Seattle, what the fuck is up with your lame mayor game?
"Seattle, what the fuck is up with your lame mayor game?" burdem/gettyimages.com

Jenny Durkan will become the 3rd one-term mayor (setting aside seat-warming positions held by Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess) since Greg Nickels totally failed to become a three-term mayor in 2008. (He was tossed out of the race during the primaries.) But if one looks at Seattle's modern mayoral history, which begins in 1969 with Wesley C. Uhlman, they will find a steady progression from one mayor to the next.

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This orderly Golden Age that marked the transition from classical urbanism to the politics of urban progressivism ended in 1998 with the conclusion of the second term of Seattle's first Black mayor, Norm Rice. The period of chaos, which we are still in, begins here, with the late Paul Schell, the 50th mayor of Seattle, Washington.

But why this series of mayoral disasters, one right after the other? It certainly deserves an interpretation. And I will offer one that has its point of departure with the megaphone incident of 2001.

From the opening of a CBS story with the excellent headline "Schell Shocked In Seattle":

A man protesting a police shooting of a black man hit Mayor Paul Schell in the face with a megaphone during a community celebration Saturday, police said. The mayor was hospitalized with broken bones around his eye.

Two police officers wrestled the man to the ground and he was arrested for investigation of felony assault, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said.

He identified the man as James C. Garrett, 55, who also goes by the name Omari Tahir-Garrett. He has pressed to establish an African-American Heritage Museum in Seattle and has interrupted at least one Schell news conference to try to draw attention to his cause.

When Garrett clocked Schell with his megaphone, Seattle entered a new phase of its modern period. To be fair, the trouble that was finally expressed by this assault had been brewing for sometime. For example, the "Pacific Place parking scandal" that's rumored to have cost Norm Rice a position in the Clinton administration already exposed the increasing contradictions of neoliberal leftist politics. Rice's successor, Schell, was an enlightened and cosmopolitan mayor, but he couldn't resolve these noble ideals into the blunt facts of an urban property market that's detached from the material world of minimum wages and growing middle class indebtedness.

The confusion of mayors since the megaphone incident has been a reflection of the city's inability to address the contradictions of market (or neoliberal) urbanism.

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Many may not know this, but before Schell became mayor, he played a key role in the development of the Harbor Steps (PDF), which has as its main inputs the European civic spirit. The Harbor Steps are inspired by Rome's splashy Spanish Steps. In this respect, it was conceived as a space open to public leisure. But what in the end did it become? The core of some of the most expensive properties in this state. A two-bedroom Harbor Steps apartment has been listed for $5,000. A person earning even $100,000 a year would be unwise to make that kind of commitment alone. And the few with the means to live here comfortably live right next to an area whose egalitarian principles and values are the opposite of those that generate and maintain their wealth.

The fall for Seattle is found, again and again, in property: who owns it, who receives/sends rent from/for it, and who can afford it. Durkan entered the office with a homelessness crisis that was already out of control. Because she imposed limits on her imagination and policy tools, the crisis only worsened. The pandemic was, for her, the nail in the coffin. The choice was between solving the contradictions of cosmopolitan market urbanism by sweeps or by reducing income inequality. She chose the former, failed, and entered the growing graveyard of Seattle mayors.

And so, another one bites the dust. The pandemic is not over, more people live on the streets than ever before. It is not an accident that Schell was clocked on the corner of 23rd and Union, former node of the displaced Black community.

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