Seattle Soundings: Political staying power

Just after the decisive victories last week of Jenny Durkan and Teresa Mosqueda, Interim Mayor Tim Burgess released the city’s long-awaited Growth Management Plan. The plan, two years in the making under former mayor Ed Murray, includes dramatic upzones in 27 Seattle neighborhoods of the sort that has already begun terraforming much of South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, and the University District. It not only continues but greatly expands the policies that have led to Seattle’s intertwined affordable housing and homelessness crises.

Release of the management plan was precisely timed: two days after the election (so as not to hurt candidates like Durkan) but the week before city council starts to vote on next year’s budget, and two weeks before Durkan and Mosqueda are sworn in. If the management plan becomes controversial down the road, Murray and Burgess own it, not Durkan. It’s a very narrow window for a document two years in the making.

Burgess also helpfully took another hot potato off Durkan’s table this month by announcing a tentative contract agreement with the Seattle Police Management Association, one of two police unions that have been working without a new contract for nearly four years. The lack of a new contract for nearly the entire length of SPO’s federally mandated reform process has been the single biggest impediment to those reforms. Given that every Seattle mayor involved, from Nickels to Burgess and now Durkan, has downplayed SPD’s chronic abuses, the delay also reads as another establishment move to outflank (and outlast) community pressure.

The week before the election, over a thousand opponents of the establishment approach to Seattle’s growth turned out for a city council budget hearing and to mark the second anniversary of the city’s homelessness state of emergency. Such boisterous crowds have become normal at key council sessions, and have also translated into strong electoral showings by figures like Nikkita Oliver and Kshama Sawant. But this election, it wasn’t enough.

The staggering $937,410 raised by Durkan - and the nearly as formidable $438,800 raised by Mosqueda - neither figure including significant third-party spending by labor and other PACs - is a significant reason why Seattle’s political establishment can continue with business as usual even when such policies are clearly failing lower, working, and middle class Seattleites. Cary Moon was swamped, despite her raising a respectable $347,734 in her mayoral campaign. Having the most money doesn’t always translate to electoral success, but it sure helps.

But beyond money, there’s another important dynamic here: The ability and willingness of experienced local political figures to use power effectively, and the collective inability of community activists to transcend their outsider status.

Mosqueda effectively replaces the retiring (and relatively conservative) Tim Burgess on what was already the most progressive council in modern Seattle history. A labor candidate like Mosqueda should be less sympathetic to big business than she is, but she’s still significantly to the left of Burgess. Yet on the three issues our city council has been receiving the most activist pressure on - housing, homelessness, and police reform - this month’s developments have effectively narrowed council’s policy and budget options. Activists have succeeded in drawing attention to their issues, and even have some successes to point to (e.g., minimum wage and tenant reforms). But in the big picture, Amazon and other big employers still get what they want, developers continue to get richer as housing costs skyrocket, more and more people live on the streets, and whole communities still don’t trust SPD. It’s hard in the new Durkan era to see any of those baseline realities changing any time soon.

Despite all that money and community activism, turnout in this year’s election was anemic. In 2013, nearly 40,000 more votes were cast county-wide than this year despite the county’s explosive population growth over the last four years. Chances are good that one of the reasons for this year’s depressed turnout is the number of civically engaged, long-term residents who’ve had to move to more affordable locations elsewhere - and who’ve been replaced by new residents with no real connection to local politics.

Our population growth, and exodus, shows no signs of slowing down. By 2019, when all seven district council seats are up for election, some of those new voters will be more invested in local elections. Whether their votes move Seattle more to the left or the center will play a large factor in what the last two years of Durkan’s term look like. If community activists want a seat at the table as Seattle grows in size and wealth, they’d better figure out how to not just protest, but to organize in a way that wields real power. The roadblocks to their vision of a more equitable and affordable city aren’t going away any time soon.

Editor’s note: The Seattle City Council has passed the police contract with the police management union.