On Tuesday, Ed Murray announced that he will not be seeking a second term as mayor of Seattle.
Before the news broke in early April that Murray was being sued for allegedly molesting a teenager in the 1980s (which he denies), the mayor seemed politically untouchable going into his 2017 re-election bid. Murray’s approval ratings were high; his war chest filled; his first-term governing record padded by a serious list of substantive accomplishments; and his re-election endorsement list reading like a who’s-who of local and regional political actors and leadership.
Now his 20-plus-year political career appears to have come to an end. When he exits in December, Murray will leave a legacy marked by major accomplishments but tainted with scandal; a mayor who lauded consensus but managed to alienate many.
After only a year in the mayor’s office, Murray had already established himself as a progressive, pragmatic coalition builder who could get things done. While Sawant had set the terms of debate for the first few months of Murray’s administration by working Seattleites into a frenzy over a $15 an hour minimum wage, it was Murray who pushed business and labor interests to hash it out in a room together and get a legislative package before the City Council. The same year, Murray recruited a reputable new police chief (current Chief Kathleen O’Toole) after a national search; got rideshare regulations through Council; secured $54 million for parks; and backed two successful ballot initiatives: a universal pre-K program and a tax increase to stave off King County Metro cuts. Despite some initial public-relations hurdles—such as yelling at a reporter, a disgruntled former spokesperson filing a discrimination lawsuit, and attempting to give Seattle City Light’s CEO, the second-highest paid city employee, a $60,000 raise—the sky seemed to be the limit for Murray.
The following year, in 2015, the mayor created another task force composed of private and nonprofit housing developers, social-justice advocates, and neighborhood interests to come up with a comprehensive list of policy solutions to address Seattle’s housing crisis. The final product (colloquially known as the HALA recommendations) now serves as a blueprint for the city’s approach to increasing Seattle’s housing supply and bringing down sky-high rents. Murray describes it as a “grand bargain” with private developers, which mandates they either set aside rent-restricted units in new projects or pay the city money for nonprofit affordable housing.
However, one of the recommendations—specifically a call to liberalize zoning in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods to allow denser housing construction—was leaked to the press and prompted fierce backlash from single-family neighborhood groups and activists. Murray, feeling the pressure and wanting to preserve the political longevity of the task-force report (and thus himself), rescinded his support for the changes to single-family zoning. While navigating neighborhood backlash, Murray also tried to keep Seattle’s leftist insurgency at bay, defending his compromise-based HALA recommendations against criticism from Councilmember Sawant and former Tenants Union director and current City Council candidate Jon Grant. Both said it didn’t go far enough, and advocated aggressively for rent control.
In Olympia, Murray could posture as a full-blooded progressive while also working across the aisle. But as mayor, he’s had an anxious and difficult time proving his lefty credentials to Seattle voters, particularly the activist far left that Sawant embodies. In early August 2015, Murray was quoted as saying “After everything I’ve accomplished for this city, I’m still ‘the man.’ ” (At the same time, the press got wind of high staff turnover in Murray’s office, feeding into another narrative that the mayor’s well-known temper and policy ambitions made for a hostile and demanding work environment.)
he end of 2015 was also when Murray declared a civil emergency in response to Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis. Murray simultaneously preached compassion for the homeles and escalated forced evictions of unauthorized homeless encampments around the city, playing a long game of whack-a-mole with Seattle’s lowest class.
It was a middle-of-the-road tack that left all sides furious: Homeless advocates slammed his sweeps as inhumane and ineffective, and groups such as the Neighborhood Safety Alliance claimed Murray was letting Seattle fall into needle-strewn chaos.
In 2016, Murray rallied developers, business, and social-justice and labor interests around the renewal and expansion of the housing levy (a property-tax levy that funds nonprofit housing projects around the city) as well Sound Transit 3, the tax levy needed to complete the regional light-rail network. Murray also helped pass secure scheduling into law, against protests from business interests.
Without the sex-abuse allegations, it’s likely that Murray would have won re-election easily. But with multiple accusers and growing discontent over both the allegations and how Murray has responded to them, the pressure on the mayor to step aside has grown and grown.
Until Tuesday. At Alki Bathhouse, near his childhood home, Murray announced that he will finish his term as mayor but is dropping his re-election bid. “The mayor’s race must be focused on [city] issues, not on a scandal, which it would remain focused on if I remained in this race,” he said. Consequently, “I am withdrawing as a candidate for mayor.”
Emphasizing his innocence and thanking his husband and supporters, Murray was visibly emotional during the farewell. He ended with a quotation from former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who like Murray was ethnically Irish: “To be Irish is to know that the world will break your heart. We thought we had a little more time.”