Well-hidden: The real differences in Seattle mayor’s race

Ed Murray during an interview Credit: Photo: Ashley Walls

The Seattle mayor’s race grew from four yawns to five recently when a KING-5/Survey USA poll put challenger Ed Murray ahead of Mayor Mike McGinn by 52-30. Can we all go back to watching football now? 

Another numbing agent is the calculation made by the too-professional team managing Murray’s campaign. Knowing that McGinn thrives on wedge issues, where he beats the liberal drums against even the smallest apostasy, the Murray campaign chose to agree with McGinn on virtually all his issues, to concede the McGinn agenda and vision. That drained the campaign of any substance.

What remains is an unconvincing effort by McGinn to pin the tail of “establishment tool” on the unlikely backside of the liberal state senator from Capitol Hill. As for Murray, he throws slightly poisoned darts (labeled “ineffective,” friendless” and “impotent”) at a mayor who is seemingly doing better at the job.

The Murray team recognizes that trying to get to the left of McGinn in this town of changing demographics and angry lefties is not possible. As I argued a few months ago, all the candidates are “like Mike,” agreeing with McGinn about the main issues of the day: transit, density, bikes, more nightlife, “Ballardizing” apartments, climate-change issues. Too, any moves by Murray toward the center would only serve to stir up McGinn’s base. The Murray handlers want to make McGinn the issue, reminding voters of their various gripes over his performance. They dread having Murray’s ideological “impurities” (a natural feature of a log-rolling legislator) turn into the issue.

In fact, it’s a pivotal election, with two very different visions of what Seattle should be doing in the next four years. McGinn says he aspires to be the most progressive mayor of the most progressive city in America. He’s still a Sierra Club greenie —with coal trains now substituting for the big bad waterfront tunnel of four years ago— but he has now added labor activism, minorities and Occupy Seattle carryovers to his coalition.

“Leading from the left,” as it is called, is plausible in Seattle, especially with national labor targeting the city. Conveniently for McGinn, just such a coalition and its message of “indignant liberalism” propelled Bill de Blasio from back in the pack to a pull-away winner of the New York mayoral primary.

To understand this notable new trend away from the centrist concessions of the Clinton/Obama years, read carefully the much-circulated essay by Peter Beinert, “The Rise of the New New Left.” It examines how the Millennials are getting fed up with tiny measures to deal with the bleak economic future they face and are far more willing “to challenge cherished American myths about capitalism and class.” Millennials even favor socialism over capitalism by a slight margin, Beinert notes, stirring the embers of the Occupy movement. They are impatient with what Beinert calls Obama’s “pro-capitalist, anti-bureaucratic, Reaganized liberalism.”

Mike McGinn is a good pied piper for such a parade. He’s a movement politician, almost a cult figure. He’s a master of confrontive, mediagenic politics such as his attempt to block a West Seattle development because Whole Foods doesn’t pay its workers enough to please the mayor. He set the tone early in his term, refusing to talk to establishment figures, insulting the council with an off-hand speech, showing up late and sweaty for fancy parties. It didn’t hurt with Joe Six-Pack when he flung a basketball arena into the civic mix, not bothering to inform many key actors.

But it’s hard to think McGinn’s shaky political skills would yield much real change, much less prevail against a far more centrist and cautious city council. Also unlikely: that Seattle would interrupt its mad economic growth beyond enjoying a few tingly-left phrases. Remember how miserably a proposal for a state income tax on the rich did in the fall of 2010, failing by 65-35, and how aggressively the new local economy leaders fought it?  

Still, had McGinn not gone into the race with so many points and blunders against him, one can easily imagine an appeal to make Seattle a progressive national vanguard could win him re-election. It’s a new twist in Seattle’s aspiration to be a significant, disruptive player on the national stage. I can also see him, if he loses, turning into a tribune of such causes in our politics, a kind of Howard Dean who won’t fade away.

The vision for Seattle that Murray promises, but can only whisper, is much less ideological and polarizing. It’s about pragmatism and getting things unstuck. His code for this is the promise to bring regional players around his conference table, a key to transit and transportation and other issues, and to make the compromises to bring in more funding from Olympia and the suburbs. The more overt message is to attack McGinn’s shaky competence in carrying out big projects, where his inexperienced staff, combative go-it-alone manner and wayward attention make him more hat than cattle.

In a sense, the McGinn-Murray race is a familiar movie. It’s the quadrennial clash between the “fleece belt” of the interior parts of the city (notably Green Lake down to Capitol Hill) with its populist and more resentful lefties, and the “floss belt” of the shoreline districts with more affluence and education, yielding a liberalism with its edges sanded off. That leaves the far north end, Queen Anne, the east side of West Seattle, and the minority districts in the Southeast as the swing vote.

The consensus is that McGinn would have a harder time expanding his base outward than Murray, helped by the gay-marriage issue and his liberal voting record, will have in poaching inward. Murray will also have lots more money to spend, owing to his comparative appeal to business interests and his important-to-lobbyists leadership post in the state Senate.

The key for McGinn is mobilizing his base, particularly younger and minority voters who don’t vote regularly in off-year elections. In 2009, he had the legions of Obama volunteers helping him; this time it will be unions and minorities. Murray has legions of gay-marriage volunteers from 2012’s successful defeat of the anti-gay-marriage Referendum 74.

You can make a good case for Murray’s message of “effective” as opposed to “indignant” liberalism — a cooling of the warfare by pausing to get projects done, and done well. There is no shortage of big challenges: the waterfront tunnel and park; the 502 bridge; Yesler Terrace redevelopment; a new round of funding for roads and Sound Transit; Metro’s funding crisis; police reform and the need for a chief who can lead it; growing inequality; a new parks levy; and struggling schools. All require consensus, working with the council (McGinn’s big failure), and steadiness.

It’s not soul-stirring. It’s also not clear that Murray can execute well, given his inexperience in city politics, lack of managerial training, and the wily manner that comes from all those years in Olympia winking and sorta-promising.

The big question, even among Murray supporters and McGinn debunkers, concerns Murray’s refusal to articulate much of an urban vision, or to set priorities, or to talk realistically about what can be afforded. Is this a campaign tactic? Is this the real Ed Murray? And if he does lack vision and urban experience, will he hire good people and let them do good work?  And will those “good people” be City Hall veterans irritably back from being exiled by McGinn or more reflective of, and optimistic about, Seattle’s very changed political landscape? 

There is a third vision for the next Seattle. That’s the subject for a next article.

Tomorrow: David Brewster looks at a different way to think about Seattle's future.

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