The recent battle at City Hall over an aggressive-solicitation bill was about more than perceived public safety in downtown Seattle. It was about fighting undue influence over elected leaders. It was about whether the coalition of organizations that defeated conservative money in last November's election could also win battles over city council legislation. And it was about the next mayor.
City council member Tim Burgess, who had aligned himself with wealthy downtown stakeholders and is widely expected to run for mayor in 2013, sponsored the measure that would fine violators $50 for aggressive solicitation (severe panhandling or fundraising). It seemed reasonable, and this was Burgess's chance to cast himself as a consensus builder.
But the bill was riddled with flaws. The Seattle Human Rights Commission found that the ticket-to-court mechanism prescribed by the bill would give vulnerable defendants no right to an attorney and could stick them with a criminal conviction for not paying a ticket that a poor person couldn't reasonably be expected to afford. Scores of progressive leaders and organizations—from the ACLU and NAACP to Real Change newspaper and the Church Council of Greater Seattle—rallied to block the bill.
Burgess's base of moneyed downtown interests—the Downtown Seattle Association and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which also backed Greg Nickels and then Joe Mallahan in the mayoral election last year—fought hard on the other side. They lobbied the city council for years.
But their money and influence weren't enough to float a flawed bill. The coalition of financially less-powerful groups, which fought to elect Mayor Mike McGinn last year, pressured Council Member Mike O'Brien to reverse his decision to support the bill. As a result, on April 19, five of the nine council members (O'Brien not included) voted in favor of the measure—technically passing it, but not with a big enough margin to override McGinn's promised veto. The mayor says he got only eight calls and e-mails in favor of the bill and 208 against it. "That was an astounding number," McGinn said.
McGinn acknowledges that Burgess may run for mayor in 2013, and he says that the political implications of the decision to block the bill—such as exacerbating his testy relationship with the council—didn't weigh on his mind. "Clearly, our ability to work on issues should not be made harder by the fact that we disagree," says McGinn.
It's unclear if council members will attempt to override the veto with a second vote; chances seem slim, because they currently lack the sixth vote that's required to overcome the mayor's objection.
Even if they do succeed—which appears unlikely—Burgess's attempt to unify Seattle has failed. He's roundly seen as a lightning rod for division, which isn't a strong platform for someone who hopes to be mayor, and downtown money has been defeated, for now.
"It beat them back, but they are going to come back," says Tim Harris, director of Real Change. "There was a lot of hubris from the Downtown Seattle Association," he says, but in the future "they will have to do more than just meet with the opposition—they will have to listen to what we have to say."