Voters strike back!

Billed as an election where Seattle leads the nation, the 2013 vote turned out to be about centrism and pragmatism.
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Ed Murray is poised to be Seattle's next mayor.

Billed as an election where Seattle leads the nation, the 2013 vote turned out to be about centrism and pragmatism.

Talk about a cold, bracing face-slap by reality! The day of the election we learn of an epic, back-room  deal to woo Boeing.

The deal to persuade Boeing to build the 777X in Everett involves huge concessions by Machinists on health and retirement benefits and a Gov. Inslee-led package in the legislature that adds $8.7 billion in tax breaks to Boeing, plus a $10 billion transportation package and a “practical solution” on water quality and Boeing’s Duwamish plants.

The irony of this big surprise is that it comes in the context of a political season that was positioning Seattle and the state as the vanguard of a new progressivism, a kind of Occupy Wall Street rising that would defy big business. National media were dusting off their old meme about America consisting of “47 states and the soviet of Washington.” Socialism was storming Seattle City Hall. Mayor Mike McGinn was auditioning to be the pied piper of the New New Left as America’s most progressive mayor. Monsanto was getting its comeuppance on genetically engineered crops. The $15 minimum wage was being born at lowly SeaTac.

Well, the revolution is going to have to wait. Boeing and the issue of jobs come first. Instead, the 2013 election turns out to have been a reversion to the norm, not a breakthrough. The winner, oddly, was centrism and pragmatism and depolarization.

Media prefer the polarization narrative, but voters, particularly in hard times and in low-turnout off years, look for solutions rather than more experiments. They wanted a pause to digest all the change. So they rejected I-522, which would have labeled GMO foods and which managed to pass in only four “foodie” counties (King, Whatcom, San Juan and Jefferson). They nixed a government-class scheme for public funding of Seattle elections. They slapped down Tim Eyman’s effort to expand his initiative business. All incumbents on the Port of Seattle, King County and Seattle City Council were re-elected easily.

The big vote for change came in the convincing defeat of Mayor McGinn and his vehement coalition of new urban populists.  In other cities, too, one could see a revival of an older, more grounded school of politics. In Boston, an Irish labor pol, Martin Walsh, won the job; in Detroit, of all things a business-backed white man, Mike Duggan, got elected. The New York City race, electing a true progressive, Bill De Blasio, might be seen more as getting tired of the high-roller arrogance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in favor of more tangible benefits to average people.

So too, McGinn had trouble connecting with the concerns of average voters who did not commute on bikes, and want some solutions to the city’s struggling schools, and who dislike potholes, half-completed big projects, high costs and inefficient government. “Boeing Seattle,” you might say, or West Seattle as opposed to Capitol Hill. Mayor Ed Murray, an Irish pol seasoned from long battles with non-Seattle perspectives in Olympia, will be a return to the kind of cautious, professional, consensus-seeking politics of the last truly popular mayor, Norm Rice.

The Seattle city council all got re-elected, though there was a flirtation with a vivacious socialist candidate, Kshama Sawant, who got 46 percent of the vote against Richard Conlin. Socialism may seem an exotic throwback in Seattle today, but it’s worth noting a 2010 Pew poll in which 49 percent of people 18-to-29 had a favorable view of socialism, with only 46 percent positively inclined toward capitalism. Worth noting, too, that the two minority candidates, Sawant and Albert Shen, who challenged Mike O’Brien from the right, both faltered in Seattle, supposedly increasingly diverse.

But in a bigger sense, the city council was dealt a serious vote of low-confidence when Charter Amendment 19, establishing seven districts for the city council, easily passed. I read this vote as similar to the vote rejecting McGinn. Voters have tired of high-minded, politically correct, sluggish government that ignores potholes and mundane neighborhood grievances. The last four years may have been contentious at city hall, but basically the council and Mayor McGinn have enabled each other’s “advanced” politics and neglected issues such as affordability, public safety, job creation, schools, loss of families, traffic congestion (we are rated fourth worst) and inefficient, costly government. They will now adjust and probably all keep their jobs.

Another distinctive aspect of the election is how “nationalized” it was, with money pouring in from interest groups for the GMO initiative, the $15-minimum-wage measure, the balance-of-Senate-power race in the 26th legislative district, and for one Seattle School Board race, which turned on the influence of education-reform philanthropists like the Gates Foundation.

In the school district race, it looks as if the go-slow-on-reform group will retain its slim majority by electing Sue Peters, who leads narrowly, in part by appealing to parents wanting more direct control over the district. There were other signs of this kind of democratic revolt in the council-districts election and a vote in Yakima, where all incumbents were returned to city council but a super-majority measure passed requiring any future tax hikes to have five of seven council members in favor of it.

National politics clearly entered the SeaTac minimum-wage battle, where labor advocates appear to have won easily. The issue may now advance to Seattle, where mayor-elect Murray has said he would work the issue, seeking an elusive consensus. But it may be that Seattle voters want a break from showing national leadership, as Mayor McGinn favored, and that vanguarding on marijuana, gay marriage and coal-port blocking could suffice for the next few years.

Unless, of course, the issue is Boeing building planes in another part of the nation.


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