Ed Murray isn't running for Seattle mayor as the gay guy.
"It can work both ways," says Murray, who on Wednesday filed an exploratory committee for his campaign. "If people see me just as the gay candidate, they will vote against me. Even gay people will vote against me. I have to be the gay who did something."
Of course, Murray's résumé is stacked with examples of doing something, having served since 1995 in the state legislature, where he's chaired powerful budget committees in both the house and senate. But there is something momentous about the possibility of electing Murray as the first gay mayor of Seattle. That sort of excitement, and that distinction, could parlay into an advantage in his run against Mayor Mike McGinn and a gang of other likely qualified contenders, including Council Member Tim Burgess, who filed last week.
"If I win, it will be because people know I am a legislator who has been able to accomplish things on civil rights and who gets things done," Murray told The Stranger this week. And where Mayor McGinn is bogged down from years of ill relations with others at City Hall, and Burgess is saddled with a reputation as a moderately conservative tool of downtown business, Murray may see an opening.
His strategy doesn't rely on locking up single constituencies, as McGinn and Burgess hope to do with environmental and business blocs, Murray says, but rather it relies on peeling support away from various factions. "I hope to have business support, but I don't think I'll be the business candidate. I hope to have neighborhood support, but I won't be the person who has all the neighborhoods locked up. I believe some of labor will be supporters of mine, too. I hope to have my own community—the Roman Catholic..." he trails off, laughing. His community is "the gay community," says the Roman Catholic. "But again, they will not vote for me just because I'm gay."
Yet if anyone has the pedigree to be the first gay man to top city hall, it's obviously Murray. He was the architect of Washington State's landmark marriage-equality law this year. His strategy was brilliant: After methodically passing several same-sex domestic-partnership and antidiscrimination laws over the last decade, he stealthily assembled votes for gay marriage from moderate Democrats and even Republicans. By drawing out all those bills piecemeal, Murray also built up—and this is crucial—public support so that voters could ratify the gay-marriage law when conservative Christians challenged it at the ballot.
"I have worked my entire legislative career on big issues," he says. "And they have always been controversial, requiring me to build coalitions with rural conservative Democrats or Republicans to win."
Altogether, Murray's narrative is that of a liberal politician who consistently pulls a reluctant, moderate capital and public along with him to do what was long considered impossible: passing gas taxes to fund major roadwork, weaving in transit funding, and meanwhile marshalling landmark civil rights legislation. That sort of careful, coalition-based politicking to generally progressive ends is, to say the least, lacking in city hall these days. And the promise of Murray as mayor may appeal to voters who want a leader with a reputation as someone who can deftly navigate minefields, unlike Mayor McGinn.
But being a creature of Olympia has its liabilities.
Murray's granular knowledge of civic operations is admittedly sparse. "I haven't spent the last six months studying every city issue in detail," he says. "I have been off working on the marriage campaign."
Murray must also return next month to Olympia, where his caucus elected him as the senate majority leader, to tackle a budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion and to raise that amount again for K–12 public school funding. That sets him up for a long legislative session—one that could drag into spring and even summer, while other competitors are free to campaign and raise money. While the legislature is in session, election law prohibits Murray from fundraising for his mayoral campaign.
"I don't have the Ed Murray machine in place. I wish I hadn't used the word 'machine,'" he catches himself, referencing the union-style boss politics of Chicago in the last century. "We are obviously not going to be able to raise a lot of money."
If Murray plays his cards right, he can secure enough donors before the legislature convenes in six weeks to telegraph a strong campaign (by showing a roll of contributors from business, labor, neighborhoods, and other key constituencies). When the session ends, if it doesn't end too late, Murray will need to launch full-force into the mayor's race before the early August primary.
As evidence that the delay isn't a death knell, Murray points out that Norm Rice was elected as the city's first black mayor in 1989 even though he filed on the last possible day, going on to defeat Doug Jewett, who had been considered the front-runner. "We, as a city, like to coalesce around the safe candidate early," Murray says. "But this is an opportunity for me to talk about why I would be good mayor, what this city should be about, and what the city leadership should be about."
And that presents another question: What does his city leadership look like?
As a legislator, by definition, Murray doesn't have executive experience, and his controversial state stands don't have a direct relationship to the day-to-day managing of the city's departments, its troubled police force, its annual budget, its parks, or its other operations.
McGinn didn't have executive experience, either, and neither does Burgess, Murray points out. And plenty of executives had none before they started. Former mayor Wes Uhlman and Gary Locke, who was a budget chair before going on to be county executive and then governor, also weren't executives until they were elected.
Besides, Murray adds, he's chaired some of the thorniest committees in Olympia. His transportation committee, which oversaw some of the largest highway and transit budgets in state history, had 29 members. His budget committee handled $34 billion and had up to 23 members. "That is more people than are on the city council," Murray says. "So I would argue that I bring expertise on how to write budgets and assist in managing agencies."
"I am not ignorant of city issues," Murray continues. He goes on to explain his perspective on transit, policing, and, most of all, working with Olympia, where Seattle's relations with lawmakers are famously caustic.
"The largest single state investment in any project at one time is in the city of Seattle, replacing the viaduct," says Murray, talking about the state's pledge of $2.8 billion for a deep-bore tunnel, the most controversial city issue in the last decade. The Stranger opposed it outright, but Murray stands by the bill that he sponsored to build it. As mayor, he would work with Olympia and voters to pass a transit package that will mitigate the traffic that doesn't use the tunnel (the tunnel package lacked plans or money for the runoff traffic). He envisions a massive state transit package that relies on the city's legislative delegation and progressive urban voters, whose support will be leveraged for more benefits for everything from light rail and streetcars to bus rapid transit.
"Real bus rapid transit," he says, with dedicated right-of-way for buses through the city, "not what we call bus rapid transit." However, Murray stops short of supporting an accelerated light rail construction schedule funded by Seattle.
As for the police department, which must reform within five years to meet a federal settlement to eradicate patterns of excessive force, that is where Murray could face the biggest challenge.
"Public safety is one of the top if not the top priority for a mayor," Murray says. Would he fire Chief John Diaz? "I would ask for the resignation of all the department heads," Murray says. He would decide after a "stress test" who to retain.
Ultimately, Murray is reluctant to savage McGinn, saying, "This is not about the people who are running; this is not about getting into a pissing match about who is more liberal." But on the cops, he says, "I think the police department needs new leadership, and I think that leadership is a new mayor."