The first thing you need to know is that Seattle leans left. It's probably the most left-wing major city in the country. Elected officials who would qualify as bona fide progressives in, say, Saint Louis or Buffalo routinely get heckled here as spineless sellouts.
Seriously, democracy in Seattle comes with a dose of jeers. Just pop into a city council meeting when there's something divisive on the agenda—like an employee hours tax (also known as a head tax) or a plan to upzone a neighborhood (allowing developers to make buildings taller)—and you'll see.
Republicans, meanwhile, don't stand a chance at winning local office. Generally speaking, the battle lines fall between people pushing against the edge of progressive policy and people who would like to push much further.
You can't fault anyone for a sense of urgency. Seattle's tech-fueled growth brought an era of prosperity for some, but many others got left out. Now people are feeling the sting of soaring housing prices and rising income inequality. According to the last count, there are more than 11,000 homeless people in King County.
Seattle's housing crisis is the issue you'll hear most about. But your city leaders are also dealing with a public transit system that isn't keeping up with the population influx, police accountability issues (similar to police accountability issues everywhere), crafting protections for gig economy workers, and much, much more. It's up to you to keep up on the issues, put pressure on your leaders, and vote out the ones who suck.
Here's a primer to get you started.
Seattle's new mayor, Jenny Durkan, is a former US Attorney with deep Democratic ties and a loyal staff who believe she's fighting the good fight. Durkan is also the first woman to lead Seattle in nearly a century and the city's first lesbian mayor ever.
She has her work cut out for her. On her short list: building 1,000 tiny homes for the homeless, passing a domestic workers' bill of rights, hiring a new police chief, implementing an ambitious affordable housing plan, scoring a professional hockey team, giving Seattle students two years of free college, defending immigrants from Trump, accelerating a light-rail expansion, and centralizing the city's system for reporting sexual harassment. No pressure.
After she won a decisive victory in November, most of the city is rooting for her. But not everybody is on board. Durkan's skeptics, coming from the left, question her wealthy donors and backing from the Chamber of Commerce. They've cast her as Ed Murray 2.0, referring to her predecessor, who largely shared the same coalition of supporters. Durkan has tried to shake that label. In a matter of weeks, she fired a bunch of powerful officials from the previous administration, which ended after five men accused then-mayor Murray of abusing them when they were minors.
Oh! That's another thing you need to know. The city is still reeling from what was perhaps the biggest, and certainly the most painful, scandal in modern Seattle politics. How different officials reacted to Murray's alleged abuse (some stuck by him, others called for his resignation) lingers in the background of everything they do. Which brings us to...
The City Council
Five floors below Durkan's office, nine city council members occupy the wing of City Hall where the action happens. Seven of your council members represent individual neighborhood districts (i.e., one of them represents you). Go to seattle.gov/council to find out which member represents your district. Two more council members hold at-large positions, counting the whole city as their constituency (i.e., each of them also represents you). If nothing else, our council scores major points for representation. There are more women than men, and there are more people of color than white folks. They range from center-left to way-left-of-center. Here they are:
• Bruce Harrell serves as council president, representing South Seattle and Georgetown. One of four attorneys on the council, Harrell has little tolerance for dilly-dallying and will raise his voice if he needs to. He is the longest-serving sitting council member.
• Lisa Herbold, a fixture in City Hall who worked behind the scenes for years before holding office, represents West Seattle.
• Kshama Sawant, the only socialist on the city council, represents Capitol Hill and the Central District. A regular at protests and picket lines, she's something of a celebrity among people who watch Democracy Now.
• Rob Johnson, who represents Northeast Seattle, heads up the city committee dealing with land use and zoning. Watch his office, as it's tasked with implementing the city's ambitious affordable housing plan. He's also one of two white men serving on the council.
• Debora Juarez made history by becoming the first Native American elected to Seattle's city council and has worked on developing stronger relations with surrounding tribes. She's also an attorney and represents North Seattle.
• Mike O'Brien, representing Northwest Seattle, is an environmentalist in the council's white male minority. He's a friendly dude.
• Sally Bagshaw, another attorney on the council, represents Seattle's downtown core and surrounding neighborhoods. Elected in 2009, only Harrell has been on the council longer.
• Teresa Mosqueda, a former labor leader, became the newest council member in November. She holds one of the city's two at-large positions.
• Lorena González holds the other at-large position. She is an attorney, always does her homework, and asks some of the smartest questions in the room.
Every politician has her backers. Spend some time getting to know which asses are getting kissed, and you'll have a much better understanding of how power operates in this city. The Chamber of Commerce represents business, including some of the world's biggest corporations (Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing).
Labor unions wield more power here than in other cities. The unions have recently brought Seattle secure scheduling, stronger labor investigations, and bargaining rights for Uber and Lyft drivers.
NIMBYs, politely known as "neighbors," spend their time stalling housing development. The acronym is short for "not in my backyard."
Racial and social-justice activists, often young and always tireless, push for a lot of things, but have made the most headway on police and criminal-justice reform.
Urbanists want tall apartment buildings, cyclists want to get around without getting killed, and hockey fans want an NHL team (and they want it to be named the Seattle Freeze). That's all I can fit here, but know that this is a woefully incomplete list. Socialists were a force in this city long before Bernie Sanders became a household name.
You'll hear this term all the time. It refers to the years of task force meetings, outreach, studies, and appeals that seem to be required before your city officials will do or build anything. Some swear by the Seattle Process as a bulwark against sloppy policy. Critics say this snail's pace governing only waters down and delays stuff we need sooner rather than later.
I'm biased, but reading The Stranger is a great start. It's free! We have a great blog! And all of our staff writers tweet constantly. Follow Sydney Brownstone for criminal justice coverage, Heidi Groover for everything housing and labor, and yours truly for city council news. Also, to supplement your news intake, subscribe to the Seattle Times. If you have extra reading time after that, round out your news diet with regular visits to crosscut.com, publicola.com, sccinsight .com, seattlebikeblog.com, theurbanist.org, seattle.curbed.com, and thecisforcrank.com. KUOW (94.9 FM) is your radio source. You can skip mynorthwest.com.