Although Jenny Durkan was cast as the candidate of business, once in office she kept the business community at a distance most of the time. The former U.S. attorney doesn’t seem to have ever really understood how to build that partnership, but treated her office as a litigation team, keeping things tight more often than not.
She is clearly not a natural politician. That much is evident by her early announcement that she would not seek a second term next year — instantly rendering her a lame duck, diluting her leverage. Not that she has much, facing a far-left majority on the City Council with the power to override her vetoes and sideline her agenda.
Now, as mayoral candidates assemble, Durkan will attempt to focus on “building a broad, just and equitable recovery that advances our fight for the climate,” as she put it. But outside the cant-filled vocabulary of “woke,” Seattle is facing a profound inflection point.
The city faces severe challenges in how its businesses recover — or if they do at all. The hurdles come not only from the pandemic but also from the City Council’s antipathy, shown in the new “JumpStart” payroll tax. Sold as an “Amazon tax,” it actually applies to an astounding 800 “big businesses.”
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce filed suit over the tax on Tuesday, calling it “illegal, invalid, and unenforceable.” The council claims the new tax will bring in more than $200 million next year — a pipe dream and a dangerous impediment to the city’s economy.
Why? Because companies are likely to limit or even reduce their employment within the 84 square miles of the city. And this at a time when remote work puts employment up for grabs, particularly the coveted, highly paid high-skill jobs. It’s the Eastside Full Employment Act.
Crime is another issue brushed off by the council but of serious concern to businesses. In addition to cutting the police budget, the council is considering essentially legalizing misdemeanors if the defendant can claim poverty, mental illness or substance-use disorder. Shoplifting is already tolerated, and fear of crime in many parts of the city makes it hard for businesses to keep employees.
It’s a startling turnabout.
Seattle was always a business city. Tacoma being selected as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific in 1873 was a slap, but Seattle leaders started their own railway. Eventually the city was served by four transcontinental railroads and Tacoma as well as Portland were eclipsed. Becoming the jumping-off point of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle became the business capital of the Pacific Northwest.
The 20th century saw continued growth and reinvention. Unlike so many cities, Seattle never lost its downtown as the business, cultural and tourism center. This became an invaluable asset as talented young workers and empty net boomers flocked to cities with healthy cores — and companies followed.
Stewards, especially the late Paul Allen, kept reinvestment coming. As in any city, maintaining a strong economy was one of any mayor’s prime duties.
In recent years, Amazon’s anchoring of a dramatically remade South Lake Union, the proximity to Microsoft, the high-end outposts of Bay Area tech giants and retention of a remarkably diverse economy propelled Seattle into the ranks of “Superstar Cities” in the 2010s.
For a while, the political shift from liberal to left didn’t seem to matter too much. Seattle’s prosperity allowed the $15 minimum wage and provided hundreds of millions to fund social-service providers.
But the anger of activists and many council members toward Amazon propelled the company to seek a “full, equal” second headquarters elsewhere. Some 240 localities threw down huge offers of subsidies for our “evil problem” before a reduced HQ2 went to a spot just outside D.C.
Then came the pestilence, and months of protests against injustice. COVID-19 shut down many businesses. A minority of arsonists and looters amid the demonstrations tipped over others. At the most recent count, 214 street-level businesses had permanently closed this year, including 152 in downtown, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.
While all cities are struggling with the question of a new normal after the vaccine is deployed, many business leaders and economists expect the Superstar cities to stay strong and maintain their commanding hold on the national economy.
But not everyone agrees. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom said earlier this year, “I fear that the prominence of the city, and particularly city centers, will decline. First, the pandemic has made us much more aware of the need to reduce density. That means avoiding the subway, elevators, shared offices, and communal living. Second, working from home is here to stay. So why not live further out, where housing is cheaper?”
Urban scholar Richard Florida has written extensively on the pandemic’s effects on cities. He doubts we’ll see a massive movement from urban centers.
But on Twitter he wrote, “My view is that the central business district like you see in Manhattan — the financial district, the Mid-Town Headquarters District — is a relic of the past. It’s kind of the last echo of the industrial age.”
That’s not necessarily bad for Seattle, as Florida praises cities with nearby neighborhoods that can act as a hub-and-spoke for a rebalanced economy. It’s too soon to tell. The rebalancing dreams of scholars and newspaper columnists don’t always come true.
Nor do the hopes of mayors, especially in a time of so much tumult and political polarization.
But regaining Seattle’s strong economy should be, more than ever, the chief job of the mayor.
The big question is whether the candidates will see it that way, and whether this City Council maintains its destructive composition in elections to come.