To many, the weekly freeway banner protest in Seattle City Council District 4 is a sign of Seattle’s discontent with the right-wing reign of Trump’s proto-fascist regime. The slogan “Drive Out Trump/Pence,” displayed by protestors over the 50th street I-5 overpass in the University District, serves as a comforting reminder of Seattle’s distance from the national climate of conservatism.
But in the middle of a heated election cycle that many have described as a contest for “the soul of Seattle,” a second look shows a city struggling to live up to its progressive ideals. At the dawn of a new era of city government in Seattle, there is nowhere near enough daylight between liberal Seattle and the country’s Republican-dominated federal government.
Mere miles from the petty glory of the I-5 protestors, nearby Laurelhurst is one of a handful of Seattle neighborhoods that saw a level of Trump support during the 2016 presidential election that was above the norm for District 4. Precinct data suggests an increasingly vocal bloc of conservative Seattle voters who weaponize the issue of homelessness to beat back progressive gains like $15/hour minimum wage, comprehensive zoning reform, and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Their reactionary tendencies mirror conservatives nationally, who spew anti-immigrant diatribes to push back against what they saw as an overly-permissive, basically Bolshevik Obama Administration. The backlash is real, and the dynamics are similar.
President Obama represented the worst nightmare of conservatives—and many moderates—who sensed that the country was slipping away from the lily-white traditional ideals of mid-century America. Consequently, powerful police unions, noted climate deniers, and none other than the Ku Klux Klan lined up to endorse Trump during an improbably successful presidential run in which he promised to roll back both the modest social democratic gains of the Obama years, and stifle the demographic shift Obama represented.
Locally, a mostly woman, disproportionately POC Seattle City Council has become a lightening rod by leading on progressive issues like $15 minimum wage and a domestic workers bill of rights. Most controversially, the current iteration of the Seattle City Council has authored zoning reform that has upset entrenched homeowners who seek to preserve Seattle’s history of segregation in amber, while also pushing for progressive taxes that have upset Seattle’s business community. After they joined forces to bully the City Council into repealing the Employee Head Tax, those reactionary blocs—big business and regressive Seattle enclaves—have forged an unlikely alliance in the 2019 Seattle City Council elections.
In exchange for the chance to halt zoning changes that will allow more renters and low-income people to live in their neighborhoods, both wealthy and economically-insecure Seattleites are willing to overlook that corporate developers in the Chamber of Commerce are the main driver of displacement. And in exchange for the chance to drag city government to the right, the Chamber of Commerce is happy to pretend to care about suspicions that neighborhood groups justifiably have of corporate developers who are major contributors to the Chamber and its chosen candidates, and who are often as not literal Republicans like notorious union opponent Richard Hedreen.
We’ve all heard the news of Amazon’s $1.5 million money dump into local elections (specifically, the Amazon money is flowing into the Seattle Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which is spending heavily on a slate of seven corporate-approved city council candidates). And it’s long been clear that this corporate-backed council slate is benefitting from a fusion of Seattle Times approval, Amazon-padded Chamber of Commerce funds, and support from neighborhood groups (many of whom are unfairly stigmatized as “NIMBYs”). These candidates’ conservative-to-regressive platforms have coincidentally been approved by deemed hate groups like Safe Seattle. Despite the fact that many of these candidates have direct experience in city government, they have run as “change candidates,” captaining Seattle’s conservative backlash against a City Council that is perceived as too progressive. Similarly, reactionary working-class voters and the corporate elite banded together in 2016 to support Trump in his pledge to reverse liberal gains like Obamacare and The Dream Act.
Understand that frustration with local politicians has always exited in Seattle. In 1861, Seattle residents got so mad at a municipal sales tax that they voted to literally disband the city’s government. But recent years have seen less liberal Seattleites harp on the issue of homelessness locally in much the same way that #MAGA fanatics have fixated on immigration federally. Conservatives nationally stigmatize, demonize, and ultimately criminalize immigrant populations, using them as a symbol of the same liberal mob that supports socialized medicine and radical action on climate change. Similarly, regressive blocs in Seattle have turned the homeless into the threatening “Other.” The rhetorical similarities are striking, with many peddling the demonstrably untrue lie that most of Seattle’s homeless are “not even from here,” despite the fact that 70% of King County’s unhoused population is from King County.
In a recent op-ed about President Trump’s negative influence on the discourse surrounding homelessness, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan derisively refers to Trump as “a housing developer turned president.” But the same combination of “deregulation” and corporate power that Durkan denounces Trump for boosting is the same corporate hegemony that has run roughshod over Seattle’s housing market. CBRE is the biggest commercial real estate broker in the Seattle area, sealing deals totaling 5.9 million square feet and $2.8 billion for developers in this region. In 2016, the corporate giant lauded the positive impact that Trump would have on commercial real estate, and even closed a high-profile real estate deal with the Trump corporation in the weeks after the Charlottesville rally. CBRE also donated thousands to Jenny Durkan’s 2017 campaign for mayor.
Rather than continue to embrace the most ineffective solutions from the most regressive blocs in the city, Seattle must put true distance between itself and Trump by addressing the root causes of economic insecurity in the city. We must start by taxing the same corporate cronies who have supported both Mayor Durkan and Donald Trump in their respective rises to power. One such tax could be a tax on speculative real estate and vacant luxury dwellings. If we move in this direction, we will alleviate the tax burden on both cash-strapped renters, and—ironically—many of the same homeowners who mistakenly side with the Chamber of Commerce’s wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The good news is that even the Chamber of Commerce has acknowledged that more progressive revenue is needed to seriously address the problem of homelessness. “A budget of $360 to $410 million would be needed [to keep pace with the scale of the problem],” a Chamber-funded study indicated in 2018. “This is about twice what the system invests today. But it is still less than the $1.1 billion that homelessness is estimated to cost the Seattle-area economy as a result of extra policing and the frequent hospitalization of those living in the streets.” The bad news, of course, is that this same Chamber of Commerce, as well as its chosen candidates, will fight tooth and nail to make sure the revenue does not come from the business community.
Geography professor Serin D. Houston writes in her 2019 book Imagining Seattle: Social Values in Urban Governance that “as the United States witnesses further contractions in the welfare state, local governments are increasingly taking the lead in the materialization of progressive values. Cities represent the sites of greatest possibility for focused leadership on social change.”
On big questions like homelessness and affordable housing, Seattle cannot assume this leadership mantle so long as it remains beholden to the stifling combination of conservative-leaning voters who use corporate behemoths as a political bullhorn for regressive policy outcomes.
To take on Trump, liberal Seattle must first take on itself.
Shaun Scott is a candidate for Seattle City Council District 4. He is the author of the book Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present (Zero Books, 2018).