The noise in Seattle City Council chambers on June 12 was deafening.
Proponents of the Employee Hours Tax (EHT) chanted and yelled, their voices so loud that people in the room — and those watching remotely on the Seattle Channel livestream — couldn’t hear councilmembers cast their votes on the proposal to repeal the tax on the city’s largest businesses.
Few people were under any illusion that the show of support would change the final outcome. The $275-per-employee tax on 3 percent of Seattle businesses would go down 7-2, less than a month after councilmembers approved it unanimously.
The money would have been used to fund homeless services and to build affordable housing, providing some relief to the thousands of people who survive in Seattle in emergency shelters or outside. The day after the vote, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released its annual “Out Of Reach” report, which showed that a person trying to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle would have to bring in a cool $75,120 per year.
The stakes were clear. Downstairs from Council Chambers a group of Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) participants gathered in a few chairs in between doors to the main-floor balcony and freestanding panels often used to display art. One man had his phone and headphones out, calling out the results.
“Why did we even come?” a participant asked of no one in particular.
A feeling of shellshock quickly deteriorated into one of internet rage. Accusations of cowardice, of weakness, of capitulation to corporations hit the seven yes-votes, while the two no-votes received heartfelt praise for upholding progressive values in a city that seemed to be sliding further and further to the right.
At the heart of it was a question that is simple to articulate and difficult to answer: Whom does the council serve, and how?
Elected representatives are central to our democratic process. They legislate, they hold the executive to account, they in some form or fashion embody the will of the constituency that put them in office.
But what that looks like, how they are actually expected to come to policy decisions on behalf of the people who put them in office, is surprisingly unclear.
The textbook divide is between delegates, who reflect the will of the people, and trustees, who are expected to use their experience and opinions to make educated decisions that benefit their constituents, even when those who elected them don’t see it.
In this decision, the Seattle City Council chose to be delegates of opponents to the EHT. But it’s up to each councilmember to decide to take on that role.
“There’s no, ‘Hey you have to be a trustee or you get to be a delegate,’” said Michael Blake, professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington. “It’s up to the individual person how they see themselves.”
The canonical source is Edmund Burke, an 18th-century political theorist and philosopher who framed the argument and came down on the side of the trustee, a figure that in theory doesn’t blow with the political wins.
“There’s a reason to go slow in politics, and the reason to go slow is with catastrophes, or complex legislation, there are people who want to set fire to things,” Blake said.
The majority of the City Council chose to set fire to the EHT.
They were reacting to public opinion polls that showed a backlash against the measure, as well as a referendum effort backed by the very businesses they wanted to tax.
But it wasn’t the Amazons of the world who came in person to rail against the EHT. It was residents in cream shirts with “No Tax On Jobs” printed in bold, green letters who turned out demanding either a popular vote or a repeal.
Many who speak against the tax begin with their Seattle bonafides, a way to prove that they have earned the right to be heard. Indeed, there’s more than anecdotal evidence to conclude that opposition to the tax was homegrown, an expression of growing local frustration with city government, said Ben Anderstone, a Seattle-based political consultant.
“This issue seems to have tapped into a reservoir of politically opinionated people who were not necessarily political activists in the past,” Anderstone said.
By that logic, a large group of people who have repeatedly voted to tax themselves to fund affordable housing, education, services for elderly adults and veterans said no to a tax that they wouldn’t pay directly because they don’t see the results promised from increased revenue streams.
Speakers demanded a plan — a resolution outlined how the $47.5 million raised by the tax should be used — or they asked the council to find the money in the existing budget. That line was pushed by the new head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Marilyn Strickland, to this newspaper and others.
Other hesitance toward the tax may have been the result of misinformation. The Stranger reported on video purporting to show paid signature gatherers for the referendum effort giving false information to those who signed. Proponents of the tax believe that the dire scenarios predicted by members of the business community that the measure would hurt the economy were at the very least overstated.
But Anderstone believes that the result came down to a lack of trust.
“It genuinely seems the voters who are frustrated about this are not coming at this from fundamental opposition to the idea, but a concern that the city and these politicians shouldn’t be trusted with the execution,” Anderstone said.
That sentiment pushed seven councilmembers to repeal the EHT, despite their personal support for the tax.
“Absolutely we need more resources to solve the crisis that we’re in,” Councilmember Mike O’Brien said from the dais. “From my policy analysis, this is the best tool we have.”
But he, like the others, saw no path forward.
Councilmembers became delegates rather than spend the time, effort and money to fight what may have been a losing battle in the referendum in November.
Shaun Scott — a writer, organizer and filmmaker — monitored the Council vote and went back to his computer. Scott had turned in an essay to the City Arts Magazine four days prior to the vote delving into the historic expressions of the politics that eventually doomed the EHT. What he couldn’t have known that Friday was that Council President Bruce Harrell would submit the proposal to repeal the tax the following Monday, and that the measure would be dead by Tuesday.
“I was seeing the general tenor of news coverage in regards to the EHT and I was, as result of research I had done for book I wrote on Millennials, familiar with the macrocontours of the counter-culture offensive that the conservatives had waged since the 1970s,” Scott said. “I thought it would be good to put those thoughts together.
“I didn’t think what was going to happen was the piece was going to be released as the City Council was going to do the work of market forces,” Scott continued.
In “The Class Warfare of Seattle’s Business Community,” Scott describes the conservative project developed in the 1970s to wield the weapons of news and culture to build support for business interests among the masses.
The same war is playing out in Seattle, Scott argues, but it’s harder to see. Conservative ideas here are masked by labels used with such abandon as to become meaningless, labels such as “progressive” and “liberal.”
“After tolerating social-democratic gains, a business elite that was never not powerful senses a political opportunity to grow its power even further,” Scott wrote, concluding that this process deemphasizes and further marginalizes communities that do not hold capital, political or otherwise.
It’s those people — the endangered rather than the numerous — who benefit from a trustee-type representative. History is replete with examples of attempts to bestow rights and protections on the vulnerable done over the objections of the comfortable.
It takes an elected leader willing to ignore the calls of a hostile majority or powerful class to win victories for everyone else.
Scott believes that the pro-EHT campaigners will have to take a moment and reflect on how to better articulate their case in a way that wins over the undecideds and bares the “naked self-interest” of political enemies. But elected leaders must know that the forces that developed and supported the EHT are not going away, he said.
“I think a lot of those City Councilmembers have to be reflective of being on the incorrect side of forces brewing for decades and decades,” Scott said. “Every politician has to have some sense of where they fit into history.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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