In 2014, Mayor Ed Murray had the kind of year that most politicians can only dream about. During his rookie season, which some might call an annus mirabilis, or “miracle year,” Murray won impressive achievements with minimum-wage and parks funding, preschool education and public transportation. He also took gutsy stands on police discipline and homeless encampments that will most likely result in important legislative changes. While Bertha, the broken tunneling machine, could become a major problem, most of the mayor’s achievements will help make Seattle a more just city. Here’s a look at the top four in chronological order.
Campaign promises frequently disappear once politicians take office. In 2005, candidate Greg Nickels promised to build a citywide monorail. In 2009, candidate Mike McGinn promised to stop fighting the tunnel replacement of the viaduct.
So when candidate Murray promised to raise the city’s minimum wage, skeptics abounded. Murray quickly showed he meant to follow through.
In Dec. 2013, before Murray even took office, he convened a minimum-wage task force of business, labor and political representatives. Through sheer force of will, the judicious use of his famous temper and help from an initiative gathering effort led by socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Murray had secured a compromise minimum-wage proposal by May; he signed a $15-an-hour wage law by June. The new law begins in April, with large companies required to pay $11 an hour, which will eventually increase earnings for an estimated 100,000 Seattle workers. Murray told Salon.com that traditionally, “cities have been incubators of social change in this country.”
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) must decrease its use of excessive force and biased policing under the terms of a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In order to change the behavior of rank-and-file officers, police misconduct must be punished. According to the DOJ, people of color are likely to suffer disproportionate maltreatment by Seattle police.
In February, Murray made some initial missteps on police discipline. He quickly reversed this by courageously revealing how police officers could use the appeals and settlement process to overturn or weaken judgments against them for misconduct.
Although the police department had been under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors and judges, no one had found out about the rigged appeals process. Murray brought it into the daylight and, nine months later, produced a 55-point action plan to improve Seattle’s police accountability, including revamping the appeals process.
Whether Murray’s effort to improve police accountability can overcome the stubborn resistance within SPD and its powerful police union, and whether Murray’s new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, is the right leader to reform the department, remain to be seen. It is clear, however, that Murray is making a sincere effort.
In November, Murray and City Council President Tim Burgess led Proposition 1B, a $58 million ballot measure to provide quality preschool for up to 2,000 of Seattle’s 3- to 4-year-olds — including free tuition for poor and working-class children.
When the campaign began, Proposition 1B did not look like an easy win.
First, the preschool measure was part of a confounding and confusing ballot that included an either/or choice between Prop. 1B and a second, union-backed measure, Proposition 1A. The union measure raised $1.5 million compared to Murray’s measure, which generated $1.1 million.
While Murray and Burgess made grand promises for the long-term effects of preschool, including lower incarceration rates, better health and higher graduation rates from high school and college, it is undeniable that free quality preschool will improve the lives of Seattle’s poorest families who are able to enroll.
Seattleites voted 69 percent in favor of Prop. 1B. The mayor won an overwhelming mandate to expand city government’s jurisdiction into education.
Seattle city government’s resistance to contemporary tent cities goes back to 1990’s Goodwill Games. Those 24 years represent a serious amount of institutional resistance to homeless encampments. Murray appears to be the leader who will overcome it.
On Dec. 2, Murray signed the first city budget that provided a small amount of money, $200,000, to support encampments. While he didn’t lead the effort, neither did he thwart it.
Then, more than two weeks later, the mayor released his plan to address Seattle’s homelessness crisis. In 2015, he plans to offer new legislation to expand tent cities on public and private land in the city. “I also recognize that our current system does not have the capacity to shelter everyone in need. I understand that encampments offer a sense of community and safety to people,” Murray said. In addition, he will provide funding for encampments’ supplies and utilities, provided the tent cities follow city rules.
Murray did insist that encampment operators collect data on all of their inhabitants, a requirement that may result in a protracted battle with activists concerned with the privacy rights of homeless people. His new encampment legislation may run into trouble at the city council, where a previous effort failed 5-4.
Still, Murray is moving city policy in the right direction on tent cities — action that is long overdue.