Staying Power

Rumors of the death of Seattle’s political establishment were, it turns out, greatly exaggerated.

Just after the decisive victories last week of Jenny Durkan (Mayor of Seattle) and Teresa Mosqueda (At-large Seattle City Council) – both of whom raised record amounts of money for candidate seeking their respective positions – Interim Mayor Tim Burgess released the city’s long-awaited Growth Management Plan. That’s what Burgess’s office and local media are calling it. The formal name is the HALA Mandatory Housing Affordability Final Environmental Impact Statement, runs over a thousand pages, and the public can comment on it until November 27.

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 exact policies that have led to Seattle’s intertwined affordable housing and homelessness crises.

That includes allowing developers in the newly upzoned neighborhoods to continue to avoid including affordable housing as part of their developments by instead paying into a city-run fund to build such housing elsewhere, at a rate that covers only one-seventh of the actual cost per unit of building such housing. And that doesn’t even get into the city’s dubious definition of “affordable”…or developers’ ability to raise the rents on their “affordable” units to market rate after a year or two…or the city’s abysmal record of enforcing these weak requirements and even of collecting the inadequate fees in the first place.

Release of the Growth Management Plan (GMP) 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 to replace the interim positions of Burgess and council member Kristin Harris-Talley. Public comment closes the day before Durkan is sworn in. If the GMP becomes controversial down the road, mostly it’s Murray and Burgess who will 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 SPD 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. Now that federal court supervision of SPD is winding down, the need for new contracts to win the approval of a federal judge is becoming less pressing. Given that every Seattle mayor involved, from Nickels to McGinn to Murray to Harrell to Burgess and now Durkan, has downplayed SPD’s chronic abuses, the delay also reads as another establishment move to outflank (and, in this case, outlast) community pressure.

The week before the election, over a thousand opponents of the establishment approach to Seattle’s growth turned out to attend a city council budget hearing and to mark the second anniversary of the city’s declared state of emergency regarding homelessness. These 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. The new Democracy Voucher program wasn’t used this year in the mayor’s race – but it was in Mosqueda’s race. The program was heavily used by challenger Jon Grant, and in a normal year the $330,175 he raised would have left him more than competitive. But compared to Mosqueda’s fundraising and the money spent on her behalf by virtually every labor PAC in the county, he was swamped. So was Cary Moon, 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 on display with these numbers and announcements: 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.

Setting aside the seven-week tenure of Harris-Talley, Mosqueda effectively replaces the retiring Tim Burgess, long considered city council’s most conservative member, 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. The activists swamping council hearings 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 rich as housing costs skyrocket, more and more people find themselves living on the streets, and whole communities still don’t trust SPD. It’s hard now, under the new Durkan era, to see any of those baseline realities changing any time soon.

And then there’s 2019.

One of the reasons that Jenny Durkan won comfortably is that Cary Moon was unable to mobilize the kind of enthusiastic community support that fueled the improbable rise of figures like Oliver and Sawant. Despite all that money and community activism, turnout in this year’s election was anemic. In 2013, when the headlining mayoral race between Murray and then-incumbent Mike McGinn was essentially a contest between dueling cliques of developers, nearly 40,000 more votes were cast county-wide than this year. That’s also 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 outside Seattle – and who’ve been replaced by a huge influx of potential new voters with no real connection to local politics. Those newcomers are, on average, younger, whiter, and more affluent than the residents they’re replacing.

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 residents 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.

Leave a Reply