Murray Will Leave Office With a Stack of Accomplishments, and More Than a Few Enemies

A year-by-year look at Murray’s mayoral tenure.

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.

His previous upward political trajectory stretches back to his initial foray into municipal Seattle politics. Murray first made a name for himself in Olympia serving eighteen years in the Washington Legislature representing Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and leading the charge on marriage equality in Washington. In 2013, Murray took on sitting Mayor Mike McGinn—an incumbent who was painted by critics as a brash, uncooperative and ineffective activist who was more interested in speaking his mind than moving legislation through City Council. With the combination of support from the local business community, McGinn fatigue, and his strategic outflanking of McGinn on endorsing the $15 an hour minimum wage (a proposal originally championed by fast food workers and then city council candidate socialist Kshama Sawant), Murray won handily.

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.

Meanwhile, on the second floor of City Hall, most City Council members had nothing but praise for the new executive who, they said, knew how to wheel and deal and keep councilmembers happy while keeping larger policy objectives in mind. “Ed understands politics, and that’s why I like dealing with him. He knows what he’s doing,” former longtime Councilmember Nick Licata told Seattle Weekly back in 2015. “There’s not a lot of show-horsing with him. He wants to get things done, and he has.”

Councilmember Bruce Harrell sang similar praise at the time. “Ed can be very humble, and McGinn, well, he walked in like he was the smartest person in the room. Murray has flipped the whole script. He’s cooperative and collaborative with us, and so is his cabinet.”

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.

Another noted backstep in 2015: after the International District’s Donnie Chin was killed by a stray bullet outside a hookah lounge, Murray responded by going after hookah lounges, which he said were hotspots for crime. That elicited strong pushback from owners and fans of hookah bars, and Murray quickly backed down.

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.’ ” Seattle businessman Howard Wright told Seattle Weekly that he worried that labor has greater access to Murray than business and that he didn’t want to see Murray get “distracted” by Sawant. (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.)

Nonetheless, Murray came out of 2015 just as strong as when he went into it. Other than Sawant, City Council candidates who ran on platforms opposing Murray’s housing policies that year lost, and Murray’s $930 million “Move Seattle” transportation property tax levy passed with flying colors—a seeming endorsement of the pro-bike and pro-transit urbanist vision that Murray and his transportation director, Scott Kubly, hold for dealing with Seattle’s population growth and corresponding traffic gridlock.

Meanwhile, the 2015 elections altered composition of the City Council. The new, 2016 council was stocked with low-key policy wonks like former Licata staffer Lisa Herbold, former civil rights attorney and legal counsel to Murray’s office Lorena Gonzalez, and urbanist Rob Johnson. The new council not only shared Murray’s progressive policy ambitions but also his penchant for pragmatic compromise and agreeing to disagree. A new consensus was emerging.

But the end of 2015 was also when Murray declared a civil emergency in response to Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis. That sparked a contentious public debate about how to address homelessness that has pit Murray against homeless advocates for more than a year. 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. These sentiments among both sets of constituents are still strong to this day—manifested, for instance, in attacks on Murray’s homelessness record (alongside a Jon Grant-esq. critique of Murray’s housing policy) from mayoral candidate and attorney and social justice activist Nikkita Oliver. Earlier this year, Murray withdrew his own proposal to issue another property tax levy on the 2017 ballot to fund homeless services, after the levy was met with widespread grumbling about being a regressive form of taxation. The mayor didn’t endear himself to alienated homeowners when, in July last year, he announced that he’d be severing the city’s formal relationship with Seattle’s 13 community councils.

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.”