Hey there, new-to-Seattle person. Welcome! Say, did you move here from a place where it was normal to not really follow politics? Well, that place is dead to you now.
Here in Seattle, we care about politics—a lot—and that includes what's happening in local government. And you should get on board.
Why? Things get exciting around here. Seattle was among the first cities to pass a $15 minimum wage. Washington legalized pot. (Seattle's city attorney, Pete Holmes, was one of the first people to buy legal weed, and former state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles has been known to bake brownies with it.) We were also the first city to pass a law giving Uber and Lyft drivers the right to unionize, and we drew global attention to Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. We've elected a socialist to the city council—twice.
Seattle is where some of the nation's most radical, progressive policies are being enacted, but it's also a place of contradictions. While people complain about rising housing costs, they simultaneously resist new housing development. (A factor in affordability is the availability of housing stock.) Also, while there is a lot of housing being built, the city also has a growing homeless population. President Obama hailed Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole for her leadership, yet the police department remains under a federal consent degree for its use of excessive force and discriminatory practices. New money is flowing into the city, but income inequality between whites and people of color continues to widen.
What can you do to help?
Understand the Political Landscape
While Seattle is very, very progressive compared to most places in Washington State and much of the rest of the country, that doesn't mean the left here is satisfied. Seattle's political landscape is now made up of establishment Democrats on one side and far-left activists on the other. Our newly elected city council is, on the whole, more progressive than before. Its left-most members are Kshama Sawant, Lisa Herbold, and Mike O'Brien. Our mayor, Ed Murray, best represents Seattle's political establishment: a solid Democrat who considers himself a pragmatist. Sometimes he does the right thing, and other times he acts like a giant spineless baby. Meanwhile, our state legislature is a complete disaster. Split-party control means that Republicans in the state senate are always blocking stuff that Democrats in the state house want to do (like pass new taxes on the wealthy), and vice versa.
Know the Important Issues
Have you noticed yet how much traffic here sucks? (It does.) We've got ferries, light rail, streetcars, buses, a monorail, and even water taxis, but it's not nearly enough to get people moving easily from one side of town to the other. Our light rail line goes only from downtown to the airport (although expansions to Capitol Hill and the University District will open this year). Our monorail is even more pathetic, covering only one mile in downtown. The South Lake Union Trolley (affectionately known as SLUT) also has limited coverage, although new lines opening soon will connect it to other neighborhoods. In short, there are too many cars and not enough buses, bikes, and light rail lines to make Seattle the ideal city it should be.
Another major issue: Washington doesn't have an income tax. This may sound great for your income, but it's terrible for the state. Our schools and mental-health care are criminally underfunded. Literally. The Washington Supreme Court held the state legislature in contempt in 2014 for failing to address its underfunding of schools. Lawmakers say they have a plan for fixing this, but won't actually take action until 2017.
One of the most pressing issues in this city is housing affordability, which has contributed to an increasing homeless population. During a homeless count last January, more than 2,800 people were living on the streets of Seattle. In November, the mayor and county executive declared that the region is in a state of emergency—the kind of declaration usually reserved for natural disasters—because of homelessness. Since then, Murray's administration has opened new shelters and tent encampments, and has announced plans for city-sanctioned parking lots for people living in vehicles. Unfortunately, many homeowners remain hostile to homeless people in their neighborhoods.
Rents, which have been skyrocketing in recent years, are finally beginning to stabilize. Yet with tens of thousands more people expected to move to the city in the next 20 years, we still need more development—especially affordable housing. In an effort to meet that demand, the city is looking at ways to increase density in certain parts of the city and require developers to set aside some units for people making below a certain income. Lots more about this process—and how you can get involved—at murray.seattle.gov/housing.
There are two basic things you need to do. First: show up.
For Seattle-related issues, find the names and contact information for all nine city council members, and figure out who represents your part of the city, at seattle.gov/council. You can also find out when the council is holding meetings on the issues you care about. Their regular meetings are on Mondays at 2 p.m., and they hold others throughout the week. (You can also watch council meetings online or call in and listen.) If you want to contact the mayor, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another way to have your voice heard is to become active in your community. There are neighborhood groups all over the city; find one near where you live or work and attend their meetings. The list is at seattle.gov/neighborhoods/neighborhood-districts. The loudest contingent at community and council meetings is often one that holds a minority perspective, like being hostile to homeless people or new density. But if they're the only people who show up, they are the only voices the city council hears.
Second: vote. This will be a huge election year for a whole bunch of reasons that aren't named Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The entire Washington State House of Representatives—where Democrats hold the majority by only two votes—will be up for election, as will much of the Washington State Senate. Democratic governor Jay Inslee is running for reelection against Bill Bryant, a Republican who has a love affair with Shell's Arctic drilling fleet. This is not a year to sit out the election.
Another reason to vote: This fall, Seattle and its suburbs will vote on a massive light-rail package known as Sound Transit 3. Learn about ST3 and how to have a say in which projects get funded at soundtransit3.org. Voters in Seattle will also vote on a new housing levy, which could increase the amount of money the city has to build subsidized housing. Follow city council news for upcoming details on that. Then there are two statewide initiatives you'll likely see: One would create a carbon tax (more at carbonwa.org), and one would raise the minimum wage and create paid sick leave (look for signature gatherers working for Raise Up Washington).
Also, figure out which legislative district you live in (at app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder) in order to figure out who you get to vote for. Then look for a local branch of the Democrats (wa-democrats.org), Green Party (gp-wa.org), Socialist Alternative (socialistalternative.org), or Republicans (ha-ha, just kidding) if you want to help campaign.
Obviously, none of this matters if you don't register to vote. If you're a US citizen, do that as soon as you can at myvote.wa.gov, or in person in downtown Seattle at 500 Fourth Avenue, Room 440, or in Renton at 919 Southwest Grady Way.
Finally, keep up with all of this by reading this, Seattle's only newspaper. You should also read our blog, slog.thestranger.com, where we write about this stuff every damn day, and bookmark other local politics sites like Publicola.com, Thecisforcrank.com, and Crosscut.com.