Equilibrium & Sustainability

Angst grips America’s most liberal city

SEATTLE — America’s most liberal city stands at an uneasy crossroads.

For decades, Seattle has been the vanguard of the nation’s progressive movement. It was the first major city to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage, to allow gig economy workers to affiliate with a union and to impose, albeit briefly, a per-employee tax on major corporations.

Along the way, it has experienced the explosive growth of a mammoth tech industry that has changed the face of a racially and economically diverse population. Neighborhoods once defined by commingling populations of immigrants and blue-collar families now teem with new condos, local restaurants have been replaced by high-end pot shops and encampments filled with those who can no longer afford to live in their city now line the its two major freeways.

As a consequence of that new growth, the median household income in Seattle stands at $92,000, up almost 50 percent from a decade before. But the price of a single-family home has more than doubled over the same span, to $1 million, according to data from the Seattle-based real estate firm Zillow. 

“There’s been so much historic disequilibrium when you look at every aspect of civic engagement, civic society,” said state Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D), who represents a Seattle district. “It’s the subtle undertone that is quietly prominent.”

Tensions have grown so heated here between a rising generation of ultra-progressive leaders and activists and the more traditionally liberal Democrats who have dominated the city’s politics for so long that the old Seattle way of compromise politics has been eschewed for one of protest and purity.

One City Council member, a self-described socialist, led a march last year to the home of Mayor Jenny Durkan (D), whose address is kept confidential because of ongoing death threats related to her past work as a federal prosecutor.

“There certainly are those people who like a fight, or who like an enemy or a foil, because that makes good politics. But I don’t think that’s how most Seattleites feel,” said Rachel Smith, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “We do our best work in this region when we work in coalition.”

Now Durkan is retiring after just a single term in office, a remarkably swift end to what had appeared to be a promising political career. She follows the chief of police, a Black woman who quit last year in the midst of protests over racial injustice in policing, and the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, a Native American woman who resigned earlier this year two months before her contract expired.

Voters will decide Tuesday among a crowded field of aspirants to replace Durkan, candidates running to govern what some have called an ungovernable city searching for a path forward out of the pandemic and out of the economic inequity that has come to define the nascent recovery.

“The last year and a half has been monumental for the city, and devastating, and an opportunity for us to do things differently. It is a big job. It is a big, thankless job,” said Michelle Merriweather, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “I admire those that stand up and say, sign me up for this.”

Seattle voters have opted for change more often than not in recent years. Not since Norm Rice left the mayor’s office after two terms in 1997 has a multiterm mayor left on his or her own terms; Rice’s three successors all lost bids for reelection, and now Durkan has decided against running for a second term.

But this time, the two contenders most likely to advance to a November runoff are relative insiders: Polls show Bruce Harrell, a former City Council president, and Lorena Gonzalez, the current council president, leading the field. Two outsiders, Colleen Echohawk and Jessyn Farrell, remain in striking distance for the second slot in the runoff.

Seattle political observers say Harrell, seen as the more moderate candidate, and Gonzalez, the more progressive of the two, represent different ends of a narrow ideological band — in the Emerald City, every viable candidate is some shade of very dark blue. 

“Everybody running for mayor would be considered incredibly progressive 30 miles outside of Seattle, and definitely in most states in the U.S. So it’s a very concentrated political spectrum here,” said Marco Lowe, a lecturer in politics at Seattle University and a veteran of two mayoral administrations.

The fact that two people who have won city-wide elections before are now at the top of the heap, they say, reflects a recognition by voters of the scale and scope of the problems the city faces.

“The voters will settle on experienced candidates. They don’t want new candidates coming in,” said Heather Weiner, a progressive activist who backs Gonzalez. “The issue then becomes, how do you solve a problem like Seattle? Do you want to address the underlying issues, or do you want to put a Band-Aid on it?”

Harrell has support from an older generation of Seattle-area progressives, including Rice, former Gov. Gary Locke (D) and Rep. Adam Smith (D), whose district has been redrawn to include parts of south Seattle. Gonzalez is supported by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D), whose district includes most of the city, and a younger generation of state legislators and City Council members. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who carried the city of Seattle but lost the Washington state Democratic primary to Joe Biden in 2020, backs Gonzalez. So do most of Seattle’s most prominent labor unions, which still carry tremendous weight in a city that is home to thousands of longshoremen working the ports and machinists working the Boeing lines.

A political action committee funded by those unions recently bought 20,000 pounds of one-ounce packets of dried cherries to sent to voters. Gonzalez, the daughter of migrant farmworkers, started picking cherries at 8 years old.

The primary contest, and a potential showdown between Harrell and Gonzalez in November, will test just how comfortable Seattle voters are with the direction of a changing city. 

Rising costs of living have led to an explosion of homelessness, akin to other major cities across the country, and debates over both how to house those experiencing homelessness and how to enforce public safety (Asked in a candidate questionnaire by The Seattle Times whether they supported defunding the police, Harrell said no; Gonzalez said maybe). Two large homeless camps were cleared along Interstate 90 last week after at least five people were arrested for throwing debris onto the highway, damaging several cars. 

The pandemic and racial unrest have also harmed the city’s downtown core, hollowing out businesses that once defined some of Seattle’s most iconic neighborhoods.

Some candidates, both for mayor and for City Council seats, have asked voters whether they have had enough, an implicit appeal to ordinary Democratic voters who might be uncomfortable with the more progressive turn of recent years. Those voters might gravitate toward Harrell, some observers said, rather than Gonzalez.

“Lorena has a game plan, that’s her strength, but I don’t think people feel comfortable with it,” said Nick Licata, who represented the more liberal wing of the City Council, where he served five terms. “People talk about moderates or compromise as losing on both sides, when you can gain on both sides when we talk about strengthening communities.”

Carlyle, the state senator, is backing Harrell. He says the rise of an uncompromising progressive left mirrors a similar rise on the right, embodied by former President Trump and his supporters.

“We’re at a moment when there is discomfort with the extremes of politics, represented by Trump on the right and represented by the left’s approach to ideological rigidity,” Carlyle said. “That far-left movement gives important voice, but they don’t move a millimeter on issues. They’re not interested in collaboration. They see words like negotiation and collaboration as euphemisms for compromise to corporate interests.”

Gonzalez supporters say her approach — she helped lead a confrontation with Amazon and other major corporations over the per-employee tax, known as a head tax, that blew up in 2018 — represents the deeper change Seattle needs. (Harrell, then a member of the City Council, also voted for both the tax and its repeal.)

“The problem is that we have an enormous amount of wealth in our city that is being hoarded at the top. And rather than pointing up [at the problem], people are pointing down,” Weiner said. “We have seen a push by the Chamber [of Commerce] and other interests trying to do some fearmongering around crime, around homelessness, using those fear triggers to push people to vote more conservatively.”

The new mayor, observers say, will need to marry the disparate and diverging factions of regular Democrats who ring Seattle’s waterfront neighborhoods and the progressives who make up the central core to chart a new path forward.

“The tug of war about downtown versus the neighborhoods continues on, but now there’s a real question about how we relook at bringing downtown back. Because unlike other places, I thought one of the keys that we had as a city was a vibrant downtown,” said Alec Stephens, a Democratic activist and civil rights attorney who backs Harrell. The next mayor is “going to have to be able to bring a whole lot of discordant voices together to sort through how we go forward.” 

Tags Adam Smith Bernie Sanders Black Lives Matter Climate change Donald Trump Homelessness Jenny Durkan Joe Biden Labor rights Pramila Jayapal Seattle Washington

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