Seattle's new mayor is liking the job so far. Credit: jseattle/Flickr
“It’s pretty moving being a working class kid who came from a pretty poor family over in Alki on 61st street, standing in the Mayor’s Office on New Years Day,” says Ed Murray, about 57 hours into his first term as Seattle’s mayor.
Hizzoner has just finished a press conference where he announced an executive order to increase the minimum wage for Seattle city employees to $15 per hour, and fielded questions about the troubled State Route 99 Tunnel project and the arson at a gay Capitol Hill nightclub on New Year’s Eve.
“If anything has surprised me,” says the 58-year-old mayor, as he sits at a conference room table on the seventh floor of City Hall, "it’s exactly how much there is to do." The search for a new police chief, the massive infrastructure projects, income inequality, affordable housing. These are just a few of the weighty items on Murray’s agenda as he prepares for inauguration day and his new job as the city’s chief executive.
Murray is no stranger to government. He has spent more than two decades in politics. He cut his teeth as a campaign manager and Seattle City Council aide. He represented Seattle’s 43rd district in Olympia for 11 years (from 1995 to 2006) before being elected to the state senate in 2006. He gave up his position as Senate Democratic leader shortly after he was elected mayor last November.
Not surprisingly, Murray dresses like a politico — dark suit, light blue shirt, dark blue tie. But one small flourish stands out: a bracelet of wooden beads on his right wrist.
“There’s a long story behind this,” he says when asked about the bracelet.
The beads are like the “one-decade” rosary his grandfather used to carry in Ireland. Easily hidden, one-decade rosaries originated in 16th and 17th century Ireland, at a time when the English government persecuted the country’s Catholics. “I used to carry [a one-decade rosary] in my pocket,” Murray says. “I didn’t say the rosary, I just used to touch it in intense moments. You know, sort of like worry beads.”
The bracelet Murray wears now is made of Jerusalem olivewood. He got it at the Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California, where he goes every few years. The hermitage explores the “confluence” of Eastern meditation and Catholic prayer.
“My siblings will tell you that I was always interested in two things,” says Murray. “Politics and the church.” He considered the priesthood, briefly, spending a year in the seminary before deciding that he “absolutely did not want to be a priest.”
Murray and husband Michael Shiosaki celebrate on Election Night 2013. Photo by Allyce Andrew
His faith has influenced his politics and he says it is one of the reasons for his focus on immigration and poverty. But Murray’s sexual orientation complicates his relationship with the church. “It’s an area of great tension and pain in my life,” he says. “The church is a place that’s home, but it’s a place that’s not always welcoming.” Murray and Michael Shiosaki, his husband and partner of 22 years, had to get married in an Episcopal church.
Though his interest in the priesthood faded, Murray’s devotion to politics persisted. In fact, it’s fair to say that the new mayor is a political junky. Among his favorite books are F.S. Lyon’s roughly 750-page biography of F.S. Parnell, an Irish political leader of the late 1800s, and Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Murray binge-watched the Netflix series “House of Cards" — straight through, in about two days — though he prefers the original British version, which he calls probably the best political TV show or movie of all time. Murray was also a big fan of “The West Wing,” the ‘90s NBC series that starred his distant cousin, actor Martin Sheen, as the president. (Murray’s grandmother and Sheen’s mother hail from the same Irish county and share a last name: Phelan.)
Murray is fascinated by political biographies because, as he has told his public administration students at Seattle University, “in the end [politics] is about relationships and not simply the policy.”
Mayor Murray will be thinking about relationships as he searches for a new Chief of Police. “We have to be able to work together,” says Murray, who likes to talk to people, frequently. “I look for the ability to easily pick up the phone or get together and exchange information,” he explains.
Murray wants a chief who will stay on for the entire length of his four-year mayoral term, if not longer. That kind of stability could be important as the department tackles a federally mandated reform process, which was triggered by a 2011 Department of Justice investigation that found evidence of widespread excessive force violations.
At the moment, there is no list of potential police chief candidates; his staff is still finalizing the search process. But Murray knows what he wants. “I am looking for somebody who has had some experience changing the culture of a police force,” he says. “Someone who will be absolutely committed to the consent decree and implementing the requirements of the Department of Justice, period.”
The new chief also needs to be frank and honest. “I brought people with me from Olympia who’ve been telling me for years when I screwed up and when they think I’m ridiculous,” he says. “I’m looking for that kind of relationship with the chief of police.”
Murray plans to look both within and outside the city for the next chief, as he has done for other key appointments. Robert Feldstein, for example, Director of the newly created Office of Policy and Innovation, recently served as Chief of Staff in New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning. "It’s important to bring new people in as well as identify people here who have that talent," Murray says. “At the same time, Seattle has had some history of failure with bringing people in from the outside. So I’m very cautious about who we bring in."
Among the meetings that the mayor has lined up this week is one with City Council members and Seattle’s state legislative delegation. “This is the last year I want a city legislative agenda that’s developed separate from the legislators,” says the former denizen of Olympia. “I want the council, the mayor and the Seattle delegation to develop a joint legislative agenda.”
When Murray thinks about this moment in Seattle’s history and how people will look back on it, he’s reminded of another book he’s reading: “The Bully Pulpit,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Checking in at over 900 pages, “The Bully Pulpit” chronicles the progressive political era that unfolded during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book, says Murray, details how the media drew attention to the rampant income inequality of the time. He also says there's a parallel that can be drawn bewteen that era and the present.
“We’re in a corrective period,” he says. “Correcting for the concentration of wealth and power."
"Everyone in Seattle, who’s ever served in Seattle government," Murray continues. "Is liberal and espouses progressive values, but as for actually making it happen, we’re a little behind the curve.” Can Murray be an agent of change? Seattle will have to wait and see.
Murray admits that he had second thoughts about running for mayor. On the morning he planned to announce his candidacy, he shared his doubts with Michael.
“And Michael turned to me and said, ‘I can’t live with you if you don’t do this,’” Murray recalls. “And I said, you’re right. If I don’t do this I will regret it, and I will drive you and myself crazy.”
His mayorship is still in its infancy, but so far Murray feels he made the right choice. “I have to tell you,” he says. “It feels really comfortable.”