A Harbinger of Change?
Was there a harbinger of change for Seattle politics in the August 3 primary? Most commentators wrote it off as more of the same. Whatever portion of the Seattle body politic that is disgruntled failed to show or at least make an impact. The Mayor’s race gives us two City Council veterans. Bruce Harrell is old school progressive, while Lorena Gonzalez is new school progressive. Despite being veterans neither has much of a record of accomplishment to which they can point.
But out of the pack running against incumbent City Council member, Teresa Mosqueda for one of the two, non-district open seats, emerged someone who describes himself as “non-ideological” and a “problem solver.” Ken Wilson is an engineer. Solving problems is what engineers do. Seattle voters apparently thought this — actually solving some of our problems — an intriguing, if novel, idea.
As Seattle Times columnist, Danny Westneat wrote, Ken Wilson came out of nowhere, with only $231 in total campaign contributions, to make it to the November final against incumbent, Mosqueda.
“I got into this race because of the city’s gross mismanagement of the West Seattle Bridge,” he says. “There’s no reason that bridge shouldn’t be open to cars right now, one lane in each direction. They’ve cut off an entire part of the city needlessly.”
Wait, isn’t city government about restructuring society? About the socialist revolution? Who cares about bridges? Well, apparently a fair number of Seattle voters do, as well they might in a city which has more than sixty of them.
“I’m not ideological,” Wilson told Westneat. “I’m just here to fix things. My explanation for my campaign taking off a little bit is that the house is on fire, and you can’t be the incumbent saying, ‘Yes, the house may be on fire, but let’s keep doing what we’re doing.’ ”
I’m drafting on Westneat’s excellent column, but I’m doing so in order to make two additional points of my own.
One comes from the 2015 book by James and Deb Fallows, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The Fallows profiled towns and cities all across the country that were working and solving their most challenging problems. In the midst of the Trumpian nightmare, the Fallows approach — go local — gave some of us hope.
One of the points the Fallows made more than once, and which stuck with me was that to the extent that those involved in town or city government were reproducing the partisan, ideological wars of national politics, their city was in trouble. Conversely, if local leaders weren’t stalking horses in the nation’s red and blue culture wars, but instead working on actual problems facing their municipality, things were pretty good and getting better.
Over the last five or six years Seattle politics, in particular the City Council, has moved in precisely the opposite direction from that commended by the research in Our Towns. Performative politics, spectacle and demagoguery, have gotten Seattle plenty of national media attention in recent years. Meanwhile, the bridges are failing, the homeless crisis grows, and Seattle becomes less affordable for all but the tech elite.
Perhaps the Wilson candidacy signals a weariness with the performative and ideological, in favor of well, fixing bridges and repairing streets. Both of which actually do have significant implications for the welfare of working and middle-class people.
There’s even hope of late, along these lines, at the national level. The Biden infrastructure bill is moving along with truly bi-partisan support, led by members of the “problem-solvers,” caucus made up of both parties.
Second point, if Ken Wilson wins and is able to have some impact from a minority position, might a future Seattle Council election see a “problem-solvers” slate? It has been quite some time since Seattle had such a “slate” of Council candidates, a group running arm-in-arm in support of a set of policies and proposals. But maybe the next Council elections, when seven seats will be contested, instead of the two open ones this year, could see such a movement? The present district format militates against this, but it is certainly not impossible.
Of course, as a slogan “Solve Problems” doesn’t have quite the zing of “Defund the Police” or “Revolution Now.” But maybe Seattle is beginning to think solutions might be more helpful than slogans. Here’s hoping.