2008: Year of Hope, Year of Fear. Essay 2

Seattle should heed the message of getting back to the nitty gritty basics
Crosscut archive image.

A Seattle Department of Transportation snowplow.

Seattle should heed the message of getting back to the nitty gritty basics

Seattle seems to shine in theory, but as the response (or lack of it) during our December snow storm, the city often can't be counted on when it comes to the nitty gritty details. Mayor Greg Nickels has received recognition for his maverick diplomacy preaching the gospel of the Kyoto climate accords, but few are happy with his hometown leadership. The mayor gave himself a "B" grade in snow storm response, but when KING-5 TV asked viewers to weigh in, 37 percent gave the city a "D" and 40 percent gave an "F." That means nearly 80 prcent of citizens rated the city's performance a complete fiasco, as close as you ever get to consensus in this town. Finally, Greg Nickels brings us together in 2008.

This was the year Nickels began running in earnest for re-election, staging an ambitious series of photo-ops to showcase him as leader of the "pot hole rangers." Message: I'm the guy who gets things done. But Christmas week left that image very much battered, a kind of slow-motion WTO-style debacle involving putting our icy streets on a low-salt diet. The question for 2009: Did Mayor Pothole step in a nasty chuckhole himself? Will his chronic unpopularity finally catch-up with his political machine?

One thing the mayor has going for him is that Seattleites (myself included) are easily distracted by the trivial and symbolic. This was the year of vehement debates over plastic bag taxes, tree rules, beach bonfire bans, and car-less days.

The city council, it was hoped, would bring some maturity to things, but the new group seems insistent on either symbolic gestures (lets build a trolley car system we can't pay for!) or endorsing fixes (the Mercer Mess!) that aren't really fixes. Nick Licata makes attempts to keep his colleagues honest, but allies and skeptics like Peter Steinbrueck are missed. Still, new council members have some time yet to prove themselves and the 2009 election will be another chance to reshape, and hopefully upgrade, the body. A voter's work is never done.

One thing 2008 gave Seattle, which will help in the new year, is the gift of cognitive congruence with American reality. No longer need Seattle contemplate seceding from the union (as Nickels hinted earlier this year) to make progress in the world. The sense of congruence comes from two things.

First, Seattle loves Barack Obama and having George W. Bush out of the White House makes the country feel right again. Plus, the new New Deal policies being formulated suggest the federal government will become an active enabler of our shovel-ready dreams and our green schemes. The re-election of Gov. Christine Gregoire added to the sense of well-being among local liberals, even if she's on a tight budget.

Second, as Seattle's economy slows and our big companies struggle (WaMu dead, the Starbucks juggernaut halted, Boeing stalled, the high-rises not rising) we are less out of step with much of the rest of the country which sank into the Great Recession before we did. We boomed a bit longer, we busted a little later, but the year-end sees us joining the ranks of the struggling.

That's the good news bad news in the Year of Hope and Fear.

Some argue that Seattle is at its best during down times. The city isn't so prone to distraction by civic baubles and it's big heart comes through in a pinch. Let's hope that's true in '09. Could this be a year when we focus on basic functions, on helping the people of Nickelsville, on remembering that a city's job is to pick up the garbage, to catch bad guys, to keep the buses and schools running?

Don't count on it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.