In Mayor’s Race, ‘Progressive’ Isn’t One Size Fits All

Seattle’s next leader will be liberal. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important policy differences between the candidates.

Sometimes in politics, you know what’s coming. Whether by intent or through the formation of an untested conventional wisdom by the collective subconscious, a script emerges.

For example, there seems to be one in circulation right now that goes something like this: Seattle’s politics are such that this year’s race for mayor is not going to resemble, in any way, our national political discourse. As such, any questions about Seattle’s role as a sanctuary city, inequality, LGBT rights, and other issues will in fact be out of the question.

David Rolf, president of SEIU, put it this way shortly after Mayor Ed Murray announced he wouldn’t seek re-election: “I think it’s really unlikely that we’re going to see any anti-labor mayor of the City of Seattle… . The question isn’t going to be, ‘Are we faced with someone who’s antitax, pro-right-to-work?’ That’s not gonna happen here.” Murray himself provided a variation on this idea last week to the Seattle Times editorial board: “Seattle is going to elect a progressive mayor—you walk out on the street and find yourself a progressive and you can elect them.”

Since left is a given, the script goes, the debate over who should be our next mayor comes down to practicality: Who can make progressive policy happen?

For example, in her own comments after Murray’s announcement, King County Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Nicole Grant stated that the labor council wants “somebody who’s not incompetent. Like, shares our values, and knows how to work. And knows how to deliver.” (We dig deeper into these and Grant’s other comments on page 12.) And Murray himself, again to the editorial board: “Is Seattle going to elect someone that can actually do stuff? … This city doesn’t need just someone who’s left. This city needs someone who’s left but can actually get things done.”

On their face, these statements leave little room for argument. It’s true that, on a political spectrum dictated by MSNBC and FOX News, Seattle’s next mayor will be liberal, probably very much so. And of course getting shit done is part of the job. Any candidate who wants to take a seat in City Hall should be vetted according to whether they can do what they say they will do. But there’s also sleight-of-hand at play in this rhetoric, and it’s important to keep our eye on it lest we be tricked. What Murray, Grant, and Rolf are all doing to a certain extent is making “progressivism” monolithic, and thus minimizing the real policy differences that exist among the mayoral candidates. And they are playing up an old political stereotype: Those with strong convictions are bound for frustration, while those with connections and savvy at least get something done.

While no names were invoked in the above quotes, as either endorsement or critique, it doesn’t take a political-science degree to see which candidates this kind of analysis favors and which it doesn’t. Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, for example, has framed herself as a “mainstream progressive,” a dog whistle to voters that she’s not inclined toward the post-Occupy leftist ideology that has gained a strong foothold in City Hall. She bolsters this claim with snapshots of her alongside Barack Obama and Eric Holder—signs of big-time connections if ever there were. Meanwhile, Oliver’s unflinching appeals to radically re-envisioning society have clearly sparked the passions of the same political forces that have elevated Kshama Sawant to the City Council, though the candidate would be the first to tell you she’s running as an outsider. It’s part of her appeal.

Should we ignore the real policy differences between these two and focus on who has more clout or experience? Of course not. That would be a disservice to both candidates, as well as to the rest of the crowded field for mayor and an electorate that has proven willing to dive into the nuances of progressive policy. This mayoral race should be an opportunity to talk about how we want our police to behave, what we want to do with kids who get in trouble, what’s to be made of the specter of young tech millionaires driving past homeless hovels.

Meanwhile, the get-stuff-done metric itself has a lot of nuance. Ever since Sawant took office, the common knock has been that she’s better at making speeches than pushing policy through. Yet it’s difficult to imagine the passage of $15-an-hour—an often-cited example of Murray’s deal-making prowess—without Sawant bringing the heat. Is that being effective? It seems so. And of course it’s progressive.

editorial@seattleweekly.com

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