AT HIS APRIL CAMPAIGN KICKOFF on Capitol Hill, indie rock star–turned–city council candidate John Roderick hammed it up with a speech that spoofed traditional candidate sound bites. “And now I’m supposed to say, ‘Families,’ ” he joked, stomping his foot on the stage. And though he certainly talked about serious issues like police accountability and housing affordability, the 46-year-old front man of the Long Winters—sporting a thick salt-and-pepper beard and Buddy Holly glasses—closed with another comedic turn, a fundraising pitch that jokingly scolded the crowd for owning more than one pet (“You are part of the problem”), and implored them: “You are my people. Now, take out your wallets and give me your money.”
The event, held in an art gallery, was a refreshing departure from the rhetoric of this year’s otherwise humorless city council election. Unprecedented development has inspired a slate of earnest populist candidates with a fuzzy desire to preserve small-town Seattle. Playing to the city’s collective angst about the future, candidates such as renters rights leader Jon Grant and low-income housing advocate Mercedes Elizalde are urging a villain tax on developers that links condo development to soaring housing prices.
But Roderick, who’s running against Grant and city council president Tim Burgess for position eight, one of two new at-large city council seats, doesn’t embrace the same class war motifs. Though he says, unconvincingly, that he’s “interested” in the developer tax, he simultaneously questions the idea of linking growth to builders. Instead, he focuses on optimistic campaign themes like gee-whiz technology upgrades (driverless cars, funiculars, salt batteries, lidding I-5 for a park) along with a call to “think fancifully again” (like, for example, spending $1 billion for inner-city rail). While he’s happy to talk about a tax on employers to pay for transit, he’s wary of labeling Amazon and other techies as “bad guys” because he sees them as possible allies. “These guys listen to my podcast,” he says of the nerdy futurists who are fans of his weekly show, Roderick on the Line.
But ultimately, like the other council candidates in the race, there is a strong strain of us-versus-them wistfulness in Roderick’s rap too.
A talented, charismatic, and successful fixture from Seattle’s late-’90s and mid-2000’s indie rock heyday—in addition to leading the critically acclaimed Long Winters, he founded the fabled Western State Hurricanes and toured with hit-single pop rockers Harvey Danger—Roderick stood on stage at his campaign kickoff and lamented that artists were getting priced out of Seattle, identifying his disappearing tribe as “the canary in the coal mine.”
“Artists can’t afford to live here,” he said, “and so the city is losing its heart; the city is dying.” In an election year when other candidates are laying claim to endangered working class renters—as one of his opponents, Grant, is doing with a call for rent control—Roderick has his own version of the battle to save Seattle. At the kickoff, he outlined his campaign’s sentimental agenda to keep Seattle “small and cool.” Stepping off the stage, he told me afterward: “Working artists are a core element of a vital city.”
Two weeks later, I visited Roderick in his cluttered International District studio office where a gold Les Paul electric guitar leaned in the corner. He had suddenly emerged as a serious candidate. He had netted the Sierra Club’s sole endorsement and former mayor Mike McGinn endorsed him as well. He also raised a stunning $55,000, including contributions from celebrities like Jeopardy! legend Ken Jennings (he gave $666), singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, and Daily Show comedian John Hodgman. But the all-star fundraising actually raises questions about Roderick’s viability. Seventy percent of his contributors come from outside Seattle (there are a lot of Brooklyn contributors on the list). And Capitol Hill’s third district makes up the largest slice of Roderick’s remaining contributors. By contrast his main opponent, Tim Burgess, had raised more than $150,000, and nearly 90 percent of his contributors are from Seattle.
Burgess political consultant Christian Sinderman says, “[Roderick’s] been a musician, which is awesome, but he hasn’t shown engagement in neighborhood politics or civic life or local Democratic politics, and that seems out of place in a city that’s focused on very real issues.”
But for Roderick, Burgess and former Tenants Union executive director Grant are part of the problem. “We have professionalized politics,” Roderick complains. “People from increasingly narrow walks of life apply for the job of a politician. They come up through the Democratic Party machine or they come up through liberal activism.” Roderick thinks this process leaves concerned citizens out. “What ends up happening is that our political class starts to regard itself as a professional class. And that’s antidemocratic and it’s not the American way. It creates a very insular culture in local politics.”
A member of the city music commission, Roderick was convinced to run earlier this year when former Seattle Office of Film and Music director James Keblas proposed an arts “revolution” starring Roderick—“someone from our world, who would go to city hall and represent the cultural life of Seattle,” Roderick remembers Keblas telling him.
Sinderman questions this focus. “I think [the arts are] important for sure, but it’s a very limited platform and seems out of touch. While arts and culture make Seattle an energetic place, there’s a reason it’s not on everyone’s political to-do list.”
Grant’s consultant, John Wyble, quips: “This isn’t backstage before a show. You do have to know what you are talking about.”
Are the arts politically relevant? Perched on a chair in his office with both feet tucked under his knees in the lotus position, a pair of striped socks peeking through, Roderick makes the case. “Yes, Seattle has always been a booming economic town. But culturally what sets us apart is we have another language—which is the moral language of art that informs our decision making…. It’s why companies are able to recruit people to move here, because we offer theater and art and music and dance and life! It is the stuff of life that sets Seattle apart and makes us attractive.”
But for all his talk about the future, the past still informs Roderick’s politics: “What we have right now is a product of bad decisions we made 15 years ago.” He lists infamous blunders that rubbed his generation the wrong way—the decision to build the tunnel, the decision not to build the monorail, and poor planning in South Lake Union, which he derisively says now “looks like a suburban biotech campus.”
This is why the city needs to tap its artistic sensibility, Roderick reasons, and then, noting that Seattle songwriters “don’t like to repeat the chorus,” launches into a sweeping analogy.
“When you go to Austin or Nashville you find people working within a very constrained songwriting form. You’re writing country and western music, and it goes like this! You are playing guitar blues, and it goes like this! Seattle has always been about…reinventing the songwriting wheel. We’re always churning because we’re looking for solutions, answers.”