Seattle Chamber of Commerce-backed campaigns to defeat progressives at the polls have a recognizable playbook.
Whether it’s killing a latte tax, buying a waterfront tunnel or flipping the whole damn council to get a kennelful of corporate lap dogs, the strategy looks something like this: generate a popular narrative based in outrage and victimhood, organize elites to gin up populist backlash and, most crucially, outspend the opposition by at least 5-to-1.
Nothing says “Never fuck with us again” quite like an eleventh-hour money bomb by those with resources to burn.
And yet, this time the formula failed. Seattle just elected the most progressive City Council in history. What happened? And more important, what’s next?
The clear intent, from the defeat of the head tax forward, was to weaponize homelessness as an urban wedge issue and flip the City Council in the bluest of cities to a more corporate-friendly hue.
Dishonest attacks on respected progressives became standard operating procedure. In a city known for Seattle Nice, this election was unusually ugly.
The “Seattle is Dying” narrative, championed by the likes of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and President Donald Trump himself, ratcheted the local debate to peak toxicity months before the election.
But here’s the thing: While people in Seattle may well be heartbroken and frustrated by the misery we see in our streets, we also know it’s more about radical inequality than excessive liberalism or inefficient government.
Long before Nov. 5, we were sick of the nastiness. That got reflected at the ballot.
While poll after poll reveals homelessness as a top priority for local voters, those same polls show more voters support for new resources than punishing the poor. Mean-spirited and radical “solutions” that both criminalize and warehouse homeless people without offering a vision for housing (I’m looking at you, council candidate Ann Davison Sattler) failed to resonate.
As much as many of us enjoy our Amazon Prime accounts and the modern miracle of one-day delivery, that doesn’t mean we want Jeff Bezos owning our City Council.
Amazon’s out-of-scale donation turned Seattle’s local election into national news. This was no longer about homelessness at all. This was a straight-up referendum on the role of money in politics.
While late ballots in Seattle always skew progressive, this time, they did so in record-breaking numbers. The better candidates won, despite the lopsided spending.
Here are a few ideas on where the Seattle fight around homelessness goes now.
The most obvious outcome is that some sort of progressive tax to fund housing and services is back on the table. Tammy Morales, who crushed her corporate-backed opponent like a baggie of Pringles at the bottom of her purse, has a half-dozen ideas for how this could go.
While the head tax got the details wrong, it was clearly the right idea. Seattle and King County have the resources to make homelessness, as the national refrain goes, “rare, brief and one-time” but only when the wealthy pay their fair share.
Personally, I like the idea of a city initiative. Any council-driven solution will be challenged both legally and at the polls anyway, so progressives need to frame that fight.
Next, our current council’s budget decisions to invest in Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion should be expanded. Seattle’s ambivalence over investing in alternatives to mass incarceration must be confronted and ended.
And vitally, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s stranglehold on homeless policy must be challenged. The state of emergency that centralized control over things like homeless sweeps with the executive has run its course, and investment in cop-heavy enforcement at the expense of real solutions is an expensive strategic dead end.
Finally, we should take the money that has been misspent on sweeps and expand Seattle’s tiny-house movement. Sweeps don’t get the tough-to-reach cases into housing. Tiny houses do, and they create healthy community in the process. It’s that simple.
Homeless issues were at the center of the 2019 city election for a reason. The misery we see on our streets is unacceptable and needs to end. We can all agree on this.
Now that the demagoguery has failed, the work for real solutions begins.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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