At a posh north Capitol Hill house last week, a klatch of Seattle political insiders gathered for a fundraiser in support of Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign.
As the crowd sipped wine, former Gov. Chris Gregoire gave an impassioned speech praising Murray’s record as a state legislator, especially his successful campaign to legalize gay marriage.
“It didn’t happen overnight, and it was a real strategy on how to get there,” said Gregoire, lauding Murray’s slow-and-steady approach on advancing gay rights. “That’s the kind of strategy and thoughtfulness he will bring to the mayoralship.”
In a not-so-subtle dig at incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn, Gregoire added, “We need a leader who can bring us together, not divide us.”
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Gregoire’s remarks, and the fundraiser itself, were in some ways emblematic of Murray’s campaign, which has amassed big money and high-profile endorsements behind a message that he would bring a new, collaborative leadership style to City Hall.
As a state lawmaker representing Seattle’s 43rd Legislative District since 1995, Murray has developed a reputation as a coalition builder — a liberal Democrat who has worked across partisan and ideological lines to craft budgets and major transportation packages.
Murray’s argument for becoming Seattle mayor has rested more on that résumé, plus criticisms of McGinn’s leadership style, than on bold new policy proposals.
The ideas he floats on the campaign trail leading up to the Aug. 6 primary are often more about an inclusive process for making big decisions. He often sounds like he’d be the Convener-in-Chief, rather than a mayor of Big Ideas.
Murray says the leadership style of Seattle’s mayor is a legitimate major issue — perhaps the critical one — in an election where all the major candidates share a largely progressive world view.
He argues McGinn has harmed the city by alienating other regional leaders, feuding with state officials over the waterfront tunnel and with the Department of Justice and City Attorney Pete Holmes over police reform.
“This is not a guy who has viewed partnerships as a way to move forward,” Murray said in an interview.
Murray has emerged as a front-runner in the mayoral race. He has piled up endorsements from elected leaders, business and environmental groups, and was essentially tied with McGinn atop the field in a recent KING 5 poll.
Although he was barred from accepting campaign contributions while the Legislature was in session, Murray has made up for lost time. He has now raised more than $300,000 — more than any other candidate, according to reports filed with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.
In addition, a political-action committee called People for Ed Murray has raised nearly $100,000 to support his candidacy. Its biggest donation — $25,000 — came from the political arm of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Murray last month.
As Murray has shown momentum, he has been increasingly targeted by his rivals for criticism.
McGinn dinged Murray’s emphasis on leadership style at a recent KCTS 9 debate: “I think candidates should be proposing new ideas,” he said.
Murray has made some specific pledges. For example, he vows to lead a charge to put a third Sound Transit expansion on the ballot by 2016, and says he’d push for new training for Seattle police officers focused on the special challenges of operating in urban areas.
Opponents also have questioned Murray’s effectiveness in Olympia, pointing to the failure of the Legislature this year to deliver a local-option tax package needed to stave off looming cuts to Metro bus service.
If elected, Murray would be Seattle’s first openly gay mayor.
Born in Aberdeen to an Irish-Catholic family, Murray grew up in Seattle’s Alki neighborhood for a time before moving to Lacey, Thurston County, where he graduated from high school. Murray briefly considered joining the clergy and spent a year studying at a seminary. He later obtained a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Portland.
After working as an aide to Seattle City Councilmember Martha Choe and running a gay-rights nonprofit, Murray sought public office in 1995, trying to win the 43rd District state Senate seat vacated by the death of his mentor, Cal Anderson, the Legislature’s first openly gay member.
Murray lost that race to longtime Democratic state representative Pat Thibaudeau. He was quickly appointed to fill Thibaudeau’s state House seat. In 2006, Murray challenged Thibaudeau for the Senate. She dropped out of the race and Murray has faced only token opposition since.
In the Legislature, Murray has been best known for his work on gay rights, culminating in last year’s passage of the law he sponsored making Washington the seventh state to legalize gay marriage.
Early on, he was the Legislature’s only openly gay member, working alongside some religious conservatives “who thought I was the anti-Christ,” Murray recalls.
Despite his strong personal feelings on the subject, Murray advocated an incremental approach to attaining gay rights — sometimes taking heat from activists for his caution.
The approach paid off, as the state first approved an anti-discrimination measure in 2006, followed by a domestic-partnership law in 2008. The rights of domestic partners were expanded in 2009 in a law dubbed “everything but marriage.” Finally, last year, voters approved full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
“There were some very strategic decisions … I think Ed deserves tremendous credit,” said George Bakan, publisher of Seattle Gay News, which has endorsed Murray for mayor.
For Murray, last year’s approval of Referendum 74, which upheld the Legislature’s vote on gay marriage, was both professional and personal. He plans to marry longtime partner Michael Shiosaki, a Seattle parks-department director, days after the Aug. 6 primary.
While proud of his role as a gay-rights pioneer, Murray said some of his other work in the Legislature — leading transportation and budget committees — could prove more relevant as mayor.
“The city is about the plumbing. Maybe you dress it up, but it is about making the city physically function to a great extent,” he said. “My favorite things in Olympia — that one bill aside — are the times I chaired Capital and Transportation, and I’ve been deep in the details.”
Murray played a key role in crafting two major transportation packages during the 2000s that directed billions to highways and transit.
In 2002, voters soundly rejected a mammoth $8 billion transportation package called Referendum 51, which included a 9 cents-per-gallon gas-tax increase. The proposal had been widely criticized by environmentalists as well as anti-tax conservatives and was rejected by more than 60 percent of voters.
Shortly after the defeat, Murray called together leaders of business and environmental groups for a meeting in his living room to start a conversation about a transportation package that could unite the warring factions.
“He was always sort of a minor player but he jumped in on transportation and just owned it,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman, who then worked for the Seattle chamber and attended Murray’s living-room meeting.
The next year, when Murray chaired the House Transportation Committee, the Legislature approved a slimmed-down $4 billion transportation package that included a 5 cents gas-tax increase and 0.3 percent boost in the motor-vehicle sales tax.
Two years later, Murray again played a leading role as lawmakers approved an $8.5 billion transportation package funded largely by a 9.5 cents-per-gallon gas-tax increase. That package, backed by major business and environmental groups, withstood a referendum challenge by tax opponents.
Murray has found common ground even with ideological opposites in Olympia.
In 2011, he teamed with conservative Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli to write a budget proposal that closed a $5.1 billion state budget shortfall mostly through cuts to state services, including education, without raising taxes.
While Democratic allies criticized the budget cuts, Murray and Zarelli won praise for the rare feat of bipartisanship.
“Ed did the right thing in putting out the olive branch and saying we’re going to get nowhere unless we find a way to work together,” said Zarelli, who left the Legislature in 2012.
Zarelli said despite their differences, Murray has built trust among legislative colleagues by being “honorable and trustworthy — one thing he isn’t is arrogant or expecting.”
Although he’s projected a mostly calm demeanor while running for Seattle mayor, Murray has long had a behind-the-scenes reputation for losing his cool at times.
Former Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said that isn’t so unusual in a “pressure-cooker” legislative environment.
“I believe there was a situation where Ed has left the caucus when things aren’t going too well. He would put his own cooling-off period on himself,” Brown said. “Everybody kind of learns their coping strategy. I saw Ed get better and better at that.”
Murray said: “Do I get angry? Yes. Do I get in people’s faces sometimes? Yes. But I also know that is human. I work on myself.”
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, one of two renegade Democrats who joined Republicans to form a majority coalition in the Senate this year, said despite his split with Democrats, he’s been able to get along with Murray.
“Ed and I had some pretty heated discussions, but Ed does not personalize,” Tom said. “I actually think he’d make a very good mayor. He’s plenty liberal for the city, but I think he can get things done, and I think he’s a pragmatist at heart.”
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner