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Leftward Ho, Seattle!

Rookie mayor Ed Murray has jumped onto the new urban progressive bandwagon. His timing is right, but is the fit?
Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda.

Go-slow Murray is fast-tracking a progressive agenda. Credit: Allyce Andrew

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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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 8, 5:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Bold? Progressive? Or another over promising, under performing administration. Seattle is rapidly becoming a bad "portlandia" episode.

Cameron

Posted Thu, May 8, 7:48 a.m. Inappropriate

I disagree with a couple of aspects of this piece. It mislabels government heads here as progressive when their behavior shows them to be something else entirely, and it falsely asserts that "taxing the wealthy" is on the horizon.

First, the government heads in this state always want to get out in front with risky schemes, and nothing about how they go about it is progressive. Seattle's mayors lead the way in those efforts. Old-Metro was an unconstitutional municipality that operated here for thirty years, until it finally was struck down in 1990. It existed in violation of the federal constitution's guarantee of Americans' right to vote for municipal policy-makers. Sound Transit is an oligarchy that now operates in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that people be able to select by popular vote the legislators who set municipal policies. Sound Transit's and Metro's heavy regressive taxing are abusive and completely unlike the best practices used by other bus and train services providers in the country to for transit. The overall state/local taxing structure here is the most regressive in the country. The justices routinely act corruptly and disregard controlling legal precedents in order to put public entities above the law. Nothing about those unique features of civic institutions here is progressive. Just because a democrat here does something does not mean it is progressive.

Second, "tax the wealthy" isn't even on the radar around here. The entire set of government heads -- Ed Murray included -- just pushed hard to hike sales taxes and car tab taxes. That is the only kind of taxing that the democrats here push.

crossrip

Posted Thu, May 8, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Keep in mind, crossrip, that all the points you bring up apply to state, county, or multicounty jurisdictions. King county is not an urban city. Neither is the state. The article is talking about actions specific to Seattle and how Murray is or might deal with them.

An example is the proposed property tax levy to pay for Seattle-specific Metro funding. I consider that progressive compared to car tabs although, of course, all taxes indirectly affect everyone. If Seattle adopts a minimum wage, that will be progress, too. It generally puts more income into the lowest wage earners, though a small percent may lose their job.

pragmatic

Posted Fri, May 9, 6:48 a.m. Inappropriate


An example is the proposed property tax levy to pay for Seattle-specific Metro funding. I consider that progressive

Ed Murray came out against that:

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2023564528_murraytransittaxxml.html

crossrip

Posted Thu, May 8, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Sales's book was written forty years ago.

marsh

Posted Thu, May 8, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't consider it progressive that Murray would trumpet a deal imposing "tip credit" on the lowest paid among us. In essence that's a forced gift from hard workers who make their employers' businesses actually run to the employers who sit back and think about new ways to pay them less. Not fair, and certainly not "progressive" in my book.

mspat

Posted Thu, May 8, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece. One thing I haven't heard a word about in this debate is how this move to increase equality in Seattle could increase inequality in the larger Puget Sound area as the economies of Seattle and the outlying area increasingly diverge. I support a higher minimum wage, but implementing the wage on the state level (or better yet, federal) would be more equitable with fewer unintended consequences.

pika

Posted Thu, May 8, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

“the worst miscues by liberals are largely ignored or excused as politics and media take place in a kind of left-wing echo chamber.”

BlueLight

Posted Thu, May 8, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Very good article, thank you David. I think State law allows municipalities to levy an additional sales tax that adds the State sales tax so that, for example, the sales tax is lower in Whatcom County than it is in King. Cities like Seattle and Counties like King do add their special levy to pay for various civic goods but they must be cautious because the added tax take can drive business to outlying areas that have a lower tax. The Seattle minimum wage hike is in some ways analogous at least as far as benefitting outlying districts; the $15 minimum wage will tend to benefit restaurants, retail stores and some service businesses that are located outside Seattle. We will find out whether or not that makes a perceivable difference.

kieth

Posted Thu, May 8, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

This is an excellent example of the over-arching summary with a point of view that David Brewster has treated us to since we were young back in his days at The Argus. Masked by Amazon and other things David points out Seattle continues to have its head in the sand about jobs. I worked for a railroad company headquartered here 30 years ago and remember this tale of two cities: we then ran trains on the waterfront and it was hard to get a hearing from the city on serious operational issues; on the other hand when our CEO flew to Erie PA for a meeting with the General Electric locomotive division, the mayor met him at the airport. Modern mayors should listen to job creators like Tom Douglas and not be swept toward the cliff David Brewster describes.

ctb

Posted Thu, May 8, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

This is indeed a good article, which usefully relates Seattle to national trends. One element I would emphasize is the experimental nature of all this urban ferment. Nobody really knows how much of this tinkering is actually going to work. One hopes that at some point a coherent agenda can emerge from this inchoate welter of experience. At that point perhaps the Democratic Party can evolve into an entity that actually stands for something definite rather than being just an opportunistic coalition of diverse interest groups.

Another element to consider is that a state of experimental transition may in fact be benefited by the power vacuum at the top of the structure created by national political gridlock. Exasperating though it may be, national gridlock creates breathing space for local experimentation to occur. The biggest danger is that populist frustration at chronic inaction may result in a stampede toward a right-wing political savior with an ambitious authoritarian agenda. On the theological level, a primary argument for the existence of a Benevolent God may well be the remarkable inability of the Republican Party (so far) to come up with a credible Great Leader to gently ease us into the safe and secure promised land of Fascism with a Friendly Face. Just keep those clowns and buffoons coming, folks!

Finally, as to Murray himself, it will be interesting to see how much real backbone he shows when the inevitable harsh pushback against rampant progressivism emerges. I hope he surprises me, but I expect a well-rationalized Obama-like retreat. Ultimately, a gay mayor is likely to possess the same sense of insecure vulnerability as a black president.

woofer

Posted Thu, May 8, 10:45 p.m. Inappropriate

This was entirely predictable. I know, because I predicted it. McGinn was such a pernicious fat weasel that he had to be dumped, but I never once had any illusions about Murray being nothing but a kinder face on Seattle's ongoing "progressive" corruption.

NotFan

Posted Fri, May 9, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

"I expected the pendulum to swing back, giving us a Mayor Fixit in Ed Murray."

Some would say actually DOING SOMETHING about the researched-to-death, obvious, non-controversial connection between universal pre-K and better ed outcomes is being a pragmatic Mr. Fixit. Some would say actually DOING SOMETHING about the most broken police department we've had in a generation is being a pragmatic Mr. Fixit. Some would even say that actually DOING SOMETHING about the steady, decades-long erosion of the minimum wage is being a pragmatic Mr. Fixit.

That's the thing about FIXING STUFF. You have to fix it. It doesn't magically fix itself by shuffling flat or negative revenues around the same bureaucracy. And the "public-private partnerships" that are supposed to sprinkle fairy dust on all our problems without costing us anything have a track record of 90% failure to achieve a real change. Yes, you have anecdotes that are the exception to the rule. But that's what they are - Exceptions.

For a generation, Seattle and this state sat by while infrastructure crumbled, school funding got so bad its ILLEGAL, development was fought by NIMBYs and then run out of control as the pendulum swung back to active developers flexing all their property rights, and a police department atrophied into an insular, violent, stooge-factory.

Mr. Fixit means making up for decades of inaction. So if it looks "activist" to us, maybe we should consider the habits we've built in the last 30 years. They aren't good, and they aren't a realistic path to improving this city.

nullbull

Posted Sat, May 10, 12:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's "progressives" have never actually been interested in doing the things that get done by actual city governments. In this place, the "progressives" are exclusively interested in symbolic statements. It's a bit like how the various media outlets, regardless of political slant, have turned toward opinion programs because it's so much cheaper than reporting actual news.

Seattle "progressive" symbolism is so easy; let's talk about fixing streets, but not actually fix them. The "progressive" smugness, laziness, and corruption in this city is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw.

NotFan

Posted Fri, May 9, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Murray is a product of the Democrat Machine..Mr. Fixit he isn't.

Cameron

Posted Fri, May 9, 11:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Progressive means "Afraid to trust people to make choices"

pdx

Posted Sat, May 10, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

David Brewster,

I have been reading your big-picture strategic "grand bargain" political stories since Seattle Magazine and I love every last one of them because I get such a smile...such as...

"After a lefty Charles Royer came a sober Norm Rice; after a vision-guy Paul Schell, we reverted to back-to-basics Greg Nickels."

Posted Sat, May 10, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

No jobs, no progress, it's that simple. Right now Seattle is fast becoming an island and while it might survive for a while as an island, sooner or later the rest of the state will stampede through the gates and crash the party. It'll be an interesting show watching Darwin work his magic in the social sciences.

Djinn

Posted Sun, May 11, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Light-rail, of course, has been made possible by a coalition of urban and inner-suburban voters (the latter living in increasingly urbanized suburbs with suburbs of their own). It helped, of course, that many exurban voters were lopped off the district map...

The mayor of Seattle, of course, is largely a ceremonial office, with the real power vested in the council - without popular support, he is easily rendered irrelevant.

Posted Sun, May 11, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

My partner and I are of middle class incomes and all the reasons listed in the article are reasons we moved out of the city and county. We simply could not afford to live in Seattle. The city has great restaurants and attractions which we can see and visit anytime while living elsewhere. The property taxes for us reached critical mass and it was time to go.

Posted Mon, May 12, 4:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Makes good sense.

Posted Mon, May 12, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting, but flawed, paradigm. While there is a reaction to actions, the motivation for action or inaction is $$$$$, only conditioned by the threat of being fired by the voters. Nichols didn't deal with the basics. Did not want to deal with sewer infrastructure (decided it was 'not' his job) and failed on getting the snow cleared. How basic is that?

Posted Tue, May 13, 7:15 p.m. Inappropriate

so transit was a crazy leftist idea?
and nutso progressives being lead by the nose by the SEIU have caused the collapse of the middle class in the cities? (this apparently isn't happening in the upstanding rational rural areas)- upping the minimum wage a folly? Brewster, you have produced a steaming pile of cowflop - might as well read a Blethen paper

zippy

Posted Wed, May 14, 8:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I find this article to be a disappointment in light of the author's great summary of Seattle's political economy at http://crosscut.com/2013/04/30/politics-government/114196/seattles-next-mayor-will-be-mcginn-like/

The disappointment stems in large part from the heavy reliance on the perspective of Harold Meyerson's American Prospect Article ("The Revolt of the Cities")—interesting but superficial. Reading the section on Seattle, I wondered if he was writing about the same city. And unlike Mr. Brewster's "next mayor" article, Meyerson conflates all "liberals" (and most Democrats) into the same boat, whether they be progressive inequity fighters or neo-liberal agents of the regime itself.

(Pittsburgh is not a very good simile for Seattle; it's population peaked in the high 600,000s in the early 1950s, and has dropped to less than half that size. The urban area is comparable to King County in size, but the area's political and economic history, demographics, and trends are inapposite to Seattle's.)

I think it's great that service sector labor, new immigrant, and youth coalitions are forming to challenge the power structures in a number of American cities. However, it will not gain much to increase the minimum wage or achieve other (worthwhile!) bandaids without changing the underlying causes of wealth (and therefore power) inequality. Meyerson mentions "The regional tech boom has brought thousands of young professionals to [Seattle], who have proved supportive of the coalition’s campaigns." But many of those yups are part of the "urbanist" crowd vociferously promoting the very gentrification driving growth machine that many progressives aim to thwart.

Please (re)read Logan and Molotch's seminal work on the subject, Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (1987). Chapter 3, "The City as Growth Machine," is the real "seminal work" on the subject.

louploup

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