I’ll admit it. When I first moved from Salt Lake City to Seattle in 2006, the politics here left me underwhelmed. Everything else in this city shined bright and vivid that long-ago June when I corkscrewed down from the Cascades, white knuckled at the wheel of a U-Haul truck, and into the Emerald City. Lake Washington. The Arboretum. Lake Union. Concerts at the Showbox, the creaky floors of the old Elliott Bay Book Company in Pioneer Square, hell, the old bars in Pioneer Square—all of it sold me on this strange and most brainy of cities, validating my move from Salt Lake, where I’d lived for nearly a decade.
But the politics, to my surprise, left me wanting. And here’s why: Everyone I met in Seattle agreed with me, it seemed, on every political issue, completely.
That was new. Salt Lake City, though the capital of perhaps the reddest state in the U.S., is far more liberal than most Americans likely realize—37 percent of its residents identify as Democrats, as has every mayor since 1976. And when you’ve got roughly one half of the population thinking one way and the other thinking nearly the exact opposite, well, you end up with a lot of arguments about how the world should be run. You couldn’t sit at a bar in Salt Lake and bring up politics without expecting a spat that fell more or less along party lines and didn’t end until someone was good and insulted.
In Seattle, where 80 percent of voters swing Democrat, I found no such debate. A great place to live? A place that shared my values? Absolutely. But I did miss the intellectual stimulation of everyone not all just getting along.
Then I realized I had it wrong.
As Josh Feit demonstrates in his fascinating chronicle of the city’s recent passage of the $15 minimum wage law (“What Do We Want? $15! When Do We Want It? In a Little While!”) the politics here are as gnarly as anywhere. (It’ll be a long time before I forget the story’s opening scene, in which seemingly mild mayor Ed Murray throws open a door and hurls profanities at business leaders.) It’s just that here the fight is not in the idea but in the process.
There’s a lot for Seattleites to be proud of in the new minimum wage law—the passage of which has inspired other municipalities to take a more serious look at income inequality. Feit and the people he spoke to make the case that the new law could have only originated in Seattle. The very number—$15—now being adopted elsewhere, came out of Seattle, as did other more embattled and controversial provisions, such as phasing out the tip credit.
Yes, there’s the infamous mire known as “the Seattle process,” where we vote (monorail), vote (monorail), vote (monorail), and end up with nothing (no monorail), but the $15 law suggests that even that old political logjam has given way to a new process.
As far as I can tell, it works like this: You come to a place and find you agree with everyone, only to realize that accomplishing the things you agree on is the real battle. So you fight about how to do it. And when you’re done you end up in a place better than where you were when you started.