionalism, tribalism, and too many vetoes, as well as a warning about the future.
I would add two supporting arguments. Many of the non-governmental institutions that came out of Seattle’s tradition of middle-class reform have now faded to insignificance. I mention the Municipal League, which vetted candidates and tried to produce multi-party compromises (notably integrating schools), and now has faded to near-extinction. Another is the League of Women Voters, a vital training ground for women getting into public affairs and also a resource that would study issues with rigor. A third is Allied Arts, which also groomed candidates and kept up pressure for supporting the arts, good architecture, and historic preservation. A fourth is the Church Council, a force for international concerns and racial harmony.
A few institutions have arisen as these four have succumbed, mostly related to transit, technology, racial justice, and environmentalism, but these tend to be narrowly focused. Some independent institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association have been struggling to broaden their appeal but still tend to be dominated by some powerful business interests and consequently lack broader credibility. Among the new groups are the process-oriented City Club, originated by women who felt excluded from the formerly male-only Downtown Rotary lunches. Women, formerly with fewer occupational pathways, once were mainstays of these civic institutions.
We need a revival of independent, citizen-led institutions, though I don’t really expect it to happen given the running critique of such groups as male-led, too-white, and tainted with business support and elitism. Existing ones will resist the competition, and as Silk wisely observed, the more radical left in Seattle distrusts (for good reasons and bad) concentrations of power in an almost Jeffersonian way.
Mike James: I’d sum that Folio discussion as a search for political balance, that elusive landing space between Seattle’s Left-Left and Center-Left.
My sense, and what I hear from those in my own field of chatter, is a desire for fixers rather than ideologues, candidates who focus on tending to governmental basics — public safety, street maintenance, transit that works, affordable housing, an effective and compassionate plan for homelessness that helps those in the tents and also keeps parks and sidewalks safe and available for everyone. That short list must also include actual improvements in social-justice issues such as diversity, inclusion, and equality.
The most insightful comment in the Folio discussion, one from Zach Silk that David salutes as well, mentions the need for durable and effective institutions to carry out good policy. (Related: the high turnover in the mayor’s office.) Not just governmental entities, but chambers of commerce and universities, courts, unions, families, and neighborhoods. These are the durable, broad-based connections that move things along. Justice, when it thrives, does so in a community in the widest sense.
When I listen to a candidate now I want something beyond rhetoric and slogans and performative stances. It’s show-me time. What have you done, how did you do it, what’s your fix for tomorrow? Votes are earned, not assumed.
David Brewster: One other takeaway from the forum is the absence of a “loyal opposition” to the settled center-left consensus. As several panelists noted, Seattle used to be evenly divided between Republican and Democratic officeholders and state legislators. Today, nearly all King County electeds (save Ann Davison, some county councilmembers, and maybe the next county prosecutor) are Democrats, though there are rifts among the Blues and between the city council and the mayor. But no real opposition, in the sense of grooming candidates and coherent counter proposals.
The swing groups (labor, greens, gays, neighborhood activists, business groups, good-government reformers, media) that used to be open to dissenting views have now all pretty much signed up for the Consensus Party. Republicans have abandoned the field, choosing instead to run statewide by deploring Seattle and its woes. I doubt we can have a compelling dialogue about public policy, one that draws in the public, without restoring a “two-party” system. But I noted that none of the panelists held out any hope for a coherent opposition party.
Mike James: Reasonable to suggest that the lack of a “coherent opposition party” says more about the current GOP than it does about Seattle’s quarreling D’s. A political party and its candidates need to offer more than grievance. That said, the city’s continuous experience with homelessness, visible addiction, crime, and failing civic maintenance may well give center-right candidates an opening.
David, “still tend to be dominated by some powerful business interests and consequently lack broader credibility” points to a very large issue. Without the business engine our city has no future – it is time to quit bashing them.
The road back to political normalcy has started, soon I will be able to post my “Blue Lives Also Matter” sign in my Roosevelt area yard.
It’s not as easy as the old left-right, bi-polar dynamic, people and groups have become atomized and group-identification no longer has critical mass. Tensions going forward will center on the struggle for primacy between public section and private sector interests. Collectivism only survives when it has the ability to consume. Once it kills the host organism, it’s Game Over!
I’m unable to watch the video at the moment, and I suppose it would shed more light on that “anti-institutional populism.” Personally, for me, the Seattle I encountered in the ’70s … even if there was a richer landscape of civic institutions then, there was also a sort of Scandinavian style populism that was reflected in all the cooperatives for example. Rooted much farther in the past.
Anyway … deeply suspicious of political dualism such that Democrats/progressives/etc. are all of one mind on whatever matter you like, and opposed by the other side/forces of darkness. If we could look at policy in terms of what works and why, instead of its sectarian provenance, we might realize the hopes behind the decision to make Seattle political office non-partisan, and make fewer silly choices.
That applies to the campaign against single family zoning. Seattle’s construction permitting office has mountains of data that could be analyzed for insight into what could work, and what could not. That’s what I got from Kevin Schofield’s tantalizing glimpse at it. But no such effort will ever be made, and this policy will be a political battle from start to end.
After watching the video, I’m struck by just how little politics have meant in Seattle in the past 30 years. Who cares who the mayor is? It’s all about Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and the like. Tech companies changed Seattle…. and the pols where just along for the ride, just like the rest of us.
Tech money overheated the housing market and voters believe that elected officials can actually do something about that? …. without making their little Wallingford neighborhood vastly different or their little bungalow worth less than the 900 grand it’s currently worth… and they want the homeless camps gone as well. Voters often ask for impossible things….
The video is on point.
In city need for density will diminish thanks to our expanding rail system. Eventually we will become a city of voting homeowners, rather than renters. The homeless will filter out into the county, the drug usage will be contained in a dedicated in city area, and we will elect management types rather than activists as, now that we are more affluent, the majority will not want to that to digress. The first thing a new council does, after 2024, is to change back to citywide voting for the members.
All well said, and some diversity in your Collective would be good.
I did not see the streaming so am getting my glimpse of the round table here. The phrase “anti-institutional populism” stands out, and alarms me with its accuracy. There is still, according to polling, a significant 30% of Seattle’s population that will never recover from what they see as the excesses of SPD during CHOP, and they remain resolutely opposed to policing regardless of the cost to citizens in loss of safety.
This opposition to a pillar of most city’s infrastructure was on display last week when the principal of Sand Point Elementary refused to cooperate with police to give them the information necessary to arrest a man who had jumped the fence into the school and was threatening and harrassing students. The man, a “frequent utilizer” (as career criminals are now described), stole a student backpack and went on shortly afterward to attack and attempt the car jacking of a vehicle. In 2020 the Seattle School district removed all police from the schools in response to demands from Black Lives Matter activists and student protest. To my knowledge they have not been returned. In light of the horrific shooting at Uvalde one wonders where the resistance to institutions will end.
So far I see the anti-institutionalists providing no effective alternatives to the structures that have taken decades, if not centuries, to build. Activism is no replacement for management and competence.
I wish the door to discussing housing policy was open to more ideas. What I see here and everywhere in public conversation is that we will have affordable housing if we ‘let the market do its job’. Hasn’t the private sector played and outsized role in how we got into this mess? How can simply loosening land use codes provide affordability when land values are so high in Seattle? How is that working out so far?
Phil Lofurno wrote “The first thing a new council does, after 2024, is to change back to citywide voting for the members.” Why would a council made up of 7 of 9 members elected by district put on the ballot a measure that would likely pull them right out of office? What will change in 2024?
In the history of legislative bodies of the largest 30 U.S. cities, about half have transitioned from at-large to all district or mixed district & at-large councils since 1950. Only two have gone the other way: the earliest being Boston from 1951 to 1981, for reasons I’m not familiar with.
San Francisco went from at-large to districts in 1976 in good part due to the brilliant politician Harvey Milk. Milk’s (and Mayor Moscone’s) assassination allowed the city’s business establishment to move it back to at-large. It took until 1999 for the voters to fix that mistake.