There have long been two reliable axioms about Seattle politics. Both are now faltering. One maxim was that the city, with its sensible middle-class electoral base, reverts to the mean in alternating elections. After a lefty Charles Royer came a sober Norm Rice; after a vision-guy Paul Schell, we reverted to back-to-basics Greg Nickels.
And so, after the thrashing around of a greenie Mayor Mike McGinn, I expected the pendulum to swing back, giving us a Mayor Fixit in Ed Murray. Known for his go-slow tactics in Olympia, Murray seemed destined to be a plumber to unclog big projects like the waterfront, Bertha, 520. The list of troubled mega-projects is very long. In the campaign, Murray promised to be a regionalist and an Olympia fixer. Stop Freakin’, call Murray.
Not to be. Start Freakin’. Mayor Murray is more a high-risk plunger than a plumber.
Murray is tromping on the accelerator for even more liberal causes than Mayor McGinn favored. As he said in his inaugural, Murray wants the city to lead on “disparity in pay and in housing, in urban policing, on the environment, and providing universal pre-K.” Not a reversion to normalcy, but expensive, transformative progressivism on many fronts. It’s reminiscent of the way Obama started his presidency (badly misjudging the public and the chances for Republican cooperation).
The other now-dubious axiom in local textbooks has been that Seattle takes advantage of a geographic remoteness that produces a “cultural lag.” Let other cities try bold schemes first; we’ll imitate successes and avoid the flops. And so, we waited forever to build rail transit. Also, when we have tried to get out in the vanguard, it usually has backfired. We tried mandatory busing without a court order, got a lot of praise and almost ruined our schools. We were going to be the first city to turn monorails from tourist toys to rapid transit — splat! Mayor Nickels tried to make Seattle the leading city in meeting Kyoto carbon goals — and got booted from office for not minding the store.
Now Bertha and Kshama and “the highest minimum wage in the world.” Who do we think we are? Jeff Bezos?
So how did Seattle go from prudent incrementalism to being a contender to win the Super Bowl of Urban Progressivism? And is this, as they say, sustainable?
The first thing to grasp is that Seattle, while not typical of American cities, is certainly not alone in this sudden leftward-ho! lurch. Murray’s political agenda is mirroring a sudden and powerful trend in Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and perhaps another dozen cities. These burgs have a firm progressive majority on the council and among voters, and an ambitious new (often young) mayor. They have business and tech wealth to support the programs. They have young people, single women and lots of minorities and immigrants to sustain the coalition. And they have the solid organizational work of unions, particularly in the service sector (hotels, hospitals, supermarket clerks). The business establishment and once-complacent politicos are running for the bomb shelters.
This new coalition has been marshaled skillfully by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has been investing in local coalitions in 17 key cities since 2011. Harold Meyerson reports and applauds all this in a seminal recent article, “The Revolt of the Cities.” Suddenly, candidates of this coalition surprise the sleepy older coalition, dominated by middle-aged and elderly men. In Pittsburgh, 29-year-old Natalia Rudiak, scorned by the Democratic Party but buoyed by union support, rode into power on her issue of a prevailing wage for city contracts. In Seattle, it was Kshama Sawant, a Trotskyist no less, blindsiding the center-left Richard Conlin. Talk about a wake-up call!
Abetting these political opportunities on the urban left have been major shifts in the demography of cities such as Seattle. First is the wave of non-European immigrants reshaping American cities since 1980. Meyerson’s article gives these figures for changes in the white population in the past 30 years: Seattle, from 79 percent to 66; Minneapolis, from 86 to 64, Boston from 68 to 47, Phoenix from 78 to 47, and New York from 53 to 37.
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