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Leftward Ho, Seattle!

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

Mirroring the racial changes is the surge in 20-somethings, particularly in technology cities. A new study puts Seattle, with 20.4 percent of its population in the 20-29 age bracket, as second-most-attractive for millennials in the nation. (D.C. is first, with Minneapolis, San Francisco and Austin just behind Seattle.)

Voters of color, millennials, single women (now the most reliable demographic for Democrats, after African Americans), community organizations, unions, immigrants-rights groups, affordable-housing advocates, greens, liberal religious institutions and tech progressives have turned most cities into one-party, progressive bastions. Meyerson notes the difference between Walter Mondale’s urban margins in 1984 and Obama’s in 2012. In most cities Obama outperformed Mondale’s election margins by 20 percentage points (22 in Seattle, 27 in Columbus, Ohio).

The result of these pent-up changes, combined with public exasperation with Congress and legislatures, was the remarkable Class of 2013, which Meyerson calls “one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” Among the star pupils: mayors Bill de Blasio of New York, Bill Perduto of Pittsburgh, Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis, Martin Walsh of Boston, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Greg Stanton of Phoenix and Seattle's Ed Murray.

The agenda in these cities is very ambitious: raise minimum wages; require contractors to hire inner-city residents and boost pay on city projects; back union organizing; pre-K schooling with new taxes to subsidize it; more public transit in poor neighborhoods; requiring police to videotape contacts with citizens; tougher laws to restrict carbon emissions; building more affordable housing; taxing the wealthy; forcing developers to include affordable housing in new projects. New York Mayor de Blasio is so ambitious in his plans (one absurd goal is to reduce traffic deaths to zero!) that a New York Times editorial likens them to a “moon shot.”

Odd man out? Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, still focused on an older, broader agenda of crime, schools, decaying infrastructure and pension debt.

Now for the caveats and cautions.  

A good place to start is the balanced assessment of this new wave of mayors by Thomas Edsall, “Will Liberal Cities Leave the Rest of America Behind?” Edsall notes that cities such as Seattle are exceptional, in that they have major economic resources other cities lack: Amazon and Microsoft and UW in Seattle, MIT and Harvard in Boston, Silicon Valley in San Francisco, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, financial-sector billionaires in Manhattan. “These advantages are the exception, not the rule,” Edsall observes. They underscore that progressivism at the local level takes money and wealth, even as the new progressives demonize the rich.

A second worry, stressed by Richard Florida in his chastened new mood about creative-class cities, is that the most successful cities are the major drivers of growing inequality, clustering the wealthiest and the disadvantaged, while driving out the middle class with high costs and fewer jobs. (New York’s middle class is now down to 16 percent of its population.)

A third worry is that progressive cities will shoot themselves in the foot by running to excess. Tighter restrictions on police might lead to higher rates of crime. (New York Mayor de Blasio’s airy dismissal of crime worries in his campaign: “It used to be in New York you worried about getting mugged. Today’s mugging is economic. Can you afford your rent?”) Also, the tight alliance of the new progressives with unions probably means fewer pushes for education reform, a key issue for retaining the middle class. And at what point do you tax out affluent taxpayers and squeeze out marginal small businesses?

A fourth worry is voiced by Joel Kotkin, who fears in an essay in The Daily Beast that the middle class, backbone of prudent politics, is departing these cities, by design and by default. He sees an urban electorate that is “increasingly one-dimensional, and less middle class, not only in economic status but also, perhaps more importantly, in attitude.” One sign of middle-class flight: Voting rates in cities are plummeting. The result, Kotkin laments, is a political monoculture in which “the worst miscues by liberals are largely ignored or excused as politics and media take place in a kind of left-wing echo chamber.” 

That monoculture was never more evident than in the rush to embrace a wildly risky boost in Seattle’s minimum wage, going where no economist has been able to trace the steps. Seattle loves to go over these cliffs, when the politics of the street stampede politicians to rush for political cover. Examples: the early votes on the zany monorail, and the rush to ratify Chris Hansen’s basketball arena.   

Thomas Edsall sums up this curious, tentative shift in urban politics well. “Urban America is now on a reconnaissance mission for progressive politics," he writes. "What we’re still waiting to find out is whether the policies and programs developed in the nation’s thriving urban core will prove to be broadly applicable. Can the new progressive mayors lay the groundwork for a national agenda, or will bold and innovative policy experiments that privilege New York and Seattle fail their disadvantaged cousins like Stockton, Detroit, Buffalo, and Baltimore?” To which I would add: Will they prove sustainable even in advantaged cities such as Seattle?

Mayor Murray came to the job without a real urban philosophy, aside from his genuine sympathy for the poor and the marginalized, and a strong pro-union orientation. His inexperience might counsel a year or two of open-mindedness, deep thinking about urban economics and changing populations, and hearing from the less-loud citizens. Mind the cultural lag, as it were. Instead, a ready-made syllabus and potent political coalition were handed to him, with lots of national media cheering him on, and Murray seems on the verge of swallowing it without much chewing.

Has the conversion been too sudden? Are the big problems in transportation going to overwhelm his social-equity agenda? And does the new, theatrical politics of inequality really suit what Roger Sale, in his wise history, Seattle Past to Present, called “the most middle-class major city in America”?

This time, other cities are waiting to see how Seattle’s risky experiments pan out.

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