Let’s hear it for the mayor’s incrementalism!
by Knute Berger
Is Ed Murray's incrementalism the fastest way to make change? Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrews
Some politicians are like heat-seeking missiles, ready to jump into — or even create — controversy at the drop of a hat. Mike McGinn was like that. He could turn anything into a food fight: a new Whole Foods in West Seattle, bike paths, classified sex ads, the tunnel.
Other politicians look not to generate heat but to smother it with a blanket, or perhaps an enthusiastic embrace. Mayor Ed Murray seems to be of this school. A self-professed incrementalist, he's brought some of his step-by-step legislative approach to City Hall: To get something done, form a committee, hold a summit, hammer out a compromise.
The $15-and-hour push is an impressive example of such politics. Murray seized on the idea during the campaign, pleasing his union supporters. He refused to let McGinn get to the left of him on the issue. After his election — and that of socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant — he refused to cede to her the moral high-ground on income inequality. Sawant attempted to claim she was the only true believer in the higher minimum wage, but Murray quickly and sharply insisted that he was just as committed to it, not as a socialist but as a Catholic progressive.
Then he quickly formed a committee and hammered out an agreement that passed, with tweaks, 9-0 in the City Council. Sawant even voted for it, declared victory and it appears no activist initiative will appear on the ballot to challenge the mayor's compromise of $15-an-hour, phased in over several years. After the vote, a signing ceremony passed without much hoopla. The wage hike will now work its way toward implementation at a judicious, bureaucratic pace.
It's a win for the mayor on principle, and politically. He was able to put out the potential fire of a populist rebellion. The multi-year phase-in is sensible, but it also inoculates the mayor if there are problems with it down the road. He is reasonable, not rash; problems can be dealt with, a bit at a time; if big ones show up, they might not even happen on the mayor's watch. Challenges from the right by business, or a possible Tim Eyman statewide initiative will position Murray as the defender of Seattle's progressive values. Batling Eyman is a Seattle politician's dream match-up. Overall, the political hay has been made, potential disaster largely averted.
The $15 wage fight is Murray's biggest victory in his first six months in office. If it's indicative of the future, moderate progressives should be happy, so too Sawant and her allies. They have a mayor they can pressure, and deal with. They can provide progressive spark – and Sawant is already working trying to get Seattle liberals to abandon the Democrats and join with her Socialist Alternative party to make more things happen.
She could have some success — many Seattleites are at least mild socialists at heart, if not in name. But the mainstream of city liberalism lies with Murray, a social conscience that embraces capitalism. One of the business leaders of the $15 campaign is entrepreneur Nick Hanauer who said at Civic Cocktail shortly after the council's vote that his goal in getting the measure passed was not "fairness," but making capitalism work better. In other words, the new minimum wage is good for business because it creates a righteous cycle between employers and workers. Pay people well and they become great customers. There's no better system than capitalism, says Hanauer. Let's improve it and we'll all be better off. The rich, like Hanauer, will get richer, but so will almost everyone else.
As left-wingnutty as Seattle is sometimes caricatured, it's still a town of business, big and small. Down at Westlake and Olive is a statue of former Gov. John McGraw and the way the sculpture is oriented today suggests, by virtue of its most visible inscription, that McGraw's most noble career accomplishment was being president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. Our capitalistic roots are strong and deep; radical activism has occasionally surged, but rarely gained power. Labor may score an occasional strategic victory, but workers never really run the show (ask Boeing's machinists). With $15 passing, even council member and onetime lefty activist Nick Licata is taking up the business boostwer mantra, proclaiming Seattle "a world-class city."
Murray doesn't dive into class warfare rhetoric and policy — at least he's less willing to do so than McGinn was or Sawant is. Ultimately, the city council and city government will be dominated by pro-business progressives who believe we can have a thriving economy (Amazon jobs) and social justice ($15-and-hour wages). District elections could scramble this mix a bit, but Murray came into office with a council majority supporting him, and so far it has proved to be effective and formidable, backing the mayor on key issues such as wages and SPD reforms and a new chief.
Another win for Murray, at least on the $15 wage issue, is to overturning the notion of a city in gridlock. Can incrementalism actually make progress faster than do-it-now-ism? The mayor's task force could have been window dressing, or a stall, but it wasn't. Negotiators hammered out an agreement, and as Hanauer tell it, some members had to work from opposing starting positions: $15 now and $15 never. Not everyone was happy. Nightlife entrepreneur Dave Meinert said it soured him on city politics. But some would say that's inevitable in getting to a compromise. Was this an example of Seattle process working (lots of consultation and debate), or an example of its obsolescence? Is it ironic that a guy who likes summits, committees and baby steps is actually getting ground-shaking policy made?
My sense is that it's an example of Seattle process, but the time lapse version. We've seen this before with other milestones, most notably the 1962 world's fair. But as I've argued before, for a city supposedly gridlocked, we've accomplished a hell of a lot. Still, Greg Nickels tried to kickstart the tendency toward entropy by declaring the "Seattle Way," meaning everyone gets to debate an idea, then Nickels would decide on a course of action, or his deputy Tim Ceis would inform people of where a project would be in the queue of priorities. Murray's is more like Bill Clinton's approach of embrace and extend: co-opt the position of a rival or an opponent and move it forward, make deals, don't let perfection become your enemy.
Murray has said continually, even ad nauseam, that his role in legalizing gay marriage is the model he brings to City Hall. With the $15 win, he's achieved a major victory, disarmed the firebrand critics and seems poised to make progress on the next issue — or put out political fires if necessary. Sometimes, you can accomplish both at once.