Seattle politics is at a fascinating, generational inflection point. Looked at one way, the body politic has achieved a kind of detente, with formerly feuding interest groups manacled together by Mayor Greg Nickels' muscular and artful fusionism. The disarray after the bruising Commons wars and the fall of Mayor Paul Schell's shaky alliances has been replaced by a coalition of the powerful. It was painfully forged in the Viaduct Wars and now plans to march forward together in a Save-Boeing Crusade. The Alliance hopes to have Nickelsism without Nickels.
But looked at another way, the new center probably cannot hold, in part because of the unexpected toppling of Mayor Nickels in the recent primary. The new political coalition (labor, greens, developers, business, government) failed to do any succession planning for the Mayor's office (or for King County Executive), so we'll have risky rookie governance.
The sagging economy has taken away the surplus funds for buying off dissidents, hiring consultants, and trying new things. A lot of bubbles created by our past two booms (high-tech and real estate) are close to popping: media, the University of Washington, arts, downtown living, big government bureaucracies, union protectionism. It will get ugly, proving that the Nickels Coalition was a kind of phony peace. The old Seattle normal — endless feuding with a smiling face — will return. A revived shoot-out over the Viaduct will serve as the next Fort Sumter, leading to a wider war.
A third scenario: A new consensus will form fairly rapidly, creating a new normal. An outsider such as Mike McGinn, pushing leftward on the urban density consensus, will mobilize a younger generation of impatient idealists, put forth a kind of edgy, new-urbanist agenda (rather like Portland's), turn the older establishment into red-faced foils, and then advance from this new beachhead to form a different kind of ruling alliance with issues that no longer revolve around real estate (the driving force and financial grease of the Nickels Alliance). That evolution might, refreshingly, bring some new members (neighborhoods, new-economy libertarians, non-labor liberals, off-Broadway arts groups, Hispanics, etc.), into this more diverse, modernized, and durable agenda. Call this one Un-Nickelsism without Nickels.
The first thing to examine in handicapping these three possibilities is: How durable is the Nickels Coalition? What Nickels and his allies put together is a considerable achievement, given the cranky independence of Seattle politics. There is an emerging Density Detente, for starters. Its Six Commandments might be put this way: You focus growth near transit stations. You build fast and high in some old "downtowns" like Ballard and Fremont. You get the urban greens and their media allies pushing hard for compact urban living. You stimulate the new economy with its young, pre-children workforce that likes street life and scorns yards. You throw in some big construction projects like the tunnel to get unions on board. And you explode downtown Seattle's growth to the northeast (the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union) to get the developers and contractors (and their law firms) in the tent. And then you hope this transformative change survives the real estate bust, anger over high prices, a general disappointment with the max-out architecture, and the absence (so far) of promised amenities such as new parks.
Another component of the Grand Alliance is its economic consensus. The new Seattle economy rests on four pillars of the Knowledge Economy: bio-tech (faltering), higher education and the University of Washington (financially jeopardized by the Legislature), global philanthropy (booming), and high tech (increasingly moving to urban campuses and away from lonely suburban encampments). As long as the Boeing economy remains to sustain the blue collar side of town in jobs, this formula has worked. But Boeing is probably going to shed (and move) a lot of jobs soon. Similarly, the trade sector is facing more competition and less Port traffic.
The shakiness of this economic formula will be a critical factor, going forward. Seattle no longer has a near-monopoly on its kind of high-growth, new-economy urban recipe. Many other cities have figured out, some better than Seattle, how to create this kind of brand (a moderate-sized city, close to outdoor recreation, with lots of exciting, world-expanded companies to work for, and a youthful, brainy, alternative-culture buzz). So the competition for the next round of world-beating companies will be stiffer. And backlash is growing against this go-go Seattle recipe, which one neighborhood-hugger calls: "No cars, no jobs, no yards."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!