In late 2001, as then-Mayor-elect Greg Nickels prepared to take office, Seattle was sliding into a deepening economic crisis. With global travel hammered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the incoming administration anticipated major hits to tourism and more layoffs at Boeing, then the Seattle area’s biggest employer.
Although Nickels had campaigned heavily on transit issues, his first-term priorities quickly expanded. “It became very clear that the economy, and trying to get people back to work, would be front and center,” Nickels recalls.
Two decades later, Seattle is choosing a mayor for whom a main priority will be guiding the city from another economic crisis.
It’s a tall order. Although Seattle’s economy has rebounded substantially from the depths of pandemic, a full recovery could be a year or more away, thanks in part to lingering damage from the pandemic. But the new mayor will also have to navigate deep political disagreements over the best way to revive the economy, or even what a “recovered” economy should look like.
These politics of recovery have already surfaced in the run up to the primary (ballots are due Aug. 3): a feud between Seattle’s downtown establishment, which sees downtown as the engine for recovery, and a leading candidate, M. Lorena González, who champions a broader strategy focused on “all of our neighborhoods across the city.”
One city, many recoveries
The feud is largely performative — but it underscores a key challenge to Seattle’s recovery: The next mayor will oversee not just “one” economy but a diverse economic community whose various elements haven’t recovered at the same rate.
While many of Seattle’s larger employers, including big downtown players like Amazon, have bounced back (or actually enjoyed pandemic booms), the city’s small-business community may need years to get back its pre-pandemic numbers or vitality.
Similarly, where Seattle’s white-collar workforce saw minimal job losses in the pandemic, prospects for post-pandemic recovery are less certain for the city’s service workers, especially in industries such as tourism, nightlife, and arts and culture.
Those sectors “got hit the hardest, and that’s going to show up more acutely in Seattle than in other areas,” says Anneliese Vance-Sherman, a state Employment Security Department (ESD) economist who focuses on the Seattle area.
And where some Seattle neighborhoods have already seen a strong recovery, the going is much slower in other areas.
Downtown Seattle continues to suffer in the absence of office workers, who are still at around 20% of pre-COVID levels. Some South Seattle communities have also been slower to bounce back, partly because residents were more reliant on pandemic-battered service industries.
In South Park, for example, many smaller businesses and sole proprietorships closed due to COVID restrictions, but were unable to get pandemic small-business loans, says Rocio Elizabeth Arriaga Briones, president of the South Park Merchants Association (SPMA). That has made recovery “pretty difficult,” Arriaga Briones says.
That points to another recovery obstacle: COVID-19 exacerbated many of the problems, including economic inequality and homelessness, that were already hobbling Seattle’s tech-fueled prosperity.
Fifteen months into the pandemic, these problems are not only slowing the city’s recovery efforts; they’re also deeply complicating the politics of recovery for the next mayor.
Last week, backers of the so-called Compassion Seattle charter amendment reported gathering enough signatures to put the controversial measure on the ballot. (The signatures still have to be validated.) If approved by voters, the business-backed measure would require the next mayor and council to rewrite the city budget around homeless and human services, open thousands of shelter or housing units and “balance” the need to clear encampments from city property with health and safety of the people in the camps.
Many in Seattle’s business community say homelessness and encampments, and the crime and blight associated with them, are key impediments to recovery — and proof of a broader erosion in the conditions businesses need to bounce back. “We really need the basic fundamentals of municipal government to be working right if we ever expect to fully recover from the pandemic,” says Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance, which backs the charter amendment.
Small business, big homelessness crisis
The eight main mayoral candidates have some pretty big differences in how they would manage the city’s recovery — but also some similarities.
All eight have promised more help for small businesses.
Former state legislator Jessyn Farrell, for example, wants to see large direct grants to small businesses, particularly those in disadvantaged communities that may have missed out on federal pandemic loans and “don’t have access to traditional banking relationships.”
Lance Randall, an economic development specialist, wants tax breaks to landlords who offer rent reductions or other incentives to small-business tenants. Such a policy could also help fill some of the many empty storefronts, Randall said during a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association. “There are a lot of vacant spaces because of COVID,” he said.
Another popular platform plank: cutting the regulatory burden for small business. “We’ve got to be really cognizant that Seattle has not always been the easiest city to do business in,” adds Colleen Echohawk, former head of the Chief Seattle Club.
“If we empower more people to be able to start their own businesses … we are going to recover that much faster,” said Andrew Houston Grant, an architect and former staffer for city Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who also wants easier permitting, especially for businesses in marginalized communities. The city’s permitting process, he says “is broken.”
There’s far less unanimity when it comes to homelessness and security issues. While all eight candidates say they’ll prioritize homelessness policy, their approaches often differ substantially.
At the DSA forum, Harrell said he backed the charter amendment in part because “it suggests strongly that we have a compelling need to open our parks and public spaces.” Similarly, Sixkiller says the city needs to demonstrate “that we have the ability to both get [homeless] folks inside, but also address the conditions in our streets and in our parks.”
But Houston, González, Langlie and Echohawk oppose the measure. Langlie, a construction executive, said he shares backers’ concerns — “I do feel we’ve not held enough urgency on this issue” — but doesn’t think asking voters to decide is “good governance.”
Echohawk, who initially backed the measure as way to spur city action, later withdrew that support out of concern that the measure includes no dedicated funding and may lead to more sweeps of tent encampments.
Candidates were also divided on another key recovery issue: rising tensions between City Hall and the city’s business community. Relations between business leaders and the City Council’s progressive majority have grown increasingly hostile over a new tax on large employers and some council members’ combative rhetoric toward Amazon and some of the city’s other big companies.
Some mayor candidates have promised a more constructive, business-friendly tone. “We’ve got to remember these big large businesses that call Seattle home — they started as small businesses,” said Sixkiller at the recent DSA forum.
Others have kept big business firmly in campaign crosshairs. González argues that the city’s recovery strategy “must be first and foremost centered on workers … the people that have felt the brunt of this pandemic,” while “the mega corporations … in our city, whether they’re in downtown, or any other neighborhood, do not need taxpayer subsidies.”
Several candidates have attacked business’s role in the campaign. Ferrell says “the people of Seattle should choose their next mayor, not corporate interests.” Houston has criticized “corporate interests” and vowed to resist the “developers, millionaires, and bad actors trying to influence our election.”
How these competing recovery strategies play electorally is difficult to predict. Homelessness will likely be a priority for Seattle voters: 57% of voters identified homelessness as the city’s biggest problem, according to a February poll conducted for Compassion Seattle by EMC Research. It’s probably notable that Compassion Seattle garnered 64,155 petition signatures, or roughly twice the number necessary to get on the ballot, according to its backers.
But the mayoral race is also taking place in a political culture that has become increasingly divided over economic issues, such as inequality and corporate taxes.
As a campaign issue, economic recovery could be framed either as “City Hall partnering with small business” or “as a choice between worker versus employer interests,” says Ben Anderstone, a Seattle-based political consultant who is advising City Council candidate Sara Nelson. That could leave voters to choose between “vastly contrasting visions of what economic recovery even in,” he says.
Limited power, but a big ‘bully pulpit’
For all the debate over strategy, the next mayor’s ability to influence recovery will be limited.
Even politically effective mayors wield modest resources when it comes to addressing economic crises.
Seattle’s aggressive vaccination program and its various relief programs, such as small business grants and eviction restrictions, have helped blunt the pandemic’s worst economic effects.
But most of the recovery thus far has been driven by external factors, such as federal stimulus, the easing of state restrictions, and decisions by individual businesses.
“The city itself has a few tools — but really, it’s the market that’s going to determine ultimately what the economic conditions look like,” Nickels says. “And that goes far beyond Seattle and far beyond the mayor’s office.”
And, importantly, what power Seattle’s mayor has must be shared with a City Council with its own ideas about economic recovery.
The mayor’s main advantage, Nickels says, is the “bully pulpit” — a prominent platform to build public support for critical initiatives, which the mayor can then use to pressure the City Council when negotiating economic policies. If the next mayor can do that, “the council will have really little choice but to follow along,” says Nickels.
But an effective bully pulpit strategy requires a well-defined mayoral agenda that can appeal to a broad base of voters and constituent groups. And so far, Nickels says, he hasn’t seen that from any of the candidates.
“That’s what we’ll have to see between now and the primary certainly, but even more so once we figure out who the final two are,” he adds.