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by Geov Parrish
After this year’s general election on Tuesday, November 7, two important things will be certain about Seattle government:
1) Seattle will have elected a new mayor.
2) Seattle will have the most progressive elected city council in its modern history.
Mostly due to the endless circus surrounding Seattle’s last elected mayor, this year’s local election has had remarkably little exposure. Media coverage has been muted. Until very recently, visible reminders of an election such as direct mail, TV and cable ads, and yard signs have been bizarrely few in number.
Don’t let this fool you into not caring. A lot is at stake. Two pivotal contests will determine just how progressive our local government becomes. The mayor’s race features two wealthy white Democratic women: former prosecutor and US attorney Jenny Durkan and civic planner and activist Cary Moon. The citywide “at large” council position previously held by the retiring Tim Burgess pits former Tenants Union director Jon Grant against labor organizer Teresa Mosqueda. Both are significantly more progressive than Burgess, who held that seat for over a decade.
In both races, the candidates’ similarities mask important differences – and in both those and other, less well-publicized campaigns for city council, Port of Seattle, Seattle School Board, and the state legislature, there is a collective opportunity for not just reform but radical change that Seattle hasn’t seen in anyone’s memory.
The most visible of these, of course, is the mayor’s race. The fourth Seattle mayor this year – and sixth in the last decade – potentially can be the first not just to be female, but to not be a puppet of the developers and other local royalty (*cough AMAZON cough*) who’ve been running our city of late.
Moon would be the first mayor in our lifetimes who didn’t owe her election to one or another faction of Seattle’s business elite – in fact, excepting Greg Nickels’ effectively unopposed re-election in 2005- it’s hard to remember a campaign where either finalist didn’t have that pedigree. Murray’s 2013 race against incumbent Mike McGinn, for example, was basically a choice of which clique of local developers would control City Hall.
This year, the choice is broader. Durkan is herself local royalty in good standing: a former U.S. Attorney, backed by a family of wealthy movers and shakers closely tied to real estate interests. Durkan talks a good game on a variety of social justice issues, including housing, homelesssness, police oversight, diversity, and more.
Durkan largely represents Ed Murray’s once-inevitable second term, minus the creep factor that has ended Murray’s career. Moon, on the other hand, combines McGinn’s urbanism with a collaborative track record as a city activist. The last three elected mayors in this city have all eventually fallen because, quite simply, they were bullies. Just because Durkan is a woman doesn’t exempt her from being bully #4. She has that vibe.
Moon does not. People who’ve worked with her on civic activism praise her ability to take charge, but also to listen respectfully to a variety of perspectives – and incorporate them. That’s leadership, and it’s a good thing in a big city mayor when that leadership is not filtered through an ego the size of Texas. Durkan has drawn some support from people concerned about Moon’s lack of leadership experience – but the leadership style Moon has shown, especially during this campaign, is well suited to embracing the fresh approaches Seattle needs.
The scale of solutions needed to meet challenges like housing, homelessness, transportation, utilities and other infrastructure, economic inequality, a still-troubled police department, the accelerating local impacts of climate change – and far more – require collaboration and crowdsourced solutions.
On many issues, Seattle’s city council is about to have a consistent majority that will also be able to take on civic leaders who still think Seattle’s shining moment was hosting the World’s Fair. And that council will also be much, much more responsive than ever before to grass roots organizing. Kshama Sawant’s election in 2013, and the activist army that helped her win battles from minimum wage to rental reforms to money for public housing, has been joined by the overlapping but more diverse People’s Party army mobilized by Nikkita Oliver’s mayoral campaign.
Interim council member (and People’s Party activist) Kirsten Harris-Talley collaborated with Mike O’Brien (who also endorsed Oliver over his old Sierra Club colleague Mike McGinn) in much the same way Sawant tag-teamed last year with Licata protege Lisa Herbold on housing funding increases – and if Mosqueda or especially Jon Grant wins that seat, those alliances likely hold up. An active, insistent grass roots presence promises to be able to pressure at least one of the remaining five council members on any of a variety of issues.
There’s no guarantee, but it’s easy to imagine Cary Moon playing her part in that scenario. It’s impossible to imagine Durkan being that collaborative, much less that willing to take on local monied interests. But she’d still need to work with the most progressive council in Seattle’s modern history.
Plenty of races farther down the ballot have the potential for radical change, too. For literally decades, the Port of Seattle has been one of the most corrupt and insular public agencies in the state. With its own, independent taxing authority, the Port has long been run as an obedient subsidiary of the industries it does business with: cargo companies, airport vendors, and (more recently) the cruise ship industry. Senior staff, immune to public oversight, have been part of the problem.
A succession of CEOs arrive, fit right in with the culture, and make bank until they leave, usually under the cloud of scandal. And for far too long, the Port of Seattle Commission – the one piece of this cozy arrangement that is in theory accountable to the public – has also been dominated by interests that at best are only too happy to go with the flow. Port Commissioners get paid poorly for what is supposed to be a part-time job – so the job usually attracts candidates who are either independently wealthy or have a vested interest in goosing the profitability of one of the Port’s customers. Or both.
And for decades, the Seattle School District has given the Port stiff competition in all of those areas. Like the port commissioners, Seattle’s school board members are (supposedly) part-time, grossly underpaid, and given wholly inadequate staff support. Like the Port, Seattle School District has had an all-too-frequent succession of chief executives who were cynical manipulators. Like the Port, Seattle Schools are unrelentingly hostile to the people most reliant on them, in this case teachers, support staff, parents, and especially students.
Like the Port, Seattle Schools have a serious problem with racial equity – a especially serious issue in a district with a majority of non-white students. Like the port commission, the school board occasionally gets reform-minded members, but more often its overwhelmed board members get led around by the nose by senior staff concerned primarily with protecting their own fiefdoms. Nauseatingly, where the Port glories in its culture of corruption, Seattle Schools justifies every depredation as being “for the kids.”
Both agencies need a thorough culture change. That starts with its board members- and in both cases, all three elected posts on the ballot feature reform candidates with the potential to help make that happen, and to better reflect the enormous diversity of students in Seattle schools and workers at SeaTac and the Port.
Collectively, the city council, port commissioner, and school board races feature a number of people with grass roots organizing experience, and a number of immigrants and other people of color. That even extends to the critically important special election on the Eastside, where, if Democrat Makra Dhingra prevails, Democrats will win back control of the state senate – breaking the gridlock on state budgets, education funding, and a host of other issues where rural and suburban Republicans have stymied Seattle’s ability to meet its own needs.
In particular, the current state ban on local rent control ordinances precludes even the possibility of a progressive city council and mayor using that tool to address our city’s hemorrhaging loss of relatively, affordable housing units; and the state’s uniquely regressive 19th century tax structure limits Seattle’s ability to address critical local needs without disproportionately taxing its poorest residents.
Those and many other state-level policies could have new possibilities after November 8. And the tax reform in particular has major implications for both Seattle’s high earners income tax (passed last summer and now awaiting judicial review) and proposals to revive Seattle’s employer head tax, abolished in 2010 under Mike McGinn.
Similarly, Moon has vowed to aggressively take on the foreign real estate speculation racket that’s been enriching a lot of local developers – and helping to drive up local housing costs – since British Columbia imposed a tax on such speculators. She wants a similar tax here – and much, much more investment in affordable public housing not subject to market forces. That housing would be paid for by taxes on corporations and capital gains.
Durkan and Moon have very different approaches to each of the three biggest issues on the radar of grass roots activists these days. Durkan, as a former prosecutor, has a long and cozy relationship with local law enforcement, one that would probably lead to very different priorities for SPD’s reform process – and especially the elements of that process being held up by the city’s current contract negotiations with its two major police unions. And there’s also that expensive youth jail and (now on hold) North Seattle precinct police station to resolve.
On housing and homelessness, Durkan is essentially more of Murray’s priorities with both the HALA framework for affordable housing and Murray’s highly problematic program of sweeps of unsanctioned homeless encampments. Those sweeps – extensive, frequently capricious, and often unlawful – regularly resulted in the city stealing whatever few essential possessions our city’s most vulnerable residents could carry with them, and dumping them in landfills. (Scott Lindsay. the Murray appointee who both oversaw that sweeps program and worked to stymie city council efforts to reform it, is also on this month’s ballot, running against incumbent City Attorney Pete Holmes. That’s another critical race.)
For both affordable housing and homelessness, the current approaches haven’t been working – and a number of candidates, starting with Moon and Grant, have been urging more creative solutions and a much more urgent approach to building public housing and pursuing other programs (like co-ops and community land trusts) that take housing units out of the speculative real estate market.
Over the coming years, several other neighborhoods are facing radical upzones, of the type now terraforming South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and the University District. The details of how much terraforming is allowed, and what developers and other investors are asked to pay for in return, make for long, tedious city council hearings. But the end products matter a lot. And how responsive city council members and the mayor’s office are to grass roots suggestions (and pressure) will also impact the fate of more creative solutions to the city’s critical problems.
These are radical changes suitable for a city that has yet to even remotely come to grips with the sheer amount of wealth in its midst. To make our city affordable for all, and to help it catch up for what was already a decade-long backlog in infrastructure work even before this decade’s population explosion, requires that our wealthier companies and residents be pulling their fair financial share, rather than simply counting corporate welfare from the city as another income stream.
These opportunities may not last. Two years from now, in 2019, all seven district city council seats will be up for grabs. With the huge influx of new, often relatively young and affluent residents voting then, Seattle’s progressive gains of recent years could be reversed. Or, if those gains are built upon with a strong commitment to democracy and to economic, social, racial, and environmental justice, they could be the new normal which Seattle’s new residents cement into place for a generation.
How the hosts of problems that have been worsened by Seattle’s extreme growth are addressed in the next two years will determine not just Seattle’s future, but the lives of people struggling to still call Seattle home right now. A lot is at stake.
Geov Parrish is a political writer and activist based in Seattle who contributes a regular column to the Emerald. Among other things, he has served as the national political columnist for Working Assets, a contributing editor for In These Times, Alternet.org, and MotherJones.com, and for over a decade was the local political columnist for Seattle Weekly and The Stranger newspapers. He has also had a popular weekly political show on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle since 1996, and was the founder and co-publisher of the community newspaper Eat the State from 1996-2014.