That was the year that brought questions: 2011

In Seattle, a populist mayor suffered through unpopularity, the school system looped back through a new round of crisis, the police ran into more troubles apparently caused by a few officers, and the state's congressional delegation grew in power just as the entire system turned dysfunctional. Any answers out there?

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Mayor Mike McGinn, seen in mid-2011 with police discussing increased nighttime patrols, is now dealing with a federal report on police practices.

In Seattle, a populist mayor suffered through unpopularity, the school system looped back through a new round of crisis, the police ran into more troubles apparently caused by a few officers, and the state's congressional delegation grew in power just as the entire system turned dysfunctional. Any answers out there?

Years are complicated, arbitrary slices of time where events pile up in random layers like cold cuts on a Dagwood sandwich. Reviewing the news of the year-gone-past is imprecise archaeology: you pick out layers that catch the eye while looking for the telling trend. 

But 2011 revealed there are many trends, and lots of stories that have no final chapter. On the weekly KUOW Seattle news roundtable, we endlessly gabbed on about "the tunnel," its mere conception a saga in itself. At the state level, we expressed bafflement and outrage at "the budget crisis;" at the national level, we often responded to the insanity and dysfunction of our nation's politics, emblematic being the GOP primary campaign, a Gong Show without a gong. 

All these trends spill from one year to the next, sometimes, the stories also seem to be flowing backwards in time. The Great Recession's impacts go on, the world economy still totters, troops are out of Iraq but terrorism continues; the Arab world's revolutions tangle and turn; Seattle schools stagger from reform to crisis to reshuffle to crisis in a seemingly endless loop. As we arrive at the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we are told these times are like the 1860s. We're told it's the second Great Depression, or rather the new Sputnik era, or perhaps akin to the fall of Rome. Our presidential candidates are commended or condemned as the "new" Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, Harry Truman, Abe Lincoln, Bob Dole, or Michael Dukakis. Trying to define our times, we are like manic Mad Hatters trying on any headgear until we have that ah-hah moment in the mirror: Oh, so that's who we are. Hello, Nero!

For Seattle's "2011" label (Year of the Bag Ban? Year of the $800 Tow?), I've decided to simply name some of  the many layers that made the year that was. Please feel free to pile on your own.

Year of the Big Questions: As the year ended, the news was bad on a couple of major civic fronts. The School District is in crisis (again) and the school board shake-up suggests school reform needs reform. Schools supe Maria Goodloe-Johnson was dumped because of management questions rising out of a major fraud scandal, and her interim replacement, Susan Enfield, has announced she'll be a school superintendent anywhere but here. A fiscal crisis looms amid I-told-you-sos from activists who warned the district not to waste money on its Glass Palace for bureaucrats, a piper that must be paid with credit cards that are tapped out. 

In the meantime, the Department of Justice has delivered a devastating report card to the Seattle Police Department and its use of force. Only the police seem surprised that they got a failing grade, initially responding like Greg Nickels after a snowstorm. Will we have to get a new Chief? Will the Department take the recommendations seriously? Will the union back reform, or resist? The city had only a few critical duties: the streets, the sewers, the schools, the cops. Sure, the plastic bag ban is eco-friendly, but how are we on the stuff that matters most, like education and safety? The city leadership starts the new year with a couple of huge assignments.

The Year Boeing Flew Again: The 787 is off the ground. Fittingly, the first company to put them into service, All-Nippon Airways, will feature Dreamliners on a Seattle route, asking our business travelers to gamble along with them that the plastic plane flies as advertised. The decision to build the 737 Max here, in an historic agreement with the union, is a huge step in guaranteeing that we stay a Boeing town for years to come. The year's one downer in aviation: Seattle didn't get a Space Shuttle for the Museum of Flight.

The Year Prohibition Ended: Ken Burns featured Seattle and its rumrunners in his PBS Prohibition documentary. Meanwhile Washington's prohibition legacy was dismantled by Costco, the retail giant that had made it big by selling merchandise as if it fell off the back of a truck. They bought an election for the people with an offer we couldn't refuse: new taxes for the state, cheaper prices for liquor, more alcohol in more places, including Costco. The Liquor Control Board is now antique and the state is getting out of the booze business, pending, of course, a lawsuit. The city of Seattle has officially asked for longer bar hours to boost its nightlife, and since the Great Recession is slow to end, well, maybe we can imbibe ourselves back to a sense of well-being. Skol!

Year of the Unpopular Populist: Mayor Mike McGinn is the outsider's insider who has battled the polls all year. His anti-tunnel stance tagged him as an obstructionist, and his support for a tunnel vote turned out to be an exploding cigar: the tunnel was validated, the mayor repudiated by voters who just wanted to move on. McGinn was beaten back on an $80 car tab proposal; the voters even rejected its $60 replacement. Seattleites like bikes and walking, but if you wanted to know the state of the War on Cars, you might have visited University Village at Christmas where SUV gridlock reigned. The great parlor game of 2011? Who is going to beat McGinn in 2013?

Yet, with the Great Tunnel Debate settled, the mayor was free to reshuffle priorities: an attack on child sex trafficking in the Weekly's online classifieds, more press releases and conferences announcing whatever there was to announce. A slimmer look offered an Oprah-like story line ("Slimmer, Trimmer Mayor McGinn Shares 50-pound Weight Loss Secrets,") a better wardrobe, a lot of ideas (more transit, high-speed Internet connectivity) that people agree with, victory for the Families and Education Levy. McGinn seems to have stanched the bleeding for now. Not enough, however, to stop the parlor game.

The Year it Tolls for Thee: Speaking of unpopular populists, Tim Eyman suffered the defeat of his anti-tolling initiative, and that opens the floodgates to more tolling in the state. Highway 520 is set up to start variable tolling Thursday (Dec. 29) to help fund a mega-project that has been proceeding, if not fully funded (despite tolls). I-90 is next, and eventually transportation experts hope to roll out tolls as far and wide as they can, thanks to the ease of electronic collections. Red light cameras? That's another matter.

Year of the Endless Budget Crises: The system does not work, but no real reform is yet in sight. The state slashes billions, and is looking ahead at the next biennium when more budget shortfalls are assured — even with a robust economic recovery. King County estimates it will have to cut at least 3 percent per year or more forever just to keep things going at a semblance of normal. The city is still chopping staff, services, and not hiring the cops everyone says we need. The local government budgeteers are now like the workers in Scrooge's shop, sitting at their computers, typing in gloves with the fingers cut off while squeezing the people. Taxing the rich? Last time that was on the ballot, progressive Washington rejected it.

Year of Officer Not-So-Friendly: The DOJ report was shocking to some, confirming to many. It's a picture not so much a culture of bad cops but of a few bad cops who don't seem to get better, of a department not being proactive enough to stop problems before they happen. The video tape proved that some officers don't know the meaning of de-escalation, and that the loss of empathy is an occupational hazard. In December, with the chief defending his department, new tapes showed an officer threatening to "skullf**k" a guy during a traffic stop (ironically, the police claimed this was de-escalation!) and other officers making fun of a pedestrian who had just been hit by a truck, and imitating the accent of the truck driver. And that's how cops act in non-threatening situations. Speaking about trouble on the streets, self-appointed "super-hero" Phoneix Jones was proven mortal when he was arrested for pepper spraying some folks. Whatever is happening, it's not a cartoon or comic book.

Year of the Loser: In keeping with Seattle's slacker reputation, 2011 began with the Seattle Seahawks making it into the playoffs with a losing record(7-9), the first team to do so in modern NFL history.

Year of the Restless Billionaires: Paul Allen published his autobiography which gained buzz for its criticisms of former school chum and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (for the record, he didn't think much of Steve Jobs, either). Many wonder why a guy who rocks with Bono, is building a space ship, and cruises the world in the giant mega-yacht Octopus would complain about anything. Another billionaire, Starbucks exec Howard Schultz, got mad-as-hell at Washington, D.C., politics. Schultz went rogue, organizing a movement to dry up political donations until politicians get their act together. Schultz denied he was setting himself up for an independent run for office, but he sure sounded like a guy who wants to be remembered for more than purveying the perfect macchiato. And Amazon's Jeff Bezos continues to pour money into both building his company and building his own spaceship, which seemed to suffer a setback this year when an unmanned rocket of his went ka-boom over Texas. Meanwhile, Bill and Melinda Gates opened the doors of their new foundation headquarters with its big and restless ambitions to change the world.

Year of the Sad Senators: In Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Washington has its most powerful and visible senate duo since Scoop Jackson and Warren G. Manguson. Murray is a player in D.C. and was on the high-profile, unproductive Senate super-commitee. Cantwell is well regarded by Wall Street reformers and is up for re-election with surprising little serious opposition in a year that could be good for Republicans on the state ticket. Why are they sad? They're probably not, but what is sad is that their ascendance has coincided with the increase in D.C. dysfunction: the bipartisanship, the negotiations, the deal-making, the horse-trading, the earmarks that were Scoop and Maggie's stock in trade now seem from a bygone era. When the Scoop and Maggie left, we lamented the loss of power. Now that Washington state again has the power brokers, the power system is broken.

Year of Mixed Signals: The feds declare a war on obesity,yet Seattle considers allowing junk food sales back in schools. The ferry system rethinks how many people can fit on a boat because ferry commuters are bigger and fatter than they used to be, yet the city is pushing for more food carts on the streets so those walk-ons have great access to hot dogs and barbecue. Seattle is both a walkable, and waddle-able, city.

Year of Final Bows: With the 50th anniversary of Century 21 fast approaching, we've lost some of the last key players who made the new Seattle possible: former Gov. Al Rosellini, former Mayor Gordon Clinton, and Seattle arts patron and Space Needle entrepreneur Bagley Wright. J.P. Patches, still alive, announced that he was retiring from public performance (the only clowns left are at City Hall?). City Council member Jean Godden wanted to name a transfer station after Patches (they'll name a new solid-waste education center after him). Patches is the former Mayor of the City Dump, but doesn't Mayor of the Seattle Transfer Station sound more like a title for, say, Richard Conlin? Not quite dead, but apparently in hospice, the Seattle marketing slogan, "Metronatural." In transition: Bobo, the stuffed gorilla, already dead but going in for major surgery. Wishing Bobo, and you, the best for 2012.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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