It was exactly a decade ago that Seattle exploded on the political scene for lefty experimentalism.
The outgoing mayor in 2013 had dubbed himself “the most progressive mayor in America.” The incoming mayor one-upped that by saying he would remake Seattle into “the most progressive city in America.”
That was also the year Seattle elected its first socialist — a heady time of concern about inequality, but also touching off a movement politics marked more by protest and purity than coalition-building and compromise.
Voters loved it, for a time, voting ever leftward. Seattle was the first big city to adopt a $15 wage, to try out democracy vouchers, to let gig workers unionize. The city also took on, and ultimately taxed, the big, bad Amazon.
But it’s over. Seattle is the most progressive city no more.
Voters Tuesday were drubbing all that activism in favor of plain ol’ pragmatism. Voters seemed to want less idealism, more in the way of results.
Currently the council has four strong progressive voices, and early returns show that three of them were on track to potentially be replaced by more moderate newcomers.
In socialist Kshama Sawant’s district, where she is retiring to go into activism full-time, the more moderate Joy Hollingsworth took a huge lead over the left-leaning Alex Hudson. Just that switch — from Sawant to Hollingsworth, who was endorsed by Mayor Bruce Harrell — marks a big shift in both tone and politics for the entire council.
Likewise, out in West Seattle, outgoing progressive Lisa Herbold is likely to be replaced by Rob Saka, a more centrist attorney. The progressive activist in the race, Maren Costa, trails by nearly 18 points.
All three council incumbents were trailing in Tuesday’s returns. It’s too soon to tell their fates, as later vote counts can sometimes swing by 10 percentage points or more. But it shows the headwinds of historically poor approval ratings.
Most likely to survive is Dan Strauss of Ballard’s District 6. (He is trailing challenger Pete Hanning by only two points.) It’s no coincidence that Strauss undertook a political makeover over the past year, tilting away from his earlier embrace of protest politics such as defund the police.
The results mark a win for business interests, who poured $1.2 million into outside spending into these races. They outspent labor by 6 to 1 — a gap the unions may be ruing.
Along with the 2021 election, in which Harrell defeated a more progressive challenger for mayor and voters improbably tapped a Republican for city attorney, this election marks the end of the decade of experimental progressivism in Seattle. That’s true regardless of whether some of the incumbents eke out wins.
What will it be replaced with?
Well, it’s important to say that in Seattle, when we say someone is “moderate,” it means they’re what we used to call a liberal Democrat. This election is really a shift away from politics by bullhorn.
As Hollingsworth said at a forum I moderated last month: “I’m a Black, queer woman with a cannabis farm. When did that become moderate?”
Her point: Seattle’s just as liberal now as it’s always been. It’s more about a change to a less polarizing political style.
I think the surest sign of what’s coming is what’s going. Check out what happened earlier in the day down at City Hall.
Sawant put forth another activist resolution, to have the Seattle City Council call for a cease-fire in Gaza. None of her eight colleagues seconded her motion though, killing it without a vote. Furious, she berated the council and the Sawant-summoned crowd exploded in shouting. The meeting had to be recessed for 10 minutes.
Performative, divisive, populist to the end. Voters Tuesday were asking for a break from all that.