Murray, McGinn will be talking Ever Greater Seattle

Lesser Seattle? The next mayor race will likely be whoever promises a more utopian future.
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Lesser Seattle? The next mayor race will likely be whoever promises a more utopian future.

With the primary over political watchers are wondering which way the voters who did not back Mayor Mike McGinn and state Sen. Ed Murray will be leaning. It's a good question since it makes up a big chunk of Seattlites who care.

Erica Barnett of Publicola uses the defeat of Peter Steinbrueck as an opportunity to declare Lesser Seattle dead, saying the election outcome poses a dilemma for growth skeptics. "[T]he Lesser Seattle crowd doesn't have a candidate to back in this year's mayor's race."

My question to Erica: When did they ever?

First, Lesser Seattle was never a political movement — it's been more like a thread running through the city since the late 1950s. It's more of an attitude than a platform, which pokes holes in the grandiosity of city boosters. It was an antidote to the boosterism of Greater Seattle which, one could make the case, is in jeopardy also, given that it was birthed in the late 1940s to give us Seafair, which might be fading, if this year's low turnout isn't a fluke.

Second, the popular consensus is that density is a good thing. Lesser Seattleism has always been about more than density — it's about pretension as much as anything. And besides, I beat Erica to the punch by pronouncing Lesser Seattle dead in 2006. The cartoon of Lessers who want no change whatsoever is just that. As I pointed out in that 2006 column, even Emmett Watson didn't actually believe in Lesser Seattle. It was a columnist's device.

I can point to no modern mayor of Seattle who ever was a true Lesser guy, except maybe in the small case "l" sense. Seattle is a city where the politics are all about real estate development: transportation, congestion, bridges, tunnels, light rail, affordable housing, Whole Foods, South Lake Union zoning, Transit Oriented Development — it's all about who lives where and who makes money off of it. Mayors, whether social reformers or real-estate men themselves, are always for Greater.

When was the last time a true, hard-core Lesser believer was in the mayoral finals? I would argue that was city councilmember Charlie Chong who lost to Paul Schell in 1997. We've had mayors who were more neighborhood friendly than others, or less bought by downtown business interests, but in a quick survey of the last 50 years or so, McGinn, Greg Nickels, Paul Schell, Norm Rice, Charles Royer, Wes Uhlman, Dorm Braman, Floyd Miller, Gordon Clinton, on and on, have all been urban boosters of one flavor or another: pro development, pro-redevelopment, pro-transit, pro-urban villages, pro-downtown development, pro New York Alki.

If true Lesser-dom has won any battles it has been the one for keeping Seattle process slow and full of checks-and-balances. We are a city that likes to keep its options open, move carefully, but imagine boldly.

Pronouncing Lesser Seattle dead is mostly eulogizing a feeling, not a reality.

Steinbrueck ran a campaign appealing to neighborhoods interests, the small guy vs. the big guy. That's been in our politics a long time, certainly back to the populist reformers of the early century. But neither Steinbrueck — Peter nor his father, Victor — were or are Lesserites. Both have embraced urbanism. Victor brought architecture to the public by urging people toward better planning and a greater consciousness of the nitty gritty of the urban environment. Know your city, improve it. Architect Peter carried on in the same tradition, but as someone who was more able to channel some of his father's outsider passion into actual land use code. Both, however, argued for a Better Seattle.

Bruce Harrell also argued from the same thing, but from a different perspective. He made his personal story — minority kid from the South Seattle streets and Husky star who became a successful attorney and city councilman — into a blueprint for a fairer Seattle, the One Seattle he discussed with so much passion. Can we make a city that helps others do what I have done? he asked. That too is an argument for a Better Seattle than the one we are now.

Together, the Steinbrueck and Harrell arguments combine to say that social justice, attention to details, and inclusion are part of the Better City. Don't forget the people who actually live here, be they south of I-90, or tucked away in some small bungalowed enclave that time forgot.

Either of the finalists can incorporate parts of those visions into a winning message. Murray has already hinted at this by saying density and neighborhood protection are not at odds, and McGinn speaks to aspects of it when he talks about getting living wages for hotel maids, and holding a large developer hostage of the land use process until they do better by workers.

My guess is the winner in November will be the more utopian of the two, the one who conveys the sense that they're shooting high and have the stuff to make it happen. I'd be surprised if there was much Lesser about their messages. Seattle is too earnest about self-improvement for that to work.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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