Dream blunt rotation.
Dream blunt rotation. HK

On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of Seattle’s business community members gathered at the Hyatt Regency Hotel for the Downtown Seattle Association’s (DSA) “State of Downtown” event. In the middle of a two-and-a-half hour networking session featuring an open bar and piles of pastel macarons, the big DSA circle-jerk included a panel interview of elected (and not elected) officials, a TedTalk from an urbanist, and a closing 20-minute briefing on the state of the neighborhood from DSA President and CEO, Jon Scholes.

In his little speech, Scholes focused on the positives: A new PCC opening on 4th Ave, increasing hotel capacity, and projections of a record-high cruise season. He then briefly touched on the issues of crime and homelessness, offering vague solutions to ensure these challenges do not interfere with downtown’s positive trajectory. We must understand “what is at stake,” create a good “downtown experience,” make downtown “inclusive,” and do it together under the ever-popular public-private partnership model.

While Scholes maintained an overall optimistic outlook, an interview with City Attorney Ann Davison, Councilmember Sara Nelson, and King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) CEO Marc Dones, gave insight into the business community's attitude toward the challenges of crime and homelessness downtown.

Pity party

As the city continues to fail to adequately address crime, homelessness, and the root issue of poverty, the panelists emphasized the importance of working together despite political differences.

“The situation is dire. We are in a crisis and we need to say that out loud and say that word consistently and then act like it is true,” Dones said, in a city that declared homelessness a "crisis" seven years ago.

However, the real “crisis” afflicting the panelists and their moderator, independent broadcast journalist Brandi Kruse, was their apparent lack of power in local government, the meekness of their voice in city affairs, and how often their concerns have been drowned out by the rants and ravings of the all-powerful “activist class,” a term popularized by Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan and other right-wing commentators.

Nelson, who was supported by DSA-affiliated donors in her race against Nikkita Oliver, sounded hellbent on standing up for the voiceless, powerless business interest. She said her “first job is to give a damn about downtown” by making sure that DSA voices are represented in City Hall.

Kruse piled onto this victim-narrative, asking Nelson how she’d ever convince her colleagues to listen to downtown businesses.

“What I will do is I will bring those new voices and build my policy agenda around it,” Nelson said. She added that she will also remind her colleagues, who see the same budget forecasts that she does, that “the services that their constituents want all over the city are paid for by the resources generated in downtown.”

Nelson added that businesses think the city needs more cops, but she said she’s going to need backup to get that done. (She certainly faces an uphill battle. After all, the council fully funded SPD’s staffing request this year, and the Mayor promised to hire more police.) To help her efforts, she urged the business community to show up to meetings to tell the council what they are doing wrong, and to give the council members who they wish to do their bidding “positive reinforcement.”

“I think we're all human beings, and people like to be recognized for the good works that they do,” Nelson said.

The idea that business interests do not have a voice in city or county government does not hold up to scrutiny. Business-friendly moderates run Seattle, and they have for a long time. DSA gives voice to members such as Amazon, Goodman Real Estate, R.C. Hedreen Co., Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the like. The association supported, and its moneyed members funded, the last three Mayors. The only real check on corporate power came in 2019, when the city elected a nominally progressive majority to the council. That council had precisely three months to get its shit together before a global pandemic and a mass protest movement demanded their full attention.

Nevertheless, Kruse further spoke to DSA’s concerns about the left, asking the pressing question of how business owners might “speak out without fear of being labeled ‘NIMBYs,’ ‘right-wing,’ or whatever thing the activist class comes up with?”

“Call me,” Dones replied, with a second from Nelson, in a room full of business owners, landlords, and property developers.

Dones then urged the conversation to evolve beyond “good guys” and “bad guys.” They said that while no one should have to have a psychotic break outside, it is also stressful watching that happen, and no one should have to de-escalate someone on their way to pick up milk at the grocery store.

After calling for more nuance and understanding in the conversation, Dones then immediately dismissed and infantilized those who would characterize the business interest as right-wing or NIMBY. “I'm sorry, I do adult work,” they said. “And when you are ready to do that with me, please come on.”

Business friendly politicians plan to fix the problems previous business friendly politicians could not fix with the same strategies business friendly politicians used in the past

Unfortunately, Republican City Attorney Davison still seems stuck in the “good guy/bad guy” mentality. During the panel interview, she filled in the business community on her High Utilizer Initiative, which her office announced earlier this week. The architects of the initiative identified 118 people who cops accused of committing a bunch of low-level crimes in the past five years, and then laid out a plan to prioritize prosecuting them. The city has tried this approach numerous other times, and King County Public Defenders have little faith this time will yield better results:

Davison, known far and wide for her eloquence, explained the goal of the initiative: “The longer we ignore someone and the fact that something's not working for them, the longer we have a major pathway to help relationships to feeling like a sense of purpose to feel a person that they know is a contributing member of society. That is really the ultimate goal.”

Got it? Good.

Kruse noted that many of the people on Davison's list were unhoused and had committed low-level crimes. And so she asked Dones, “Do you believe that putting them in jail, booking them into jail for low-level crimes and giving them a reset, is a good idea?”

“It depends,” Dones said.

Dones, the most progressive voice on the panel, did not take a strong stance in front of the business community.

They began their answer with an endorsement of chatting around furniture: “I don't know that we're going to agree about everything, but I do think, and I want to say this to everyone, I am very confident that, agree or disagree, we'll be at the same table having the conversation, and that's actually what's critical, right? Because civic discourse, democracy functions when we talk to each other.”

They then went on to rehearse familiar bromides, saying that we can interrupt cycles of violence and crime by addressing material needs that drive those cycles. They added that they believed in “consequences,” and they were not here to change that. But then they ultimately dodged the question by arguing that unhoused people are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators, a response that would serve as a corrective to anyone who assumed that all homeless people commit crimes, but one that had little to do with whether or not they believe jailing people for low-level crimes will “interrupt cycles of violence” or even reduce recidivism.

Regardless, they said they put aside “personal opinions about the nature of the criminal legal system” to manage the public good. Right now, when it comes to crime, their big focus is tightening the “handoff” between that system and services provided by KCRHA and other providers.

To wrap up the interview, Kruse asked the panelists to describe the state of downtown in one word. Dones said “strong.” Davison said “hopeful.” And Nelson pulled out her Word of the Day calendar and said, “gestating.” Those business people better hope this city is pregnant with the Boss Baby.