The playbook for retrenchment after a staggering political defeat ought to get a new chapter studying the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
Just three years ago, the Chamber’s political arm orchestrated a disastrous municipal campaign, torpedoed by public outcry over a massive $1.45 million Amazon donation to council elections. Since then, the 140-year-old collective of nearly 2,500 regional businesses has reasserted its standing in the city’s policy conversation. How this happened — and what it may signal for Seattle governance in the coming years — deserves close attention.
For the Chamber and the wider business community, that election cycle sparked a series of problematic consequences. After nearly the entire slate of moderates lost in 2019, the deeply liberal council majority enacted heavy-handed policies to levy payroll taxes, set industry-specific wages for retailers and other businesses, restrict landlords’ control of rental spaces and undercut city policing without filling in gaps in public safety. Every election has consequences, and municipal elections can be especially dramatic because of the day-to-day stakes involved.
The traditional path after a loss of that scale is for a political side to perform deep self-analysis, figure out which decisions failed and attempt to perfect the mechanism. The classic example from recent years is the “autopsy” national Republican leaders conducted after Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 bid for the presidency. But reexamining the misfires and girding up to refight the last war risks getting subsumed when the debate evolves. The national Republican establishment learned this the hard way in 2016, when Donald Trump staged his hostile takeover of the party.
The Seattle chamber has blazed another path so far, which appears to be working well. After raising and spending more than $2.5 million in the 2019 elections, the chamber’s political arm reported just $4,438 in spending to the Public Disclosure Commission in 2021 — and that’s with an open race for mayor on the ballot. New Chamber president and CEO Rachel Smith called for a truce and said it was time to “put down our dukes” on political battling. Superficially, that’s what happened. The Chamber didn’t even get involved when the corporate community’s loudest council antagonist, Kshama Sawant, was narrowly staving off a December recall election.
But look closer, and it should be clear this detente didn’t mean disarmament.
As the council’s leftward policy shift plowed onward, the Chamber concentrated on showing that the city could be headed down a different path — and ginning up support for that agenda. The Chamber has run state-of-the-city polls for years, but has stepped up its game to focus on the reasons to fault the council’s actions for discontent with Seattle’s direction.
The latest iteration of the council’s polling, titled “The Index,” released Monday, showed a dramatic uptick in unhappiness over public safety from even a few months prior. When 70% of voters polled say they don’t feel safe downtown at night, that’s an indictment of the effectiveness of a city’s governance. The Chamber’s ability to put that into plain terms is laser-focused to narrow the ideological space between its member businesses and the city’s broader voting population.
That’s the long play. The more immediate purpose is giving the city’s current elected leadership real-world data about what a significant slice of voters want Seattle to be — and political cover to counter Twitter activism.
Don’t take my word for it.
“Through the Index, we’re able to actually surface the voters’ opinions to inform the conversations that we’re having, especially the policy conversations, around pretty complex issues like homelessness and public safety,” CEO Smith said in an editorial board interview April 6. “And we’re also able to demonstrate where there’s fairly broad agreement between the voters, between the employer community and between some of our elected officials.”
The 2019 push for “change election” candidates to help businesses thrive could hardly have gone worse. Well ahead of that debacle, the Chamber had attracted notice for handpicking friendly candidates to challenge sitting council progressives.
Asserting a position as a big-tent policy think tank ought to prove to be stronger footing, if the Chamber can hold the ground it’s staking out.
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