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.
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.