Former Gov. Dan Evans told me it was the toughest political challenge our region had ever attempted. Voters rejected plans for rail transit in three elections over several decades. And yet despite these seemingly long odds 25 years ago, voters finally — and overwhelming — approved a rail-transit plan proposed by Sound Transit. 

One of the big questions for next month’s election is whether voters want to see a return to the pragmatic approach to problem solving that led to the successful light-rail vote. We can begin to solve other seemingly intractable challenges like homelessness and public safety or saving Puget Sound by ditching the fixation on political labels. We must begin once again to build coalitions defined not by who voted for which presidential politician or party, but of those who care about our community and want to make it a better place for all. 

With the recent opening of the light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Northgate, and the 2023 addition of a line connecting Seattle and the Eastside, the vision of connecting our region with a mass transit “spine” is finally becoming reality. Light rail already has helped renew communities along its route, including parts of Seattle’s Rainier Valley and Beacon Hill. Bellevue’s Spring District is already rising from an industrial neighborhood, promising a new regional center mixing higher education, housing and jobs.

Seattle was the last major metropolitan area on the West Coast to approve rail transit. Over the span of about a decade, we had built a diverse coalition to support rail transit with a simple mantra, “Check your politics at the door, let’s focus on getting this job done.” Business, labor, environmental and civic leaders who often were opposed on other issues came together to form a broad consensus on how to move forward.

Like today, the country had no shortage of divisive political issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including a close presidential election whose result turned on a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and, a few years before that, an impeachment of a sitting president. But we did not let these national issues distract from our local goals.

Despite the work, voters rejected the plan in 1995 by an overwhelming margin. Many thought that was the end of rail transit. But led by Boeing and the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, many in the coalition pledged to support going back to voters with a revised plan, which passed overwhelmingly.

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A few years after the successful vote in 1996, elected officials and community leaders began to actively discuss abandoning the project because of huge initial cost overruns. Sound Transit’s Executive Director Bob White asked me to pull together a panel representative of the coalition we built to pass the plan to advise the agency on repositioning the project and regain voter confidence. Former Seattle Mayor Charlie Royer, a Democrat, led the effort. He joined recently retired U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican, along with business, environmental and other community leaders.

We knew there was strength in finding common ground among Democrats, Republicans, environmental, business, labor and other civic leaders. We knew there was sustained power in building “big tent” coalitions around issues with a goal of including — not excluding — diverse political views. 

In recent years, we’ve seen the big-tent approach replaced by the politics of exclusion. Political purity tests are used to shun some who want to engage in civic efforts to solve purely local issues. People of goodwill are fearful even to be seen working with those from another political party, and increasingly even those from another ideological wing of their own party. The center of politics in Seattle and our region has withered as a result. If these were the rules of engagement when we were building and passing the first Sound Transit plan and then saving it from being abandoned, we would likely not have light rail today.

It is clear the politics of exclusion have not worked. Despite ever increasing funding and focus on the issue, the challenges of homelessness are increasing, even as some communities locally and other cities across the country are making progress. Orca populations in Puget Sound are shrinking, an indicator of the declining health of Puget Sound.

We will only know for sure once the votes are counted, but there are signs that voters may be ready to demand a return once again to the kind of pragmatic politics that gave us the light rail and other civic success. Several candidates came through the primaries promising just such a pragmatic approach, and of course they are already being attacked through the playbook of political exclusion with ads seeking to tie them to national political issues.

It’s time for voters to reject the politics of exclusion. As a region, we know there is a better way. Let’s check our politics at the door and get to work.