Seattle politics: liberal versus left


Mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan (left) represents the status quo while Nikkita Oliver will bring transformational change

By George Howland Jr.

As Mayor Ed Murray prepares to leave office, let’s say goodbye to one of his favorite tropes: Seattle is a snake bed of divisive leftists who need to learn the art of compromise.

Instead, we need to understand the real difference between Seattle establishment liberalism and the socialists, populists, urbanists and social and racial justice advocates who want to change it. Understanding the distinctions will help people choose a new mayor: whether a liberal establishment figure like Jenny Durkan or a grassroots educator-artist-lawyer-activist like Nikkita Oliver. (Of course, there are 19 other candidates, but for the moment, I’m going to contrast these two.)

Unlike the U.S. congress or the state legislature, Seattle city politics are not about Democrats versus Republicans. Murray never seemed to grasp this. He was always shocked when opposed by people who weren’t conservatives. Whether his opponents were Trotskyist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant on rent control, populist Democrat Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold on housing affordability or homeless advocate and Real Change founder Tim Harris on sweeps of homeless encampments, Murray characterized these conflicts as divisive and unnecessary.

In fact, these conflicts are matters of principle. They reflect differences in political ideas, analysis and policy that are every bit as valid as the distinctions between the Ds and Rs in the state legislature, although not as vast.

Since the late 1970s, city hall has been dominated by different shades of Democrat. Voters had to consistently differentiate between Ds who were liberals, populists, unionists, environmentalists, feminists, GBLTQ supporters, racial justice advocates, establishmentarians, neighborhood activists or usually a mix of things. (More recently, revolutionaries, urbanists and democratic socialists have been elected or mounted serious campaigns.)

The Seattle establishment: big business, big labor and big Democrats

As time went on, an establishment coalition of big business, big labor and big Democrats came to dominate the city halls led by Mayors Charley Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell and Greg Nickels. When Nickels overreached by running for a third term, Mike McGinn, a green, market urbanist wandered into office. Four years later, McGinn wandered out and Murray restored the establishment’s reign.

Yet Seattle’s establishment politics are very different than those of the state’s power brokers much less the nation’s. The differences are easy to perceive. For example: Our leaders support mainstream feminism—women’s right to be political and economic leaders, women’s right to control their own bodies and much more. LGBTQ civil rights are another core belief of the people who run this city. (Of course, Seattle is no utopia: women and LGBTQ people still face all kinds of daily discrimination, experience economic inequality and are subjected to sexual harassment, abuse and violence.)

When I label mayoral candidate Durkan as a member of the establishment, I am not saying she is a reactionary or a conservative. I am saying she is a member of Seattle’s liberal elite that holds political and economic power in the city.

When I say that Nikkita Oliver is a grassroots educator-artist-lawyer-activist, it’s because she wants to use the mayor’s office on behalf of the disenfranchised.

The issues that distinguish Oliver from Durkan

Just consider a few issues.

Durkan supports Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program that will only require two to eleven percent affordable units in new apartment buildings. Oliver wants 25 percent.

Oliver supports rent control, Durkan opposes it.

Oliver wants to empower Seattleites through representative neighborhood councils and make our city more of a participatory democracy. Durkan will continue the usual top-down decision making of city hall.

Oliver opposes a new youth jail and a new north Seattle police precinct, arguing that both will lead to more racial injustice. Durkan wants to build both, albeit she would scale back the north precinct’s bunker. (Correction: an earlier version of this story said Durkan had not taken a stand on either. I regret the error.)

Oliver opposes sweeps of homeless encampments because they cause more pain for homeless people and make it harder for them to find housing. Durkan supports sweeps and despite many requests from Outside City Hall will not explain her position.

Oliver is not taking corporate campaign contributions because she recognizes that big business expects a return for their money. Amazon gave $250,000 to an independent expenditure committee to spend on pro-big business candidates—including Durkan.

These differences are shorthand for the liberal establishment’s status quo and someone who wants significant change.

These distinctions matter. Oliver, if elected, would significantly transform our city government for the better.

Questions, tips, comments:

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He is not a member of Seattle Displacement Coalition and no part of his writing serves as a statement of the Coalition’s views. He works under his own editorial direction. The Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy. He has never even been to a Huskies’ football game with the Coalition’s John Fox.



About George Howland Jr

For many years, George Howland Jr has been a Seattle-based journalist.
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