The $15 minimum wage. Universal pre-K. Punitive gun taxes. A billion dollar investment in transportation infrastructure with a focus on transit and bike lanes.
All of these recent local moves have established Seattle as the nation’s progressive trendsetter. And there are (angry) calls for even more bold action: Paid family leave. A millionaires’ tax. Rent control. A gigantic levy and developer fees to pay for affordable housing.
When did Seattle get so radical? Easy. Inauguration day, January 4, 2010, when mayor Mike McGinn took office.
Certainly, Seattle has always been left of center, even an exemplar left coast city. City hall recognized gay marriage and deprioritized arresting people for pot in the early 2000s, for example, long before both issues started trending. But it wasn’t until recently that the fierce left was a legit force to be reckoned with downtown. When mainstream council member Bruce Harrell was sworn in as the new council president in 2016 he felt compelled to give a shout-out to the packed room of activists brandishing their “Tax the Rich” placards: “I am convinced that your voices will be heard in unprecedented levels in city hall. I expect to be reminded constantly and loudly.”
McGinn, an unkempt, bike-riding dude with an outspoken opposition to the expensive, environmentally disastrous tunnel project, managed to knit together traditionally disparate constituencies (cranky populists, environmentalists) and, to the surprise of Seattle’s establishment, win the November 2009 election after late ballots poured in.
McGinn’s know-it-all vibe and pugilistic personality eventually doomed his administration, but—as we’ve witnessed with late ballots that consistently sneak up and take down business-friendly candidates in subsequent elections (witness Kshama Sawant over Richard Conlin in 2013 and Lisa Herbold over Shannon Braddock in West Seattle in 2015)—the coalition McGinn fostered during his term is intact. And making it even more potent, socialist Sawant has emerged as the movement’s new charismatic leader, expanding the McGinn coalition by bringing in the social justice movement.
The current mayor, Ed Murray, was supposed to be the establishment candidate, but he’s already pissed off the business interests who supported him—seconding the “Shell No” campaign by challenging Shell’s port permits, passing that $15 minimum wage law with no tip credit, calling for a huge housing levy with hefty taxes on developers (on top of his increased taxes for parks, prekindergarten, and transit), and backing local labor to strengthen employees’ rights in wage disputes. Rather than dancing with those who brung him, Murray is clearly dancing to the demands of the new left established by his doctrinaire predecessor.