Nothing in politics is more self-affirming, in a very public way, than winning an election.
Your message has resonated. Your principles have been given a public thumbs-up. The people like you, they really like you.
So it was interesting to catch up with freshly elected Seattle City Council member Andrew Lewis on Tuesday, and find him instead feeling a bit … misunderstood.
“There were narratives in this election that were forced on us as candidates that we did not choose,” Lewis, 29, said. “I don’t think we all see ourselves as part of this story.”
He was talking about the Amazon versus socialism smackdown that played out in the election’s final few weeks. Lewis said it “completely drowned out” what most local candidates were actually proposing. Since the election ended, that polarized story line may only be intensifying.
“After decisive Socialist victories, Amazon should ditch Seattle for Bellevue,” read a hot take Monday on local radio website mynorthwest.com.
“The space between Seattle liberalism and Sawant socialism has closed,” pronounced local political consultant DJ Wilson, referring to Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, who won a stirring come-from-behind victory.
She, not surprisingly, agrees: “The overall City Council results were as close to a referendum on the Amazon tax as possible,” she said Saturday, as a crowd chanted for her other top priority: “Rent control, rent control, make Seattle affordable.”
Is any of this borne out by the election we just had?
First, one Socialist candidate scored a victory, not plural Socialists (the only other one running, Democratic Socialist Shaun Scott, didn’t win). Second, while Amazon’s tone-deaf electioneering plainly backfired, that doesn’t mean all the candidates who won last week fit neatly into Sawant’s anti-Amazon or pro-socialist camp.
“I can confirm that I am not a socialist,” said Lewis, laughing.
Take the Amazon tax, otherwise known as the “head tax,” which Sawant wants to bring back. Three of the four new, incoming members of the City Council said during the campaign they’re opposed to that (one, Ballard’s Dan Strauss, was more of a “maybe,” but he did say “my preference is to not have it come back.”)
Lewis, a self-described “labor Democrat” who will now represent the downtown district that contains Amazon, got grouped with the “tax Amazon” slate when the Chamber of Commerce endorsed his opponent. But all campaign long he kept saying a “per employee” type of head tax was a bad idea.
“People were concerned about Amazon putting all that money into the election, because they want the council to be responsive to the general public,” Lewis said. “But that’s different than the public wanting us to now turn around and tax Amazon. I just don’t think the election meant ‘tax Amazon.’ ”
Likewise three of the four incoming members of the council said in surveys and debates that they oppose rent control — Lewis, Strauss and Alex Pedersen of the 4th District. That would leave Tammy Morales of the 2nd District as the only new member of the council who comes in backing rent control.
I’m not arguing for or against these policy ideas, just that the winning “slate” is nowhere near as monolithic as advertised. This election, while unusually exciting, is now being predictably oversold — by right-wingers who love to hate on Seattle as a socialistic hellhole, and by Sawant, who Tuesday on Democracy Now called the vote “an absolutely historic event” for progressive politics.
But in some areas the council may even have just tilted rightward. Take the urbanist environmentalist plan for congestion tolling downtown streets, which was a goal of outgoing Councilmember Mike O’Brien. Five out of the seven candidates elected last week answered a hard “no” to that in Seattle Times surveys (a sixth, incumbent Debora Juarez, said “maybe”). That leaves only one booster for a tolling scheme, Strauss — who is O’Brien’s replacement.
Issue stances that did get a clear political boost include more housing density in single-family zones (all seven winning candidate answered “yes” to that). Seattle opening a safe-injection site for drugs got the support of six winning candidates — only Pedersen said “no.”
The record spending by outside groups and the contrived slates was like an out-of-body experience, Lewis said, “obscuring the distinct character of any us.” Ironically it may have gotten him elected, but now “it’s continuing, and we haven’t even taken office yet,” he said.
That’s politics, circa 2019. Polarize first, try to govern later. Maybe everyone take a break and, uh, go watch the impeachment hearings or something.