Election 2013: New Seattle, where are you?

Seattle votes for stolid, gray candidate Murray. Expect a lot more process.
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Ed Murray and husband, Michael Shiosaki

Seattle votes for stolid, gray candidate Murray. Expect a lot more process.

Supporters of Mayor Mike McGinn have argued that their candidate represented a newer, younger, more diverse city. The mayor's winning coalition four years ago included greens, bicyclists and the club crowd. His bearded visage graced the cover of The Stranger becoming the poster-child for a "new Seattle." His re-election rested on keeping this coalition together, and adding more diverse elements to his base, namely ethnic zones of South Seattle.

If the polls suggested a substantial McGinn defeat, we were told that the numbers didn't reflect the real city: the cell phone owners, under-represented young people, the folks in the neglected neighborhoods. McGinn's hopes rested on turning out the unexpected electorate, the one that is restless and outside of the establishment. Based on the results on election night, a McGinn supporter might well ask: "Where the hell were these people?" The results will be tallied and broken down in coming days, but it sure as heck looks like "new Seattle" pulled a disappearing act.

This is all the more exaggerated by the effect of Ed Murray, the all-but-certain winner, having run a classic "old Seattle" campaign. Here was a political veteran with a platform of steadiness and togetherness. Here was a gray candidate who was stolid, but lighting no fires. And on election night, here was a candidate surrounded on stage by a majority of the city council and mostly gray veterans of state and city politics (Tim Burgess, Chris Gregoire, Jean Godden, Sally Clark, etc.) providing Murray with establishment solidarity. The city of process and pragmatism had spoken.

And it wasn't just a trend in the mayor's race. Seattle voters appear to have returned all incumbents to the city council. The only new wrinkle is that Seattle seems to have passed a new hybrid system of district and at-large council districts that could shake things up a bit, perhaps bringing some new diversity and accountability to the body.

The most vulnerable member this time, Richard Conlin, looks to have beaten back a challenge from the young fresh-face socialist Kshama Sawant — another Stranger poster child. The campaign against Conlin had ratcheted up the rhetoric to ridiculous heights, painting the ultra-liberal Conlin as a business-loving conservative. Geov Parrish, the progressive columnist who worked as Sawant's campaign communication's director, even wrote in Eat the State that Conlin was a "cancer" on the city council. Cancer, really? The Socialist Alternative was pushing a Socialist Absurdity.

Other members of the establishment were happy too. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce crowed that 10 of the candidates endorsed by its political arm had won, none of them candidates of a new guard.

McGinn, a congenital outsider, had tried to turn the mayoral campaign into a David and Goliath contest, with himself garbed as David fighting the Goliath of the downtown interests and big villains like Comcast and Whole Foods. It is the genuine McGinn style, but is often unfair to himself. When McGinn surpresses his impulse to litigate every issue, no matter how small, as a moral crusade, he can also point to real accomplishments: the Families and Education Levy, getting a Transit Master Plan underway, building an alliance against coal trains. And the city once again has a spring in its step: The construction cranes fill the skyline, unemployment is down, the city coffers are fuller. The mayor's unpopularity in such circumstances baffled some observers. The New York Times story on the race, "Seattle Mayor Faces Challenge Despite Signs of Success."

Why? Few old Seattleites found that question hard to answer. Indeed, some believe McGinn lost the election not last year or the year before, but nearly four years ago when the rookie, relatively unknown Sierra Club activist seemed to go back on his campaign promise not to oppose the downtown tunnel by fighting it once in office. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and McGinn's debut suggested he was deceitful, combative and arrogant. McGinn called for a tunnel vote, got one, and lost big time. McGinn refers to his term as "mayor school," but too many citizens decided the freshman mayor was no good and held that grudge until election day four years later. And modern Seattle, for all its purported niceness, can hold a grudge. McGinn would be the third consecutive incumbent mayor defeated in a re-election campaign, after Greg Nickels and Paul Schell.

If the younger, activist mayor is out, who is in? Murray is a known political quantity whose message has been that while he and the mayor differ very little on issues, their contrast of styles was in fact substance. One thing seems certain: A mayor Murray will have a much better relationship with the city council than the old one, or perhaps than any recent mayor. A majority of the council endorsed him. One can expect more collaboration and comity at city hall, for better or ill.

One can also expect more meetings, more summits, more process and an active effort to educate the new mayor in the city he now represents. Murray has long been in the state Senate, but is a relative newcomer to city issues and pothole politics. His learning curve will have to be steep, and it might be awhile before the new mayor emerges from a cloud of handlers to show us who he really is and what he really thinks on issues like the new police chief, the SoDo arena proposal, implementing a $15 minimum wage, which looks it could pass in SeaTac (will they now be the "most progressive city in America?").

Murray ran a safe campaign, at times a geriatric one with plodding speeches, a reliance on older voters, and the minimal of taking stands or sticking one's neck out. Boring as it was, it worked.

At Murray's election night party, the jubilant crowd seemed energized both by Murray — who sparkled more than usual — but also by the prospect of being freed after four years of hard labor dealing with McGinn, his attitude, and his minions. The adults were back in charge, and new Seattle will have to find a new candidate, a new cause, a new time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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