Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is looking invincible at the moment. But he does have a lurking Achilles' heel.
Elections have consequences, as political people like to say. Here’s one of the biggest from this week’s election: Seattle is firmly Ed Murray’s city now.
The mayor wasn’t on the ballot. But he won going away.
His victory wasn’t total, but was sweeping enough it now seems possible he won’t face serious opposition when he runs for a second mayoral term in two years.
No, the voters didn’t boot out his nemesis on the left, Kshama Sawant (in fact she is winning by double digits). But the election results still amounted to an endorsement by the people of most everything Murray has done in his first two years.
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Mad about taxes or growth? Or maybe you’re mad that City Hall isn’t progressive enough? Well this was your chance to show it.
Instead, it appears every City Hall incumbent will be re-elected (votes will be counted into next week). Plus the city’s green-urbanist approach to our severe traffic and infrastructure problems was backed by the public in the big yes vote for the $930 million Move Seattle roads levy.
As the Seattle Bike Blog put it: “The people of Seattle were at a pivotal moment — there was a strong push to second guess our transit, biking and walking vision for the city. Instead, we’re all in.”
We’re all in with this mayor, too.
“This was his first midterm, the first chance for voters to have a say about his policies,” says his spokesman, Viet Shelton. “Midterms don’t usually go well for executives. But we feel pretty good about where we’re sitting.”
So what now? I asked Murray what he’s going to do with his political capital.
Try to remake the city’s schools, he said. The mayor has no authority over the Seattle School District. But he plans to launch a citywide public “K-12 Summit” next spring to figure out how the city “can get different, and better, results in our schools.”
“People say this is my conspiracy to take over the school district,” Murray said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. But the outcomes for kids of color, the leadership issues in the school district — they’re simply lacking. I think this is a discussion that Seattle needs to have.”
Murray said he may push for increased business investment in the schools, as well as year-round learning. He’s also got another property-tax levy, for affordable housing.
The big political question in Murray’s first two years was: Could he manage Seattle’s far-left progressive wave, some of which has an angry, throw-the-bums-out energy? He did, by veering sharply left and mostly winning at the ballot box.
“I don’t think the state or national Democrats realize the depth of dissatisfaction of the far left,” Murray said. “It’s like our version of the tea party. So we’re in an extremely volatile environment, just as the Republicans have been.”
Had the Move Seattle levy failed, there would have been blood in the water. As it stands, potential rivals such as Sawant or Councilmember Mike O’Brien don’t have much leverage against him.
But Murray has a lurking Achilles’ heel: that damned tunnel drill, Bertha.
It’s supposed to restart around Christmas after nearly two years of repairs. If it breaks down a second time, all hell is going to break loose, politically, on that project.
The problem for Murray is that every major public official who signed off on it is gone, except for one — him. The tunnel was brokered by former Mayor Greg Nickels, former County Executive Ron Sims and former Gov. Chris Gregoire, then pushed through the state Legislature by then-senator Murray. You can still see his name listed as the prime sponsor of the tunnel law, Senate Bill 5768, from back in 2009.
So he’s aware his future may rest a hundred feet down in Bertha’s brittle teeth. It’s frustrating, he said, because it’s a state project. As mayor of Seattle he has little control over it. Yet his name is on it.
“I still believe a tunnel is the right thing for this city, so we are doing whatever we can to collaborate with the state to make that happen,” Murray said. “But my plans on that project in the near term mostly are to hope.”
That’s the local political story to watch. Ed Murray’s on top of Seattle. Unless Bertha drags him under.