Dear Mr. Mayor,
For the purpose of this letter, I am going to assume that the civil lawsuit filed against you last week is completely baseless and without merit, as are the previous allegations from your days in Portland.
You should still end your campaign for re-election. It’s unfair and infuriating, I know, but it is by far the best option for both you and your constituents. Indeed, it is the only option that, once you are exonerated, keeps your legacy focused on your many accomplishments over decades of public service.
Put simply, even after less than a week, the lawsuit and its impacts, including your responses to it so far, are deeply dividing this city. They are making the gay community you’ve championed for so long a target, and also pitting that community against itself. For legitimate survivors of rape and of sexual and child abuse, the allegations themselves, and the extensive publicity given to public reactions to them, have been deeply triggering to many. You undoubtedly consider your aggressive response to your accusers the best way to address the accusations in a way that wins your case and salvages your job, but it has the tragic side effect of demanding that your accusers be silenced – a dynamic that every abuse survivor knows all too well, and one that your own example helps encourage in their lives. Even if you are the victim in this case, you are victimizing many, many other people in what surely seems to you like a necessary response.
Almost all of that goes away if you drop your re-election bid.
You are about to turn 62. Your next job will likely be your last, and opportunities for higher public service were already limited. Seattle just elected a young, dynamic new Congressional representative. Even if a Democrat should retake the White House in 2020, the chances that you would be offered a job in their administration, against much competition, were not great. And Seattle politicians don’t fare well in statewide elections. The most recent to run for Governor (Norm Rice in 1996) or US Senate (Ron Sims in 2004) were both beloved local politicians – and both failed to make it out of the primary. Both are African-American, but at least as important a factor was the animosity towards Seattle from the rest of the state. You know that well from your long years in the state legislature.
Such positions weren’t looking likely for you to begin with; regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the publicity from it has already made such further advancement far more improbable. It’s grossly unfair, but it’s reality.
What, then, will be your public service legacy?
Your re-election campaign is what’s driving tensions that on a daily basis are damaging both your constituents and Seattle’s national and international reputation. As you’re well aware, the lawsuit was timed before the filing deadline for mayoral candidates, but late enough that the suit almost certainly won’t be resolved before the primary or even the general election. This means that every Seattle voter is faced with the question of whether to support or oppose your re-election bid, and how strongly to do so. Most people would be content to set aside any opinion on allegations of decades-old misconduct until a court has had its say – but for Seattle voters, this isn’t an option. Even your most ardent supporters will be asked to justify their support. Barring an astonishing legal development, by definition there’s only one way public debate over the lawsuit’s legitimacy dies down before November – and that’s if Seattle voters don’t each feel the need to judge your personal fitness for another term, because you’ve ended your bid for it.
You will save yourself months of agony – which you may not care about. You’ve never been one to back down from a fight or challenge. But more importantly, our city will be torn apart by another seven months of this, including, inevitably, more hate crimes against LGBTQ constituents, and the death of past abuse victims who would otherwise continue to survive. These are not your responsibility, of course – but your actions can impact those outcomes, and people know it. Your legacy of accomplishments would be overshadowed by “…but he sacrificed his city, especially some of its most vulnerable residents, so he could get re-elected.” And that’s even if a court completely exonerates you.
By stepping aside now, you can support a candidate that you trust to finish your unfinished work. Voters can decide whether to ratify your work without the baggage of pending allegations against you. You will be remembered for putting the city first, and your ability to pursue whatever post-public service passion you prefer expands greatly. And you earn the gratitude of many, many Seattleites who are presently dreading the next seven months.
Against this, beyond the gross unfairness of it all, there’s an obvious objection: Wouldn’t this mean that any public official’s career can be shattered by a well-timed lawsuit, no matter how spurious?
Certainly, there’s a risk of that in the future. But several elements in this lawsuit are particular to your case: for starters, the plausibility of the lawsuit (due in large part to the previous allegations), the thankfully now archaic cultural norms of gay men before and during the worst of the AIDS years, and the confluence of sex, age, and sexual orientation involved. And if stepping aside increases the chances that your priorities will continue under a sympathetic successor, this lawsuit is hardly inspiration for the enemies of any future elected official. That simply leaves the motive of personal animus, and there are plenty of other, less painful ways for personal animosities to find expression.
You can’t control what people do in similar cases, especially hypothetical future ones. But you can control how your city responds to this case, in a way that concedes nothing to guilt, saves untold damage, and helps cement your reputation as a leader who put his constituents first.
Sometimes our moments choose us. This is your moment.
It’s time. It’s time to suspend your campaign, serve out your term, and on January 1, 2018, cheer the swearing in of the 54th mayor of Seattle.