Our Missing Elite


It’s been a long time since anyone claimed that Seattle is run by a dozen cigar-chomping white guys at the Rainier Club. This myth, a version of which has existed in every major city, once did contain a kernel of truth, and a recent Thomas Edsall column in The New York Times probes the largely harmful impact of the gradual withering of elite civic leadership.

Edsall, along with the academics and pundits he quotes, gets the basic story right. Cities used to have an ecosystem of leadership that included the heads of large locally owned businesses and prominent lawyers. These men (yep, pretty much all men) were mostly products of local schools and came up through their companies and firms, with strong roots in the region. For them, keeping a city healthy was good for business, but also good for the life they and their families and friends lived. That ecosystem is mostly gone now.

When I joined the staff at the Seattle Chamber in the fall of 1987, my first day on the job happened to be the day of the annual board meeting at which the gavel was passed to new leadership. I encountered four individuals of note that day:

  • Herb Bridge, outgoing chair, was the head of the family-owned Ben Bridge Jewelry chain, started by his grandfather in 1912.
  • Bruce Maines, incoming chairman, was CEO of Safeco Insurance and claimed that from his office atop the Safeco (now UW) Tower he could see all the schools he attended.
  • John Ellis, incoming first vice chair, grew up in Rainier Valley with his legendary brother Jim, graduated from UW Law School, and was then CEO of Puget Sound Power and Light.
  • John Fluke Jr., vice chair for trade and transportation (the function that I staffed), was CEO of the John Fluke Manufacturing Company, which his father founded in Seattle in 1953.

All four of the firms these men led are still around the region. But all are controlled by outside firms, and only Ben Bridge (owned by Omaha’s Warren Buffett) is locally run, by Herb’s granddaughter and so still has leadership with local roots. Outside control and non-local leadership have come to characterize banks, retailers, media, and other firms that serve the Northwest market from their base in Seattle. The incentive structures within these firms no longer reward civic activity.

The original theory of urban elitism—that cities are run by a small, secretive, ideologically coherent group of wealthy men—had its full flowering in the 1960s, and it certainly had an appeal. As once-vibrant cities de-industrialized and decayed, the former plutocrats served as useful scapegoats. But neglectful as business elites may have been, no one was ever able to prove the existence of a cabal of individuals who actually pulled the strings in any major city.

A kinder, gentler and more plausible version of elitism emerged from academia in the 1970s: “urban regime theory.” Regime theory argues that cities are run by an elite, but that this elite is broader and more open than previous groups. The “urban regime” or governing coalition is an evolving cast of characters led by a subset that now included elected officials, some key bureaucrats, and a collection of outside individuals, mostly from businesses and non-profits. 

This cast is fluid and is never written down anywhere, but a careful observer of City Hall can usually figure out who might be on such a list. A thought experiment: the mayor gets a call from an industrial relocation consultant looking for a site for 500 jobs. Who are the first 10 people the mayor calls?

To become part of the governing coalition requires two things. First, basic and continuous agreement with the coalition’s agenda. Maverick councilmembers and local gadflies will rarely find themselves on the inside of the coalition. 

Second, members of the governing coalition all contribute something to the coalition’s efforts in pursuit of the agenda. These contributions can include job creation, cash contributions, political leadership and influence, community support, or subject expertise. Most members of the governing coalition do want something out of their participation in civic affairs, but they must also put something in. It’s like the old Stone Soup story.

I was fortunate to have had a front row seat for an effective governing coalition that shaped the Seattle region in the 1980s and 1990s. After initially eschewing partnership with the business community, the Charles Royer administration (1977-89) worked closely with the “downtown interests.” Norm Rice (1989-1997) from the start enlisted a broad array of participants in his downtown revitalization and school-reform efforts.

The original Sound Transit votes provide a good illustration of regime dynamics. Recall that the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority had an initial ballot proposition in 1995 that was, to put it mildly, implausibly grandiose. It failed to gain much support from the business community, fundraising for the campaign was anemic, and it lost. A much-improved proposition went to the ballot in 1996, and this time the business community, led by Boeing, was on board. The A-Team of Bob Gogerty and Bud Coffey put together a well funded and winning campaign.

The Sound Transit Authority, acting mostly by itself and not much interested in outside views, could not get the job done the first time around. I was a bagman for the first campaign and recall picking up the kinds of skimpy checks that say “here is just enough money to get you out of my face.” I did not have that problem when Coffey, a Boeing lobbyist, was heading up the fundraising. 

The regime that got us a convention center, Sound Transit, a third runway at SeaTac, cruise ships on the waterfront, and a city-sponsored education levy started to fall apart by the late 1990s. By then many local banks and retailers had been nationalized, with outside leaders rotating in and out. Civic positions formerly occupied by CEOs were traded down to deputies. Tech companies with their national focus had little feel for local involvement. A succession of mayors felt little need to form alliances with traditional civic players. And with every civic initiative ensnared in a never-ending planning process, the entire civic space had become bureaucratized.

Once the progressive/socialist crowd really took over Seattle politics, the whole idea of an urban regime became a shambles, as the two criteria for regime membership (concurrence and contributions) made no sense anymore. There was no coherent agenda to rally round, but rather a lot of poorly considered reactions to the issues of the moment, and little attempt or ability to form consensus around proposed policies. Outside groups had a dwindling number of institutions through which they might get involved, and they were not contributing much to civic efforts. What might have passed for a governing coalition now consisted mostly of groups demanding something: supplicants don’t make good coalition partners.

Edsall’s article gives a lot of attention to those critical of old-fashioned civic leadership structures, which certainly had their shortcomings. The group that brought us the 1962 Seattle Worlds’ Fair would not be acceptable today, and the downtown establishment was behind the proposed destruction of Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market. It is easy for establishment regimes to cling to outmoded conventional thinking and the status quo long after the need for creative change becomes obvious. But even with these flaws and failures, I have not seen a plausible alternative that works. 

Urban life is far too complicated to be run just from City Hall, and no place ever became great by devoting all its energies to appeasing loud groups and putting out fires. Every successful community, large and small, has a rich stew of public, private, non-profit, and individual actors giving their time, energy, and resources, and coherent enough to rally round big ideas.

What will it take for the political pendulum swing back to a new, more inclusive version of effective regime politics? Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has embraced and been embraced by the mainstream business community, so that‘s a start. Next we need a civic agenda that has major positive elements and is not just about fixing bad things. Then, Mayor Harrell and his community partners need a functioning majority on the City Council that can move that agenda forward in such a way that the outside groups that will fill out the governing coalition have some hope that their contributions will be well used.

A final needed element — locally rooted business leaders. A solid governing coalition includes leaders from across the community, but business leaders with local credibility are essential. Business leaders are now less likely to come from large businesses whose fortunes do not rise and fall with the local economy. Rather, they will come from small and medium sized businesses that have grown up in the region and depend on the local economy for success. I would look, in particular, to colleagues in the hospitality sector.

Civic activity does not always come naturally, and these leaders will need to be cultivated. The institutions and skills to turn business leaders into civic leaders have atrophied over the past 20 or 30 years. A key question is whether we can get them back in working order. It was never really about cigars at the Rainier Club, but success in civic affairs was very often about diverse, committed people building community over coffee and muffins. 

The dramatic rebuild of the central waterfront offers hope. Here is a huge, expensive, complex, many-years project that is happening because city government, property owners, and the broader establishment were able to settle on a plan, find the money and stay focused. What is the next big idea for an updated regime to tackle?

Michael Luis
Michael Luis
Michael Luis is a public policy consultant who has been wrestling with housing, growth and economic development issues around Washington State for over 30 years. He is author of several books on local history and served as mayor of Medina.


  1. I think the main factor in a loss of a civic elite is the non-local ownership of banks, media, corporations, and law firms. A key question I often ask is, “Who writes your pay check?” If the answer is along the lines of National Institutes for Health, you know that such a person has relatively little reason to be concerned about the health of a local economy. Such is the fate of cities, like Seattle, that aspire to creating companies that are coveted by big gobblers, and it appears to be irreversible. The next generation is complacent from the sale of these companies, but the next-next generation may reinvent civic leadership.

  2. Seattle’s high-profile locally-headquartered companies–Amazon, Microsoft, Costco, Starbucks, Nordstrom, etc–are all globally- or nationally-oriented businesses, with only a very small share of total revenues coming from within the Seattle Metro area. So they don’t have corporate incentive to engage locally. The tech companies generate a lot of relatively young wealthy alumni, some of whom are of an eleemosynary bent, but these tend, like their former employers, to focus on big global problems such as climate, hunger, and disease, rather than wading into local urban development waters. There are exceptions, such as the brilliant Liz Dunn, but they swing small hammers compared to the Boeing, KING and Seafirst heavy hitters of old. I like your notion of a larger network of smaller businesses self- organizing to address the issues. Maybe cigars and Zoom will be the new model.

  3. Michael Luis posted a good description of the loss of a civic elite. No question that Seattle had one — even though most of its members didn’t smoke cigars. But it steadily eroded from out-of-town ownership, the loss of civic institutions like the League of Women Voters and the Municipal League. One brief unsuccessful initiative to replace or enhance the “civic elite”, tried here under the leadership of Charles Odegaard, UW president, was an “Urban Coalition,” patterned after John Gardner’s outline. The Washington Roundtable was a statewide effort launched in 1983, and more recently “The Challenge” group of CEO’s led by former governor Chris Gregoire set out to tackle and form consensus to solve Seattle’s leading issues. Unfortunately, not much has been heard from “The Challenge.”

  4. Though the change to district-based elections for Seattle City Council did not take place for more than a decade (voters approved it in 2013) after the end of the urban regime or governing coalitions Mr. Luis describes, I think the district system has already shown that it’s a force against the growth today of the kind of shared urban vision that forged some of the city’s major past initiatives.


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