The eternal sunshine of Seattle progressivism

It just might be enough to carry local liberals through the long, dark national winter of a GOP-controlled Congress.
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It just might be enough to carry local liberals through the long, dark national winter of a GOP-controlled Congress.

If Seattle liberals felt gloomy about Republicans taking control of the U.S. Senate, they could at least bask in the glow of the progressive sunshine beaming in Washington State. "We will show the rest of the country the way," promised Mayor Ed Murray just prior to the announcement that the gun control initiative, I-594, was passing handily.

The initiative, which institutes background checks on all gun buyers in the state, gave supporters something to cheer about in the cozy, crowded confines of the Edgewater Hotel. Washington voters had done what the state legislators could not — even after a number of major shooting tragedies — which was to pass a law to close the gun-show loophole. It was a win for what Gov. Jay Inslee called the "sanity of safety."

I-594 backer Nick Hanauer, the millionaire-activist who made national headlines pushing the $15-an-hour minimum wage, said that the background check initiative passed because there is strong public support for it. Supporters also outspent the gun lobby which would have had to outspend the proponents by four-to-one, he says, to have reversed the vote. The money, in other words, was on their side, pouring in from the likes of Hanauer, Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates and Paul Allen, and the cost of effective opposition too high.

Hanauer believes gun control advocates now have a model for rolling out the legislation nationally. "I know it will be a template for other states," he said, "because I'm going to make it a template for other states." He hopes to see it on the ballot in 10 states in  2016.

Even better for backers like Hanauer was the fact that I-594's competition, I-591, which would have eliminated background checks until the issue was addressed nationally (fat chance) and was backed by gun rights advocate Alan Gottlieb, went down to defeat. Gottlieb said earlier in the day that if his measure failed and I-594 passed there would likely be a court challenge to the new law based on the way the initiative was written.

Seattle was a veritable tropic isle of liberalism on a rough night elsewhere. Voters weighed in to support new funding for Metro transit and backed the city council-backed plan to start moving toward universal pre-K. The Seattle ballot turkey of the night was a proposal to re-start study of a monorail system linking Ballard and West Seattle. It lost and had little support from either the transportation establishment or the grassroots boosters who once touted the Green Line monorail as the universal panacea.

At the legislative level, the GOP looked to keep control of the state senate. The swing districts didn't swing too hard. Democrats appeared to keep their House majority which could well mean continued familiar gridlock in Olympia where the legislature is an institution whose unpopularity statewide registers in the low single digits. And in some parts of the state, in fractions.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, Democrat from the 43rd district, easily fended off a challenge from the left by the Socialist Alternative candidate Jess Spear, who tried to follow in City Council member Kshama Sawant's shoes by using a test challenge against Chopp to turn Seattle into a two-party town again. Spear was hoping to match Sawant's 30 percent of the vote against Chopp, but she appeared to be falling far short of that goal.

Still, Spear said on election night that any outcome was a victory — the elections are an opportunity for grassroots organizing and mobilizing people around issues such as the minimum wage and rent control. The Socialists' next objective will be to ensure that Sawant is re-elected to the city council next year and that the minimum wage law is implemented and enforced.

To their minds, the issue of housing affordability and income inequality will continue to help their messages resonate. Josh Koritz, Spear's assistant campaign manager, said that things for working people are getting incrementally worse. He seemed encouraged by national exit polling which showed that voters nationwide are disgusted with the two parties and the status quo.

There was a silver lining for liberals depressed about the prospect of the GOP-controlled Congress pitted against a weakened president. Out here, at least, progressivism is still vital, and progress on big issues, like guns, is still possible, even if it takes multi-millionaires to make it happen.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to clarify Nick Hanauer's comments about future timing and strategy.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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