By Erica C. Barnett
On Tuesday, less than 18 months after nationwide protests against police violence prompted Seattle leaders to consider new approaches to public safety, Seattle voters endorsed a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, electing a slate of candidates who promised to hire more cops, crack down on crimes associated with poverty and addiction, and remove more unsheltered people from public spaces, with “consequences” for those who refuse to go.
Longtime former city council member Bruce Harrell will be mayor; longtime city council aide-turned-“take back Seattle” brewery owner Sara Nelson will replace Lorena González on the city council, and Republican (and three-time candidate) Ann Davison will be city attorney.
The new regime is a significant win for the business and political leaders who have been shouting for the past year and a half that Seattle Is Dying because the city’s mushy progressivism has gone too far. What’s ironic about that view is that “the left”—that is, people on Twitter who have the unique ability to send mainstream pundits into fits of derangement—has essentially no power in Seattle city government.
Yes, there are a few more progressive faces on the council than there were a dozen years ago. But that doesn’t mean they’ve had much luck changing city policy (and on many issues, the council is still sharply divided). Under Seattle’s form of government, the mayor controls almost every city department and has the authority to ignore or reverse the council’s policy and spending directives, meaning that even if the council were to tell the mayor to, say, cut the police department by 50 percent, the mayor could and probably would just ignore them—as Seattle’s current moderate mayor, Jenny Durkan, has done with policy after policy. If the council’s progressive bloc could spend money or establish policy by fiat, you would see a whole lot more hotel-based shelters, public restrooms, and handwashing sinks around the city.
Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created.
For the past several years—the period when centrist pundits claim that Seattle was controlled by a far-left progressive bloc—the city has stayed the course on any number of policies that previously failed to address the city’s problems—pouring money into downtown Seattle at the expense of other neighborhoods, offering huge hiring bonuses to new police officers, and ramping up encampment sweeps to pre-pandemic levels. (Prior to the current administration, encampment residents generally got 72 hours’ notice before a sweep.) Progress on Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, has not only stalled but reversed, with more people killed by traffic violence last year than in any year since 2006. Exclusionary zoning laws continue to prohibit new housing except in tiny strips of land along major arterial roads. And overdose deaths have increased dramatically, an outcome that could have been mitigated by opening the supervised consumption site King County recommended in 2016, and which Durkan has consistently (and successfully) opposed.
The claim that Bruce Harrell, Sara Nelson, and Ann Davison represent a set of “fresh new faces” with “new ideas” may be the most confusing piece of conventional wisdom being pushed by Seattle’s pundit class. Harrell served on the council for 12 years before stepping down at the end of 2019. His homelessness policy, a copy-and-paste of the failed Compassion Seattle charter amendment, was drafted by 12-year council veteran Tim Burgess. And Nelson’s old boss, Richard Conlin, was a 16-year incumbent.
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As mayor, Harrell’s campaign promises sound pretty much the same as Durkan’s when she came into office: More, better, reformed police, lots of new shelter beds, and a “pragmatic” approach to the city’s basic issues, like transportation. (Cycling advocates have considered Durkan particularly hostile to their requests for safer infrastructure; at a recent campaign forum, Harrell made a point of mocking bikes as a viable transportation option.) Durkan never did build all 1,000 tiny houses she promised to complete by the end of her first year, and the police department is so far from “reform” that it remains under a federal consent decree, after Durkan and outgoing city attorney Pete Holmes prematurely tried to terminate the agreement in 2020. At the beginning of her term, Durkan vowed to apply a compassionate but tough approach to the city’s most pressing issues. Now that her four years are up, Harrell is proposing more of the same.
Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.
Of course, if your entire understanding of how politics currently operate in Seattle is based on Twitter, you might believe that the “Nikkita Oliver left” is actually in charge of things. It’s an analysis that feels right—if you choose to ignore the list of people who are actually running the city and the policies they have created. For people who are well represented by the current status quo, it can feel like oppression to listen to how people talk about you and your political allies in an online space that you chose to enter. But look around: Seattle has always been a wealthy, mostly white, fundamentally centrist city that wears its thin veneer of progressive politics like a “Black Lives Matter” sign slapped in the window of a single-family house in a segregated neighborhood.
Davison, admittedly, is a special case—one Seattle’s center left may soon regret supporting as gleefully as they backed moderates Nelson and Harrell. On election night, several Davison supporters at Harrell’s party referred to her, somewhat apologetically, as “Republican-Lite,” but there’s little question about the views she has expressed in public. When Davison ran against city council incumbent Debora Juarez (one of those moderate council members the pundits who scream about the “far-left council” never mention) in 2019, she proposed fixing homelessness by rounding up unsheltered people and busing them to warehouses on the outskirts of the city, where they would somehow be kept alive for less than $1,500 a year. A year later, she declared herself a proud Republican and ran for lieutenant governor on the Donald Trump/Loren Culp ticket. Her plans for that office were even easier to fit on an index card: If elected, she said, she would abolish the office.
Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue.
And there is considerable overlap between Harrell’s supporters and Davison’s (they even share some of the same consultants). On election night, after Harrell made his celebratory speech, a number of people from Harrell’s party piled into their cars and headed over to Davison’s celebration party. One was former Ed Murray public safety advisor (and Davison endorser, Chris Gregoire’s son-in-law) Scott Lindsay, who could hold a high-ranking position in the Davison city attorney’s office. Although most of the work of the office is in the civil division, Davison has said her top priority would be prosecuting misdemeanors—a radical reversal of the policies Holmes has put in place over the past 12 years, and a retreat into the zero-tolerance, broken-windows approach Lindsay has advocated.
Seattle spent much of 2020 in righteous convulsions over Trump’s revanchist, neo-1968 law-and-order rhetoric. But when it comes to quieter dog whistles—protecting single-family zoning, “reclaiming our parks,” and “reforming” the police department—Seattle always responds on cue. “In this house,” Seattle votes for the status quo.