Who REALLY Runs Seattle?

It's not a conspiracy... but to outsiders, the way Seattle's corporate and political establishments do business comes close. here's how it's done—and who does it.

Institutions by their very nature place self-perpetuation above all else, and Seattle’s institutions have been aided in this by much that everyone knows and loves about the city.


Next Monday, as on every Monday for the past 65 years, 50 or so people will gather in the Meisnest Room of the Washington Athletic Club at Sixth and Union in downtown Seattle, at the invitation of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. They’ll eat lunch, listen to a speech by a local eminence, and spend an hour chatting about issues of special interest to those special and interested enough to have made the invite list. Members of this “Monday Club”—bankers, newspaper publishers, former elected officials, real estate developers, television executives, attorneys, venture capitalists, and others with big stakes in how public policy and public perception are shaped—will use this session to brainstorm ways of turning their dreams and schemes into reality. They’ll do it Seattle-style—in polite, orderly fashion, nodding or winking to get the attention of the chair, who will moderate the gathering more like a parlor-room salon than a public hearing.

Who REALLY Runs Seattle?

The public, in fact, isn’t supposed to hear about what goes on inside the room; everyone—members of the news media included—must abide by an off-the-record rule that’s as old as the group itself. Over the decades, Ellises and Nordstroms have spoken, and Blethens and Bullitts have listened, but not a word of it has ever made the local paper or TV news.

To understand Seattle’s corporate and political establishments—many argue they’re one and the same—one must understand the Community Development Round Table: Fifty carefully chosen leaders—most of them already well acquainted through Seattle’s tightly drawn business, government, and cultural circles—sit in a room and talk about how to find the money, build the political support, and craft a convincing public message to turn cocktail-napkin sketches into blueprints. The new Mariners and Seahawks stadiums. The NordstromPacific Place retail complex. The Seattle Commons. The Washington State Convention & Trade Center expansion. World Trade Center. Seattle Art Museum. KeyArena. Benaroya Hall. The 2012 Olympics. Name a project—if it has at least an eight-digit budget, chances are it has been or will be discussed by the Monday Club.

“It’s virtually not heard of, but it isn’t some secret society. It’s a way for community leaders to get smart, to think through public policy issues off the record,” says Maura O’Neill, a former Puget Sound Energy executive and a Round Table member since 1996. “It’s one of the things that makes Seattle special. I think the Round Table is an example of what makes Seattle’s business community incredibly unique.”

The Round Table is also an example of what makes people outside Seattle’s business community incredibly frustrated—especially when they’re trying to learn about, critique, and potentially oppose those eight-digit projects. People who likely will never see the inside of the Meisnest Room—neighborhood, environmental, human rights, and social service advocates—throw up their hands at the unusual cohesion of organizations like the Monday Club and Chamber of Commerce. “When they mobilize, forget it,” says longtime housing and community activist John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. “There is such a degree of power and influence in this town: The linkage to money. The connections to corporate and organizational boards. The issues they unify around. The money they can mobilize to support candidates. It just takes some phone calls and it’s roadkill for us—nine times out of 10.”

It was a phone call from John Nordstrom to then-Mayor Norm Rice that led to the reopening of Pine Street and, ultimately, to the publicly subsidized, $400 million NordstromPacific Place retail complex. And it was a phone call from Jack Benaroya to Rice threatening to withhold support from the mayor’s US Senate campaign unless he prevented a hygiene center for the homeless from moving near the site of the new symphony hall to which Benaroya was donating $15 million.

“These phone calls really happen,” says first-term City Council member Nick Licata, a 25-year community activist and one of Seattle’s most established outsiders. “It’s not a novelistic imagery.” Once the call is made, Licata says, fully informing citizens about the project and starting an in-depth public debate over its merits is often an exercise in futility. “When some of the big projects done recently have been criticized, it’s usually been a last-minute kamikaze effort.”

In a city that supposedly cherishes healthy democratic structures, open to anyone and everyone—a city once called “the public participation capital of the world”—critics and dissenters are often dismissed as “naysayers” and “loose cannons,” while those at the top of the business and political ladders construct ever-larger projects with ever-larger public subsidies. “It’s like an ant trying to stop an elephant herd,” Licata said. “We don’t have a conspiracy world here. But there is a comfort level among certain people who know each other—a well-connected network of people in the city whose names keep coming up again and again. We have a culture of commonly accepted principles of how the city should go.”

That culture dates back a good century, when families like the Blaines, Dennys, Greens, Skinners, Weyerhaeusers, and Yeslers built shipyards, cut timber, laid rails, erected office buildings, regraded hilltops, and otherwise created the foundation of what has become today’s Seattle. Those names still appear on facades, letterheads, corporate documents, nonprofit rosters, and campaign contribution reports throughout Western Washington. But they no longer have a monopoly on molding Seattle’s future. That torch has been passed to a new line of leaders—leaders whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize, even on the off chance you read them in the paper or heard them on TV. They are household names only in a select few households. You almost certainly wouldn’t recognize them if you passed them on the street or sat at the next table.

“You’re always going to have people who want control. And it’s not the majority—it only takes a minority. That’s nothing new; it comes with civilization,” says King County Council member Maggi Fimia. (Like Licata, she is a community-organizer-turned-elected-official who often finds herself on the wrong side of the establishment.) “But many of them want control without being noticed. They want the control but not the accountability.”

Many—perhaps most—Seattleites assume they know who “runs” the city. It’s the Ackerleys and Ellises, the Blethens and Bullitts, the McCaws and Nordstroms, the Sarkowskys and Skinners, the Weyerhaeusers and Wrights. If that’s what you believe, you’re only partially right. Those families, as wealthy and influential as they may be, comprise only part of a network of business and political allies that is much bigger than you might suspect, but still much smaller than you might think it should be. “Who are they?” asks Charlie Chong, a former City Council member and devout outsider. “Well, it’s sort of vague. Part of what they do is open and part of what they do is shadowy—almost sinister. That’s why I can’t name all of them.”

Though the names of Seattle’s establishment figures aren’t as recognizable as they used to be, their methods have remained essentially unchanged for decades. Norm Rice’s rationale for reopening Pine Street and Gary Locke’s pitch for building taxpayer-subsidized sports stadiums differed little from R.H. Thomson’s rationale for preserving the Cedar River Watershed in 1890 and Jim Ellis’ pitch for creating Metro in 1952. It’s all about “the public good,” “civic improvement,” or some variation on those themes. “What these people do is not considered corrupt,” says Chong. “They think it’s a public service. They’ve rationalized it that way. It’s polite graft. It’s socially acceptable graft.”

Graft or not, an extensive review of people affiliated with Seattle’s biggest corporations, most influential lobbying groups, largest nonprofits, highest-stakes political campaigns, and most visible government agencies reveals the existence of what Licata calls “a well-connected network of people in the city whose names keep coming up again and again.” When, early this century, David Skinner was building ships and Joshua Green was opening banks, that network probably numbered only 50 or so people. Ordinary citizens may have known a few of them—even shared a beer once in a while. Now, with Seattle having transformed itself into a cosmopolitan city, there are far more wheeler-dealers than decades ago—and they are far more anonymous. You’d probably spot the most obscure Mariners or Sonics player before recognizing the most influential members of today’s business, political, and cultural establishments.

What hasn’t changed is that members of the establishment represent a few dominant industries and disciplines—law, banking, investment, construction, architecture, retailing, manufacturing, and natural resources. Just as these industries and disciplines all came together before to regrade our hilltops and build our bridges, they’re all coming together now to build new sports stadiums, fine-arts facilities, waterfront developments, shopping malls, office towers, and transportation projects. And they’re coming together more effectively than ever, aided by business-friendly majorities on the Seattle City and King County councils, a well-connected Chamber of Commerce, booming high-tech and tourist industries, and a steady supply of newcomers that is steadily increasing the demand for things like sports stadiums, fine-arts facilities, and shopping malls.

From her front-row seat on the King County Council, Fimia witnessed Seattle’s most dominant industries and disciplines come together in support of a publicly funded stadium for the Mariners. At one point the lobbying from developers, attorneys, and financiers grew so intense that she was reduced to tears. “It became real obvious to me that there were powerful forces that coalesced around that issue. I lost my innocence.”

It will be a generation or two before the success or failure of the current spree of “public-private partnerships” can be determined. For all the unknowns that await, though, there are just as many safe bets. The Community Development Round Table will continue to meet every Monday at the Washington Athletic Club. Business and political leaders will continue to define and sell their projects more in terms of their public than private potential. Activists will continue to record far more losses than victories, while still telling themselves and everybody else that they can beat city hall. The media will continue to do their best not to surprise anyone too much or too frequently.

What’s also clear is that any major changes to Seattle’s physical and spiritual skyline will continue to depend on the decisions and actions of people such as those pictured and profiled in these pages. They’ll help to decide where things should go, what they should look like, how much they’ll cost, and how much it will cost you. Get to know them—if you can.