Faded Signs

Mayoral Candidates Fight Over the Future

Image by Shaun Scott.

There was a moment when it looked like the 2017 Seattle mayoral race would be defined by positive progressive ideas, a fight for Seattle’s future, and not a clash of personalities.

At the 46th Legislative District candidate forum on April 20, urbanist Cary Moon was the only one of seven candidates to decline supporting a city-wide income tax. The stance sparked a debate on social media among Seattle leftists: How could somebody who cited “cities and neoliberalism” in her Twitter bio decline a stalwart mechanism of redistributive economic justice?

Moon clarified her position in a written statement. It turns out that she didn’t oppose the income tax per se, but that she was wary of the lengthy legal battle that would likely come with trying to get it passed. Rather than bet all of her political capital on a measure that might not succeed, Moon preferred piecemeal taxes on capital gains and luxury items that could accomplish the same thing as an income tax.

The stakes of the debate—already high—had risen further. Suddenly, idealism and practicality had space to coexist. Moon identified herself with a pragmatic but no less progressive policy solution, issuing a substantive proposal. Seattle’s electorate was treated to an elevated conversation about policy that transcended spectatorship. That was five weeks ago. It feels like it may have been five months.

What happened? A scandal. And then, a deluge of candidates:

The terrible suspense surrounding the child rape accusations against then-candidate Ed Murray—made worse by his attempts to discredit his accusers—siphoned oxygen from the mayoral race, choking the vitality from what should be a discussion about the city’s future. Candidates Moon and Mike McGinn called on Murray to not just exit the race, but also resign. Murray settled on the former. “To be Irish is to know that the world will break your heart,” he mused at a concession speech on May 9. “We thought we had a little more time.”

Irish or not, a parade of Murray’s would-be successors did not wait for more time before jumping into the race. Once thick with the fog of embarrassment that Murray’s scandal caused Seattle politics, the city’s skies parted to reveal contenders swirling to capitalize on the carrion of Murray’s dead candidacy: former Obama-era prosecutor Jenny Durkan and State senators Jessyn Farrell and Bob Hasegawa. Of the major contenders, only lawyer and educator Nikkita Oliver announced her bid before Murray’s accusers stepped forward in early April. Moon and former Mayor Mike McGinn at least entered in mid-April, when it appeared Murray could still be a frontrunner. Almost everyone else’s candidacy comes coupled with faint whiff of opportunism.  

Today the Seattle mayoral race is crowded with candidates whose impetus to run seemed to hinge on a negative—the vulnerability of the incumbent mayor—and not on a positive vision for the city. Much local media has followed suit, focusing on candidate backstory and credentials, as opposed to the differing details of each candidate’s plan for the city. As a result, the race has become less and less about big ideas, and more and more about big personalities.

Nikkita Oliver—whose candidacy has become an inspiring signpost for resistance to Seattle’s growing class divides—has not been above the politics of personality-over-policy. In a recent City Arts story, Oliver said that if her more-privileged, purportedly progressive competitors wanted to “perpetuate justice,” they would renounce their mayoral ambitions and follow her, so that Seattleites wouldn’t continue to get “the same sorts of folks” in office. Spot-on as Oliver’s critique of privilege might be, the onus is on the competitor in an electoral contest to prove their superiority, regardless of the advantages of their opponents. This is particularly true in a race stocked with runners attempting to signify their downness with discontented Seattleites. Even Jenny Durkan—endorsed by no less than the Seattle Chamber of Commerce—has called herself “the underdog.”

Local elections in liberal cities are phone booth fisticuffs between fighters whose closeness can force them into a stultifying sameness. Both Cary Moon and Jenny Durkan have verbatim decried Seattle as “a city of haves and have nots.” One of these candidates (Moon) has written at length about capitalism’s vicissitudes in The Stranger; the other works for a law firm that has sided with McDonalds, Uber and Shell in high-profile lawsuits about wages, consumer protections and environmentalism. Neither can afford to seem weak on unaffordability. And so the political capital of progressive signaling circulates and recirculates, with many voters not quite sure whose claims are counterfeit; unsure, as Councilmember Kshama Sawant has written, of which “elected progressive [will] buckle and conform under pressure” from Seattle’s capitalist class.

“Today I’m excited to announce that I’m NOT endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce,” Moon announced in a statement on June 1, tweaking rival Durkan. Indeed, among mayoral candidates, the struggle for separation has become the subject of satire. Seattle Weekly recently launched a semi-comical “Which Seattle Mayoral Candidate Are You?” quiz, where users are asked which of a series of policy proposals they identify with the most, and are told which candidate they “are” based on their answers. The unspoken assumption that the game hinges on is that the candidates have not sufficiently differentiated themselves from one another. One user expressed shock at being assigned Cary Moon when she was mulling voting for Nikkita Oliver or Jessyn Farrell.

To the very real extent that candidates in the Seattle mayoral field differ from one another, it is because of the responses they’ve offered to the class warfare being waged in this city by developers and big business against the general population of workers, renters and minorities. These differences are evident on the candidates’ websites (and in an indispensable candidate survey conducted by the Seattle Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America). But they haven’t received as much attention as one might hope.

Hasegawa has staked his candidacy on the big idea of a municipal bank that would give the public control over its own finances. Oliver has backed affordable housing proposals that make at least 25 percent of all new housing units truly affordable. Moon has supported municipal broadband, as well as a speculative tax on foreign real estate investment that is driving the cost of housing up. The decisively pro-business candidacy of Jenny Durkin—a former prosecutor who initiated raids on local medical marijuana dispensaries in 2011—has mobilized centrist panic about the prospect of an Oliver mayorship. She’s pulled the race as a whole to the right and bona fides that could ingratiate her to Seattle’s left are lacking to say the least.

Meanwhile, Mike McGinn’s campaign slogan “Keep Seattle” straddles a line between nativist sentiment and complacent nostalgia. The anxiety contained in the catchphrase has encapsulated something critical about this race: It’s a contest over Seattle’s future, staged against the backdrop of a historical turning point at which the city must not fail to turn.

“Americans have recently found it more comfortable to think of where they have been than to think of where they are going,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter in his 1948 opus The American Political Tradition. “Their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial.” With the passing of Seattle pop culture legends Chris Cornell and Cortez Kennedy of the Seahawks, Seattle nostalgia has lately covered conversations in this city like thin layer of dust. Earlier this month, Hasegawa framed his campaign as a “back in the day” return to his wholesome upbringing on Beacon Hill.

Cornell’s cameo in the film Singles—released the same year that Kennedy won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 1992—provides a window into the pitfalls of nostalgia. Somewhere between scenes with payphones, broken answering machines, privileged Gen-X’ers casually reading Ayn Rand novels while sunbathing and scarcely a single character of color with a speaking role, you realize that there is no greater past to return to. With a paucity of policy debates now plaguing the mayoral race, one senses the contest could swing to the competitor who makes bold solutions the center of their campaign. Whether that happens or not, Seattleites deserve no less.  

Philosopher Walter Benjamin coined the term “Left melancholia” to refer to public figures who, rather than seize possibilities for radical reconstruction of society in the present, go on and on about the virtues of an ideal or party position. We need a political discourse that asks hard questions about whether a given contender’s actual policies will take us backward, forward, or keep us stagnant. The conversation can’t wait until after the primary in August, when the field of candidates will narrow from 21 to two. If by then we allow the race to narrow to two candidates who cannot offer practically implementable leftist substance behind their blusters, our fate will already have been sealed.

As it goes in politics, so it goes in life: For every day that you don’t have a plan, you lose one option. For Seattleites looking to a more perfect future, how many chances are truly left?

Faded Signs is a regular culture column by Shaun Scott.