Supposedly this is the year that Seattle's lurch to the left gets snapped back to the middle. But that's not where the momentum looks headed so far.
It’s been conventional wisdom since last summer, when that drive for a “head tax” targeting Amazon collapsed, that our super-progressive City Council had finally gone ’round the bend. Too far, even for lefty Seattle.
The theory went that it was sure to face corrective action now from voters — to move it back more toward the political center.
“With Seattle’s head tax dead, business lobbyists set sights on City Council elections,” headlined a Seattle Times story about efforts to flip the council to a less-activist body.
This is “an opportunity to take back our city,” a top business attorney was quoted in The Atlantic, from leaked minutes of the Downtown Seattle Association.
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Well so far — and it’s still early — the exact opposite is happening.
With a wave of retirements, it’s true the council is prepped for a major political realignment. But if anything it’s even further left.
“Socialists into City Hall!” is how the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America sees the opportunity, according to a meeting notice this month for the group.
What happened is that three of the seven council members up for election this year announced they are retiring. All Seattle City Council members are on the left, but those three, relatively speaking, are moderates in the group. Example: All three — Bruce Harrell, Rob Johnson and Sally Bagshaw — were endorsed in the last election by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Their retirements leave just a single Chamber-backed incumbent to run for re-election this year (Councilmember Debora Juarez of North Seattle, who hasn’t said her plans yet).
Already Democratic Socialist members are running vigorous campaigns for two of those empty seats. Community organizer Tammy Morales is the early favorite in Harrell’s South End district, as she nearly defeated him in 2015. And Shaun Scott, a Black Lives Matter activist and local writer, is vying for Johnson’s seat.
An upcoming meeting will feature Morales, Scott and Seattle’s one current elected socialist, Kshama Sawant, talking about how it’s they who are really going to take back the city.
“Socialists have a different idea of what Seattle should look like,” the announcement says. “How can working class people use the 2019 Seattle City Council elections to build grass roots movements to tax big business and fight for basic needs like publicly owned housing and world class, free mass transit?”
Business lobbyists have been highlighting for months that Seattle voters are fed up with the city, which creates an opening. For instance, a poll released Friday by this newspaper showed deep distrust among residents that the city can make progress on the homelessness crisis.
But the poll also suggests it’s a myth Seattleites want “get tough” or moderate approaches to the homelessness emergency. When asked in the poll what the city should do, liberal things that cost a lot of money — like more affordable housing and better drug and mental-health treatment — vastly outpolled conservative, cheaper strategies, like banning camping or a residency requirement for services.
Seattleites also refused to blame “Freeattle” (too many services) or lax law enforcement. By a 3-to-1 margin, residents said homelessness is caused by high costs or not enough services — which, whatever you think of her performance, is pretty much Sawant’s take on the issue, too.
It was also a belief among the business set last summer that Seattleites finally are experiencing tax fatigue. But then in November voters backed a huge property-tax levy for preschool and education, approving it by 69 to 31 percent — a record margin in recent years for a city tax measure.
Tim Ceis, a strategist who helped businesses orchestrate the head-tax repeal, insists the climate is the best it’s been in years for a more moderate city politics (and that some strong candidates who fit that bill have yet to announce). But he allowed he spends some time “tempering expectations.”
“The idea that there would be seven new council members who are moderates or who strongly support more pro-business policies was always a stretch,” he said.
In the midterm elections just held nationally, what was really in was polarization, with red areas getting redder, blue bluer.
When voters here elected our first socialist five years ago, it was so unusual it made national news. But in November, 43 socialists won around the country, including two in Congress. Seattle may seem as blue as it gets, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get more so.