There's a lot to watch in 2014 and local positioning for City Council district elections will add complexity to many of these stories. Toss in a year's worth of natural disasters — maybe even the Big One — and political bombshells (The retirement of Congressman Jim McDermott, for example, would create a political stampede that makes Walmart's Black Friday look tame.) and you've got yourself a very interesting year ahead.
Steering Straight at the Port
Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani is leaving in July and port commissioners will need to find his successor very quickly — a search that will be in direct competition with two other major West Coast ports (Los Angeles and Long Beach) looking for leaders. Long Beach's divisive infighting over this process is a good example of how difficult things can get if everyone’s not on the same page.
Will the Seattle commission be looking for somebody with international business and trade experience or someone with local connections who can work well with local officials and has strong local political ties? You usually can’t have both. And right now, finding someone who can operate internationally and bring business to the Seaport and Airport seems like the need. Besides, the port has a public affairs staff with local knowledge who can educate the new CEO. And let’s not forget that the commissioners have local ties and expertise too.
Transportation Traffic Jam
The state legislature and Governor will continue to work on a transportation package and continue to stumble over gas tax increases, labor issues, mass transit and pedestrian and bike facilities. The Democratic urban areas believe too much is being prioritized for road projects, and Republicans know they can’t sell a gas tax increase without showing reform happening at WSDOT. For now, no one is budging.
In Seattle, there's more bad news on the SR 520 Bridge: Rumors have it that the state has burned through its contingency funds and now is operating without a cushion.
There is an overwhelming consensus, both nationally and locally, that the economy is not raising all boats — mainly just yachts. Talk of a revolution and the birth of a new party are, I think, overblown. Remember the Green Party and Ralph Nader? As Congressional mid-term elections heat up, much more of the focus will be on the Affordable Care Act. It will be interesting to see if the millions who now have health care make a case for the ACA in swing districts. You can be sure the Republican agenda will feature plenty of people who had their healthcare costs go up or who were dropped from existing plans.
Mayor Ed Murray has already made the minimum wage issue a priority, issuing an Executive Order that all city employees will make at least $15 an hour and appointing a committee to study a citywide minimum wage hike. (Full disclosure: I served on Murray's transition team and am working with his office on a maritime, manufacturing, industrial agenda.) My prediction: Newly-elected Kshama Sawant and her supporters will be unhappy with the process, striking out at anyone who disagrees with them.
As City Council members position for district elections in 2015, the politics will become less global and more local with a focus on equitable police staffing, road repair and parks. Sixty-seven percent of voters approved the move to district city council elections last November. They didn’t do it because they thought the council’s policy focus was where it should be. A hard landing awaits.
The Tunnel-Waterfront Mess
The success or failure of the large projects that make up this program will undoubtedly be the measure by which voters judge Mayor Ed Murray in 4 years and 2014 will be critical to his long term success. Already, the outgoing Mayor, Mike McGinn, left an unexpected Christmas present — a $30 million cost overrun for the Seawall Replacement. According to a Seattle Times story, this problem was known during the summer and was not disclosed to the City Council. Surprise! And the fact that WSDOT left a pipe behind to jam Bertha the tunnel borer also erodes citizen confidence. What other surprises await in 2014?
Replacing the Police Chief
This is the other measure by which Murray will be judged. The performance of the city’s police department will be under a microscope again in 2014. DOJ monitor Merrick Bobb will have plenty of recommendations for the department, and will expect cost not to be an issue. In the end, some put cost estimates for this process at $30 to $40 million.
A Bevy of Levies
Nobody likes to compete with cops, firefighters, human services and roads for funding. Which is why, in 2014, you can expect Seattle Parks supporters to push for a levy to move Parks Department funding out of the city’s General Fund. The creation of a Metropolitan Parks District could be on the ballot as early as August. Look for a major push early to make this dream a reality. Will the voters go for it? Hard to say, but it will be an interesting debate, particularly since, once in place, the voters can’t abolish it.
There will also be a levy in 2014 for universal Pre-Kindergarten for all children in Seattle. And in 2015, the Bridging the Gap Levy expires. Plans are to renew it.
The Elephants in the Room
This year could see a shake-up in leadership over the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo. So far, the zoo has doubled down on keeping the elephant exhibit despite compelling research on the state of the animals and public opinion forming against keeping them. Will zoo leadership find an elegant exit strategy or continue to fight against the inevitable? If they pick the latter, look for new leadership to emerge.
Bad Marijuana Puns
Even though Colorado beat us out of the gate on opening retail pot stores, Washington's openings will still make big state and national news in 2014. Look for nightly quips about marijuana business: “Local pot stores seeing green over new rules!,” or “A budding business in SODO keeps shop owner in the green.”
Dueling Gun Control Initiatives
Two competing gun control measures will be on the ballot in November 2014. One would require universal background checks (Initiative 594), the other would keep the current system in place (Initiative 591). (Full disclosure, I’m a boardmember at Washington Ceasefire and a volunteer signature gatherer for I-594). Outside money will pour in to fight this battle. Proponents of universal background checks think it's common sense to keep guns away from criminals and people with severe mental health issues. Supporters of I-594 will do their best to blur lines and convince voters that this is really only the first step in a larger gun control movement.
And remember, a confused voter is a ‘No’ vote — a fact on full display in last year’s effort to defeat GMO labeling.