Does Seattle work any more?

A former mayor takes a critical look at Seattle's political culture, its past triumphs, and why it's so much harder today to make good decisions. One problem: We chew but do not swallow.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's Pike Place Market. (Chuck Taylor)

A former mayor takes a critical look at Seattle's political culture, its past triumphs, and why it's so much harder today to make good decisions. One problem: We chew but do not swallow.

Editor's note: This article is revised from a speech the author gave some years ago, explaining the political culture of Seattle to a group visiting from another city. It serves as a short primer for Seattle's particular way of doing politics.

What makes our region tick? How do we make (or fail to make) decisions? What are some of successes and challenges? What’s our local political culture, and does Seattle still "work"?

Let me start with a favorite story about the Seattle culture that goes back to 1978. I had just hired a new police chief, a deputy chief from New York named Patrick Fitzsimons. He was going through an especially grueling confirmation by the City Council. He hated to fly, and the council would bring him out for a couple days of hearings, send him back to New York, and then fly him out the next week. This went on for a few weeks, and Patrick was starting to think he might not need this job.

At any rate, he was staying in a downtown hotel on one of these trips and woke up on East Coast time, about four in the morning for an eight o’clock hearing. He was staring out the window at an absolutely deserted Fourth Avenue, not a car or a soul in sight, and a driving rainstorm. He spotted a lone person standing on the corner, rain coat and umbrella flapping in the wind. This person was standing there, in the rain and wind, not a car in sight, at four in the morning, waiting for the light to change from wait to walk.

Pat told the council the story that morning and said, "You know, I really, really do want to be the police chief in this town."

Well, times change, even since 1978. Today that guy standing in the rain might be a millionaire on his way to work at four in the morning, and he most likely would cross against the light to get to the espresso cart on the other side of the street that probably would be open at four in the morning. And I guess that with what has happened around here in the last years — the World Trade Organization and Mardi Gras riots — it might take a whole lot more than it took for Pat Fitzsimons for someone to really, really want to be the chief of police in this town.

While there might be a lot more people walking against the light today, and while the pace has been driven up a notch or two by all the caffeine, congestion, and cash, Seattle is still a pretty laid back, pretty clean place for a big city, arguably in one of the most beautiful physical settings in our country.

One area where the pace has not picked up is how we make decisions. Well, we’re pretty big here on participation, on process. We have a nine-member, full-time, very-well-paid, very-well-staffed City Council, and a "strong mayor" form of government. The council is still elected at large, each member representing the whole city, just as the mayor does, so we sometimes call it the ten-mayor form of government.

Local government takes its time. We do a task force, an advisory committee, a citizen’s oversight panel, as well as any place in the country. In preparing these remarks, I asked 20 people, all of whom I know well, all of whom have been involved for many years in making policy or just generally trying to get things done. I asked them for a sentence or two that would answer the question, "How do things get done around here?" Said one person: "We know how to chew; we just don’t know how to swallow." Another: "The key to getting things done is figuring out how to turn 'process' into a verb rather than a noun."

A former community development director in Seattle: "Seattle gets things done by process. If Seattle were a cheese, it would definitely be Velveeta." And my son, who worked for the current mayor: "Two words: task force."

And it's only getting slower and harder. One reason is that the turf on which Seattle area decisions get made is dramatically different from just a few years ago. In 1910, the city of Seattle was about 90 percent of the region. Now the region is four to five counties, 70 cities. That makes regional decisions much harder to pull off well, and increasingly the big decisions, such as transportation, growth and the environment, are regional.

Let me illustrate the changing political culture with three major defining moments in our recent history. These are success stories, icons, really, in our culture. They help explain why making big decisions about public policy is much more difficult today.

The first story I would call "Seattle goes regional." Lake Washington, a beautiful 13-mile-long lake that separates Seattle and the Eastside, by 1958 had started to smell bad. In fact, it stunk. Fourteen towns and cities were independently discharging more than 20 million gallons of inadequately treated sewage into the lake every day. A group of citizens, led by a focused and skilled civic leader, attorney Jim Ellis, built a constituency for a new state law that would allow the formation of metropolitan municipal corporations to address water quality, transit, and planning issues that were beyond the capacity of counties and incorporated cities.

Energized by the smell of Lake Washington, citizens got metropolitan voters to approve a new government, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle — Metro — which was modeled on a regional government in Toronto. By 1993, after Metro had built four new sewage treatment plants, more than 100 miles of tunnels and sewers, and dozens of pumping stations, the lake was in nearly pristine condition. And it still is. It's got a salmon run. Metro was also running the region's transit system — one of the nation's best. It's a success story, and a defining moment we look back on, draw strength from, as we take on other big regional issues.

The second story I would call "Seattle goes Global." In 1955, a young man named Eddie Carlson, a vice-president of the small chain that became Westin Hotels, was one of several Seattle business people working on a plan to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1907. Then the idea got bigger. Carlson, a Chamber of Commerce guy, Ross Cunningham of The Seattle Times, and City Councilman Al Rochester started pushing the idea of a World's Fair in Seattle. In little more than a year they convinced the legislature and the voters, got a 28-acre site from the city, and beat out New York City for the fair.

Having dinner atop a 400-foot TV tower in Stuttgart, Carlson had another idea, and doodled on a napkin a towering spire with a flying saucer restaurant on top. Civic leaders broke ground for the privately financed Space Needle less than a year before the World’s Fair was set to begin, and got it open at midnight the day before the fair opened on April 21, 1962. With fairgrounds now swollen from 74 acres, a new, space age monorail shuttling people from downtown to the Fair, 35 major exhibits and representation from 59 countries, Century 21 would draw close to 10-million people and put Seattle on the world map.

We have rebuilt and remodeled and added to these fairgrounds, now called Seattle Center, a dozen times since the fair closed in 1962. For many of us, it remains a source of confidence that this community can think big and deliver.

The final story I would call "Seattle comes home and goes downtown." In 1907, the Pike Place Public Market opened for business in a single arcade so that customers could buy vegetables directly from the producer, saving costs. Run down in the early 1960s, the area became a target for the tender mercies of that national nightmare, Urban Renewal. The Market was a rabbit warren of stalls, arcades, rundown buildings, and alleys that the downtown business establishment wanted to replace with parking garages, hotels, and high-rise office buildings. A professor of Architecture at the University of Washington, Victor Steinbrueck, looked beyond the rundown buildings of the Market, and saw our history. Steinbrueck and some other stubborn citizens took advantage of a new national historic preservation act and got the state to approve a 17-acre historic district to stop demolition.

The city responded by reducing the protected district to just 1.7 acres, and the federal government gave the go-ahead for demolition. Steinbrueck and his Friends of the Market took to the streets with a campaign to "Save the Market" and create a 7-acre historic district. In three weeks they had 25,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot against a city proposal for a smaller district.

In a campaign that mobilized the city, the Friends won the election in November of 1971. Almost 30 years later, after millions and millions of public and private dollars, we have arguably the best public market of its kind in the country, its buildings and arcades are lovingly restored, thousands of new residents live nearby, and the Market still has subsidized housing for seniors, a health clinic, day care, and a mix of immigrant farmers, fishermen, and craftspeople. It has been a long struggle, and we are still saving the Market. When it's as close to the center of the city's soul as the Market is, you just keep working on it.

There are lessons in these stories. In two of the three you could argue that it took a crisis to get action: a dying lake, and bulldozers at the Market. All three stories had multiple heroes and heroines, plus a few who were absolutely relentless and stuck to the task over time. But also, times were less complex. I wonder what the environmental impact statement on the Space Needle might look like today, or how the neighbors of Seattle Center might react to 74 acres of new construction.

Here's what else we have learned. We have learned the importance of focusing on downtown. I know of no healthy city in America without a healthy downtown. I know of no city with really healthy neighborhoods that doesn’t have a healthy downtown. We have learned to think beyond our national borders and markets, as with the International Trade and Development Alliance and our aggressive and substantive sister city effort, capitalizing on our ethnic and cultural diversity.

A final lesson is the need to work regionally, and we've only partly learned this one. Take transit, for example. Our first vote on a regional high-capacity transit system was in 1968. It failed, and the federal money went to Atlanta, which built a fine rail system. We voted and failed again in 1970. We spent the next 25 years studying a regional rail and bus system and put together the regional governance and the subway through downtown to make it work. In 1995 we voted again, failed again. Finally, in 1996, the voters approved a scaled-down, $3.9 billion regional transit plan including commuter and light rail. But to get it passed regionally, elected officials had to abandon regionalism and promise that taxes raised for transportation in one jurisdiction could be spent only in that jurisdiction. That compromise continues to bedevil our long saga of trying to complete a rail system in Seattle, years after most other U.S. cities have done so.

All this leads me back to my first point, about how well Seattle process is able to resolve the hard questions. Our system of government, giving lots of people veto rights, makes it harder, requiring enormous tenacity that is not always in ample supply. The questions just get tougher as we get bigger. How can we keep quality air and water and sustain an economy without fixing transportation and sprawl? What must we do if we are to live together in our increasing density and diversity?

When I get discouraged, I remember a guy who sits next to the jogging path around Green Lake. He has a sign that reads, "Questions Answered. Easy Questions, $3.50; Moderately Hard Questions, $2.00; Hard Questions, Free." I guess the moral of the story is that communities have to keep asking (and resolving) the hard questions. It’s not only the right thing to do. It’s a whole lot cheaper.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors