Town Hall Seattle, packed with activists in red T-shirts.
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  • Town Hall Seattle last night.
If there's anything that your average public meeting on the minimum wage can teach you, it's that T-shirts make great advertising for the cause.

At last night's four-hour joint meeting of the Seattle City Council's committee on the minimum wage and the mayor's advisory committee on the issue, activists packed the room, hanging banners and waving signs and turning Town Hall into a sea of red T-shirts. The energy and excitement were palpable, though if you wandered the halls before the meeting, it basically amounted to a networking event for lefties. Committee chair Sally Clark was as sassy at the mic as ever, and the audience of hundreds—Town Hall seats just under 900 and was about two-thirds full—was ready to participate in chants or drown out people who went off the rails.

But the conversation itself? It was the same as ever.

Yes, public meetings like this are important, because they provide a big room for everyone to come together and talk directly at their government. And they're fun (and easy) for reporters to cover, because who doesn't love a raucous shouting match that starts because someone quotes Milton Friedman? Or small business owners promising almost tearfully that they'd fold immediately if they had to pay a living wage? Or a Socialist's rowdy "When I say "15" you say "Now!" chant? What good copy. What entertaining B-roll.

This debate, however, needs to grow up—and fast. The organizing power of the far left has been impressive as fuck, and terrified business owners only have themselves to blame for feeling like they're losing the argument. They are, right now. "15 Now" is a rallying cry that makes sense: It's what they want plus when they want it, all in just five characters. And while there was a steady contingent of beloved local business owners last night pleading for mercy, the side of the debate they offered doesn't work, especially on a room full of low-wage workers and their advocates. Terra Plata and Elliott Bay Cafe owner Tamara Murphy called her employees "family" and then seemed to argue against paying them living wages. That sounds crazy. A representative of Dick's said they'd have to raise prices to accommodate a dramatic wage hike—so what? The people around them testified about not being able to afford food and medication and clothing, about their whole tax credit going straight to pay creditors, about struggling to raise healthy kids on a single income. Anyone but a sociopath would pay a quarter more per burger to fix that.

And yet small business owners are not crazy, and they're not the enemy. They're part of the landscape of the city, and they're starting to freak out. But just as in the debate over paid sick leave, the group of local small business owners who comes up with a real, fair, ethical plan for this wage hike—because a wage hike is going to happen—can really win some hearts and minds in all this. Admonishing Kshama Sawant for being uncompromising, when there's no real counteroffer being floated by anyone, won't work. Nor will "but think of poor [insert local business here]!" The activists who brought this debate from the exhausted masses, people who work full-time and still live in unacceptable poverty, have staked a claim for $15 without exemptions. The mayor has said that $15 is his goal, but not when or how. Somewhere in there are the details, and the folks who say "Yes! We want to pay people fair wages! Here's how we think we can do it" are about to win this conversation in a meaningful and honest way.

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We just aren't hearing much from them yet.

If you want to read more, I live-tweeted the whole damn thing.