Has Seattle City Council Devised a Strategic Retreat?


Media mania aside, the most interesting time for a politician is the year BEFORE an election. That’s the time for firming up supporters and for deflecting serious challengers by occupying the issues territory (and the campaign funding) these opponents might claim. A challenger who waits until election year is badly behind. The year-before is also a promising time for more effective coalitionism.

I recently witnessed a good example of this year-before syndrome when first-term City Councilmember Andrew Lewis talked politics with a small group called The Block Table (“Block” as in a tribute to a seminal civic leader, Robert Jackson Block). Lewis represents the downtown-Queen Anne-Magnolia district, a stronghold for business and affluent homeowner voters who might well launch a challenge to the labor-elected, young (he’s 33), and inexperienced Lewis. Accordingly, Lewis is (at least to the Block Table of Establishment Democrats) busy tacking to the center.

Setting aside my cynicism about the durability of this repositioning, I found Lewis’s comments  encouraging. Indeed, you might say there is suddenly a pragmatic majority on the council (Lewis, Debora Juarez, Alex Pedersen, Dan Strauss, and Sara Nelson), which has replaced the social-justice majority of before (Lorena Gonzalez, Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold). The old majority is now chastened by the 2021 election of Nelson, Mayor Bruce Harrell, and City Attorney Ann Davison. I see Lewis as aiming to be the swing vote between these caucuses, a powerful place to be, as Joe Manchin proved.

Councilman Andrew Lewis (Image: Courtesy of the City of Seattle).

Lewis’s take on recent political history explains that the city council has been tempted to set policy and micromanage the executive, which the multi-voiced council does clumsily. The political vacuum, Lewis explained, had been created by a series of weak mayors (Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, and Jenny Durkan) who goaded the council into overreaching. These mayors picked fights with the council, all but Nickels lasting one term, and kept bringing in new staffers who didn’t have time to settle in.

Now, Lewis says, brinksmanship with the mayor has been replaced — and give Harrell credit  — with good mayor-council relations and transactional log-rolling. Lewis’s scaled-back agenda for the council is limited to “oversight and information-gathering.” He admits the council’s overreach on defunding the police by 50 percent was “a fatal mistake.” Same for the council’s 5-4 decision to yank funding for the Navigation Team, a cadre of cops and social workers aimed at persuading homeless folks to seek help.

The council’s tone-deaf defiance of Mayor Durkan on the Navigation Team may have cost Gonzalez her chance at being mayor, in Lewis’s view. Likewise, passage of the abortive head tax blew apart the coalition of labor and big business, though that rupture has been partially patched up by side deals for de-escalation of demands in the JumpStart tax.

The antagonistic council, in full battle array, failed to propose good solutions and find a mayor to work with. The main failure, Lewis said, was the old council majority’s inability to craft an alternative entity to more cops, as cities such as Denver have done. Affordable housing is another area of conflict not consensus, and here Lewis favors micro-housing and putting more housing on land where the city has controlling power. His suggestion for reviving Third Avenue: insist on smaller storefronts that can attract local businesses.

Lewis provided an analysis of Seattle’s four power blocs that might lead to a more unified approach. First, he says, is the Populist Left, headed by the increasingly marginalized Sawant, and now beset with infighting. (His prediction for the 2023 races is that all incumbents will run again, but not Juarez and maybe not Sawant and Herbold.)

The next bloc is the Establishment Left (labor unions and such council members as Mosqueda, Herbold, and Strauss). Then come the Business Democrats, led by the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Seattle Association, and Mayor Harrell. The last group is the Neighborhood Populists (pro-police, anti-growth, and counting Pedersen and Davison in their ranks).

The intriguing prospect is a reassembling of what Lewis calls “the pre-head-tax, pro-growth coalition,” basically the Establishment Left and the Business Democrats as a working majority. It’s been at least 20 years since we enjoyed such a coalition, though mayors Murray and Durkan tried to pull it back together. I remember when Nickels’s deputy, Tim Ceis, told me that the key was to assemble labor (jobs), business (tourism), and greens (salmon), as Ceis thought the Waterfront Park would do. Then along came Mayor McGinn to blow up that entente.

We’re still recovering, but maybe Councilman Lewis has stumbled on a blueprint for a strategic retreat — as well as his own re-election plan.

David Brewster
David Brewster
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.


  1. Lewis says Nickels was a weak mayor? Lewis was a Drago embracing Young Democrat then who today apparently ignores that more than 90 percent of Nickels’ legislative initiatives passed the council. If anything, Nickels was too strong.

    • Reply: Mayor Nickels was effective, but he and the council got into a skirmish over the Viaduct, leading the council majority to take command of the waterfront park and other matters. It began the day Nickels was sworn in and told councilmembers who supported opponents in the mayor’s race that there would be payback. The last mayor, before Harrell, who really had good relations with the city council was Norm Rice, himself a veteran of the council. He at least remembered that Seattle operates under a strong-mayor/strong-council system — in effect a 10-mayor arrangement.

      • David, the “payback” was about the council just before Nickels took office cutting the mayor’s personal staff while leaving untouched their own staff, a petty move that set a sour tone. Some council members like Jim Compton who liked directing departments complained the mayor was too strong but then voted for nearly everything he wanted. In short, Lewis is wrong about the Nickels history. Generally, council members are activists who don’t know squat about running things, which is why the mayor’s job is so different than a council job. Lewis’ thinking he’s got some ideas for revitalizing downtown is a little frightening.

        • To clarify: Lewis did not describe Nickels as a weak mayor. That is my expansion of the Lewis point about the council barging over the line. The Nickels’ case is more complicated: rivalry and hostility, particularly over the Viaduct. That’s when the dysfunction began, though some trace it to the Schell era.

  2. The Block Table members, and the electeds, are still in denial about how tech (and other) employers no longer need downtown offices filled with daily commuters. That employment sea change ruined their long term plans and policies. In contrast, the lifestyles of the great majority of highly-compensated Seattle employees who now work primarily from their residences improved greatly. This is an unprecedented schism: the future prospects for establishment groups are storm clouds, whereas those for most well-compensated residents of Seattle are bright.

    • I haven’t seen local statistics, but nationally, the number of employees who work from home is more like 24-26%. Most remote workers I know also have to report to office at least once a week.

  3. Interesting piece, if a little skewed by Lewis view of himself as the decider. One question: who is Davidson? Don’t remember that councilmember. Are we talking about Nelson?

  4. I can only shake my head and wonder at this assertion that everyone works from home? Obviously, you aren’t seeing the same downtown shit show that I encounter her every day. To get to work at my office, on Third Avenue, I take the train to University Station, where nodding addicts are draped all over the steps of the Seattle Symphony building. Sadly, one had obviously overdosed a few weeks ago, judging from the EMTs and the cloth-draped gurney! And have you walked down Third Avenue from the Pike Place market lately? Seen tourists reeling in shock at people openly shooting up, dealing drugs, and demanding money from anyone toting a suitcase or shopping bag, or looks like they’re going back to work after lunch. Before you make generalizations, without any stats to back them up, about nonexistent downtown workers, just walk the walk sometime. And where the hell is the City Council? Don’t tell me they’ve bought into this myth about the non essential downtown.

      • Andrew Lewis made the point, which I had missed, that many of the Third Ave. storefronts are supersized for the national retailers. Hence, cutting them down in scope would attract more in-fill retailers. The larger point: these building owners are going to have to take a hard look at profit margins, versus holding out for a rebound. Probably some more months of misery will be needed, alas. Another problem is that many of these buildings are owned out of town, so the owners are impervious to civic appeals.

  5. Seems kind of silly to me. “Business Democrat”, eh? I assume Lewis is waving that flag – for the moment, until another bloc seems to have it going on. Would Nelson be the other “Business Democrat”? I guess the question is not really whether she pursues policy directions that benefit business, but whether she will follow directions from the Chamber of Commerce, if she wants to be in Lewis’ club.

    Is Nelson “pro-police”? Is Pedersen, really? Today, they all are, aren’t they? On the other hand, if this is supposed to mean something like “pro-SPOG prez Mike Solan”, then I think you can strike them all off the list.

    “Anti-growth”? Would Pedersen recognize himself here? The idea that Lewis can set himself up as a “pro-growth” council member in contradistinction to his colleagues, looks like arrant nonsense to me. I wish we had the sense to elect a council that isn’t pro growth, but obviously there’s no money in that, so there’s no council members.

    The real dynamic at work here is a council that has pulled some real boners in the recent past, and is looking at a noticeably dampened economic climate in the city. Lewis would like everyone to forget his participation in the former, and see him as a leader in dealing with the latter. May be interesting to note that his election campaign pandered hard to trade unions – remember the one where he (a lawyer!) told them the city should make a union shop a favoritism factor in permitting for hotel development? Now Andrew “Downtown” Lewis isn’t going to be seen with any “Establishment left” unions. Ha ha.


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