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There Goes The Neighborhood: Why Liberal Seattle May Be Dumping Its Liberal Mayor

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Here in Seattle, we like to think of ourselves as liberal. Actually, make that "progressive" — since the word liberal has been all but turned into a dirty word dating back to about the time of the so-called Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.

The point here is that most, if not all, of the rest of America rightfully views Seattle as one of the most liberal cities in the country. We are pro-choice, pro-environment, gay-friendly, and we almost always vote Democratic when it comes election time.

In fact, here in Seattle we are liberal to the point of infuriating many of our more rural and conservative neighbors east of the mountains — especially when the so-called "liberal King County vote"  helps pass statewide initiatives favoring progressive causes, and helps elect Democrats and progressive candidates to statewide offices. Drive 100 miles or so outside of Seattle to the east, and you don't see too many Obama signs. Occasionally, there is even talk of secession from the state from our neighbors out there in crops and cows country.

So why does Seattle appear to be on the verge of dumping Mayor Greg Nickels, an environmentally correct, tree-hugging liberal Democrat if there ever was one?

As of the latest vote count from this past Tuesday's first ever mail-ballot only primary election, Nickels trails his two nearest challengers, Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, for what increasingly looks to be a third place finish.

Mallahan, a T-Mobile executive and McGinn, who largely ran on the single issue of opposition to a transit tunnel on Seattle's waterfront, are both relative newcomers to Seattle's political scene. Only the top two finishers will go on to the general election in the fall.

So the question remains, why is liberal Seattle rejecting its liberal mayor in favor of the newbies? Actually, the answer to that question is a lot simpler than it may seem. It is also not without precedent.

What the rest of the country doesn't quite realize about Seattle is also probably our best kept secret. Sure, we're largely a liberal lot out here. But we are also fiercely independent, and if you know what is good for your political future, you'd best not piss us off.

Like say, former Seattle mayor Paul Schell once did not ten years ago. Schell, like Nickels, was a pro-development mayor who favored big, expensive downtown construction projects. He was also unceremoniously shown the door by Seattle voters following his mishandling of the infamous WTO riots of 2000. Much like the way it appears the political winds are now blowing for Nickels, Schell didn't make it past the primary.

While Schell's death sentence probably came with the WTO riots — and to a lesser extent his cancellation of a New Year's fireworks tradition at the Space Needle following a pre-9/11 terrorist threat — Nickels' problems are more numerous, and cut a little closer to the bone for most Seattleites.

As a nationally recognized leader on environmentally correct issues, Nickels has earned the ire of many a Seattle voter by taking his pro-green stance to extremes at times. At a time when things are economically tough all over — but particularly so in Seattle — Nickels favors a twenty cent "green tax" on plastic grocery bags. When that issue was put to a vote (on the same ballot where Nickels appears to be going down in flames), green, liberal Seattle overwhelmingly rejected it. The results weren't even close.

Last December, when a freakish snowstorm crippled the Seattle area for two weeks, the city, citing environmental concerns, responded in part by rejecting the use of salt on snowplows to help clear the streets out from under the icy, slushy mess. Seattle and much of the outlying areas were for all intents and purposes shut completely down as a result. When Nickels himself graded the city's handling of the mess with a "B," it left more than a few Seattle residents with a bad taste in their mouths.

Seattle also lost its NBA franchise, the Seattle Supersonics — the only professional sports team to ever bring a world championship to the city — to a group from Oklahoma City on Nickels' watch. Many felt the city didn't do enough to keep the team here, with memories of similar efforts to save the NFL's Seahawks and MLB's Mariners still fresh in their minds.

For me though, it all comes down to what I see happening in my own neighborhood.

Nickels' philosophy of "build, baby, build" in Seattle neighborhoods like mine in West Seattle — in addition to having a ring a little too similar to the Republicans' "drill, baby, drill" — is supposed to be a solution for so-called urban sprawl. But from where I sit, all I see is the way urban development is turning the West Seattle Junction shopping area I love into one big, ugly, traffic-tangled mess.

If nothing else, all of these damn high-rise buildings going up everywhere are robbing the neighborhood of its character. Not to mention making just getting around it a real bitch. Because of no less than three high-rise commercial/residential development projects, the three block drive from my house to the grocery store has turned from a few routine turns into something more like negotiating an obstacle course.

Of the three projects, the one which is complete has (from what I can tell) attracted one new resident in its several stories of apartment units. That business is slow for the high priced dwellings is no doubt due at least in part to West Seattle's long history as a working class neighborhood — despite all of City Hall's efforts to turn us into something more like the eastside area all those Microsoft execs call home.

In addition to the not-quite-condos high above, the ground floor houses a restaurant where entrees start at about $35. More and more of these high-end establishments have sprouted up in the Junction shopping district over the past few years, replacing what used to be a row of Chinese restaurants and dive bars. The venerable Poogie Tavern remains the last man standing of the charming, if slightly run-down drunkholes where a cold beer still costs less than four bucks.

While this has resulted in the Junction bringing in new shoppers from all over the city, it has also brought such not-so-welcome developments as traffic congestion and paid parking lots.

At this year's annual West Seattle summer street fair — which used to attract families and where the most notable musical attraction might be a local jazz trio or barbershop quartet — the street was a clogged mess of wall to wall humanity as local grunge heroes Mudhoney headlined the musical proceedings.

Hey, I love Mudhoney as much as anybody, but not in my neighborhood. If I want that sort of clusterfuck, there's always Bumbershoot on Labor Day. I hear they've got Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas lined up this year.

Meanwhile, closer to my house at the end of the block, another big commercial development (that was to house a Whole Foods among other tenants) has apparently been abandoned altogether. In it's wake is a deep, football field sized trench which I've come to affectionately call "the Grand Canyon."

Urban development? Thanks, but no thanks Mr. Nickels. Not in my neighborhood. I hope you enjoy retirement. And don't let the door hit ya' in the — well, you know — on the way out.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • I too almost always use my own bags. WinCo gives you 6c back per bag, Save Mart 5c and Von’s a big fat nothing, but either way there’s no longer an entire cupboard in my kitchen filled with enough plastic to dust-cover the Golden Gate.

    I do occasionally deliberately not take my own bags into the store, but only when I need a few plastic ones to shovel cat shit into. And I’m looking for an eco-friendly way of doing that as well.

  • I’m a good boy I am, and I always use my Whole Foods reusable bags, which cost 99 cents. I get a 10 cent rebate or each bag each time I use the bags — so they have long since paid for themselves. And here in NY at least, Whole Foods no longer uses plastic bags, only paper.

  • I just don’t see how essentially “selling” these bags is going to make any difference — the bags will still wind up in the same land fills they would have anyway, albeit perhaps in smaller numbers.

    I also think putting more stress on the average working stiff in an already tough economy is unnecessarily punitive. The only purpose I see being served here is to provide another way into our pockets. And twenty cents is excessive in any case.

    Either way, that ballot initiative went down in flames, and Mr. Nickels won’t be around for the general election this fall.


  • I’m with Mark in that I think a tax on plastic grocery bags is rather a sledgehammery solution to a nutty problem. Selling them to customers rather than providing them for free and with wild abandon (“No thank you, I do not need a plastic bag for my gallon of milk, which as you may have observed already has a fucking handle”) is a better solution and has been proven so in Britain.

    Some sort of incentive for stores to either charge for plastic bags, or to stop providing them altogether, is what I’d prefer to see. Here in California, at any rate, there are already moves in that direction: most grocery stores now sell reusable, recycled carrier bags, usually displayed in an encouragingly prominent place near the checkout.

  • I don’t think a tax on those plastic grocery bags — a huge urban blight if ever there was one — is taking pro-green credentials too far, unless you mean in terms of twenty cents being too much, in which case I agree.

    A lot of stores here in Britain have charged anywhere from 1p to 5p for plastic grocery bags and it’s made a difference. Seattle should consider a 5 cent tax on them, and I’d be surprised if Seattle rejected that.

  • Cannonshop

    Greg might be on the outs, but looking closer, one might note that while he displaced Paul Schell, the policies pursued were identical. So too will they be identical (other than small cosmetic changes) with Nickels’ replacement-who’ll probably occupy the seat for multiple terms as well. The Seattle/King County machine will either keep him there, or put someone else who ‘plays ball’ but doesn’t (yet) have a record of pissing off Bellevue/Redmond elites in his place. End result is no substantive change.

    Why? Because that’s how Seattle rolls.

  • #18 sounds OK – a better description.

  • Nickels conceded this morning, f.y.i.

    Here is the Associated Press story as it ran in the Washington Post. That ones for you Bicho.

  • When former Seahawks owner (and native Californian) Ken Behring ran up against obstacles in pursuing land developments here, he called Seattle “provincial,” which I think is a term closer to being accurate than “elitist.” Anyway, when he tried to move the team to L.A., we ran him out of town more or less on a rail.

    I don’t think Seattle as a whole is so much elitist as it is very protective of what we have — which is a strong cosmopolitan center surrounded by natural beauty(forests, lakes, mountains) that you don’t find too many other places.

    Oh and Bicho (#13), the story may be local, but it has national implications because it shows that even in a liberal town like Seattle, liberal politicians shouldn’t consider themselves immune when it comes to the will of the electorate. Same thing goes for conservatives in their own strongholds.


  • Don’t forget, zing. I believe that’s where the environmentalism movement had started.

  • Baronius

    I’ve never been to Portland. Seattle’s got maybe five roads that handle 90% of the rush hour commuters. They can expand the city outward if they want to, but they can’t expand inward, or upward.

  • zingzing

    roger: “insofar as Portland and Seattle are concerned, they do have a reputation of being rabidly elitist.”

    well, they are really, really nice places to live, so it’s kinda earned, i’d say.

  • When I attended the University of Oregon, they had a saying, “Don’t Californicate Oregon.”

    I don’t know about Oregon in general anymore, but insofar as Portland and Seattle are concerned, they do have a reputation of being rabidly elitist.

  • Nice local reporting, Glen.

  • Baronius

    Seattle’s a great town, but it’s about as closed a society as the Amish. Newcomers are labelled that worst of epithets, “Californian”, and hated for ruining the city. It makes sense, though. Seattle just doesn’t have the infrastructure for more people.

  • #5,

    The same thing is happening in downtown Oakland. The idea of upscaling the neighborhood is of course to attract the money, which results in a displacement of the regular residents, bringing thus more revenues to the municipalities, higher rents, etc.

    And it does make (some) economic sense in normal economic times, revitalizing the neighborhood. But I’m surprised about the timing of this project. And if the community is already an integrated one and not in blight, why stir it up?

  • Doug Hunter

    An interesting read. I think one of the fundamental splits on politics is the urban-rural one. I come from a rural base where big government solutions don’t seem warranted or necessary, and they’re not.

    We don’t have homeless, or crackheads in the streets, or gangs. People just don’t slip through the cracks as easy. Even though corruption still exists there is alot less need to involve politicians in development.All this zoning and regulation takes care of itself as farming and commodities industry which exist in rural areas need large cheap blocks of land which can only be found away from people and commercial interests need locations near the main highways and thoroughfares where no one would build a residence anyway. Zoning problems solved.

    Property values are low and cost of living is very cheap so government transfers payments seem very sufficient. Alot of the poor families, potentially homeless people in the city, can get several adults by off one persons disability or social security check when non government subsidized rentals can be had for $300-500 for 2 bedrooms and $6-700 for 3 bedroom. YOu can also purchase homes for $45-65K that are in great, very low crime rate areas.

    Rich and poor aren’t seperated by gated communities and assigned a area of town, we all live together. The mayer with his 6000 acres of land holdings and miscellaneous businesses might live next door to the janitor at the school or a doublewide full of poor folks. Their kids all play together and go to the same well funded school. I know you city folks like to tout all the ‘stuff’ you have to do, but believe it or not we have alcohol here, and girls, if we don’t have the bands we have their CD’s, and if need be a car to go visit your fair berg.

  • zingzing

    alright, well, i went down there again later that evening. shit is awesome.

    anyway. it’s not a bad neighborhood, especially during the day, as you state. it does turn into a den of sin at night, which, of course, is why i liked it.

  • zingzing

    heh. i only did it once. and only because i never had. and it was good. call me a liberal.

  • That neighborhood is nice until the sun goes down far as I’m concerned. After that, it’s never felt the least bit safe to me.

    In addition to the gang-bangers, the crackheads are also very aggressive. When I worked downtown on Elliott Ave, I usually cut through the market under the overpass of the viaduct to get to the bus, and some of those crackheads would follow you all the entire way pestering you for anything they thought you had.

    I have a pretty nice Sopranos jacket that I actually stopped wearing because of it — I was afraid I might get rolled for the damn thing.

    Maybe I’d have made friends with them if I shared a rock like you apparently did. But no thanks…


  • zingzing

    “PS – Zing, if you actually lived for two years in that downtown neighborhood, I stand in awe of your bravery. Whenever I attend shows at the nearby Showbox, and have to make the walk back to my car through 2nd and Pine, I walk quickly, look straight ahead, and never do so alone.”

    dude, it was a swank neighborhood. i only lived there for a year (i lived in pioneer square for three years before that), but it was a nice place, except the increasing gang presence over on third.

    only thing you had to worry about, usually, was the bums. couldn’t walk down the street with a cigarette without getting asked. couldn’t walk down the street with a six-pack without getting asked. couldn’t walk down the street with change in your pocket. that’s one of the things about nyc that i like so much. the weather here is so nasty that the number of bums are nothing like in seattle…

    also, the crack smokers. which actually occurred near my place. crack alley, we called it. and it was right beside my building. and i smoked some with them once. nice guys. charged a decent price. fuckin’ great high, i tell you what.

    either way, it was a highly desirable address. right next to the market, tourist central, lots of upscale business around…

    i see no need for any fear. unless there are ak-47 toting nuts around. shootin people through the neck. strange days.

  • The thing is there really isn’t any demand for this sort of thing in the West Seattle neighborhood where I live.

    Despite the shopping area’s recent “gentrification” with all the hoity-toity restaurants and such, the core of the neighborhood is still largely a working class one (the lone dive bar, the Poogie still does a boffo business with the more rough and tumble working class Joes from the neighborhood).

    Many of the folks who fill the upscale restaurants and bars on weekends come from across town and after its last call they go back where they came from.

    Meanwhile the new high rises are still empty, and there’s a hideous looking canyon sized gully sitting at the end of my block.


    PS – Zing, if you actually lived for two years in that downtown neighborhood, I stand in awe of your bravery. Whenever I attend shows at the nearby Showbox, and have to make the walk back to my car through 2nd and Pine, I walk quickly, look straight ahead, and never do so alone.

  • I think it’s called gentrification – a pattern of urban development that limousine liberals are famous for.

    I am surprised though there are still enough of so-called Microsoft execs to call the shots and generate this kind of demand in these economic times.

    What are these people thinking, to be so ignoring the needs of the average citizen? I bet there’s plenty of developer’s money for these “urban renewal” plans, which suits politicians just fine.

  • zingzing

    i lived in seattle until two years ago. the last year i lived there, i got a new apartment at 2nd and pine. (211 pine st–beaver cleaver’s address…) it was a steal at $965 a month for it’s location. the market to my left and, unfortunately, gang violence to my right. still, it was a brilliant place. (even if i did see a man get shot to death one night.)

    two days after i moved in, they break ground on the parking lot across the street. i suddenly realized why my rent was five or six hundred dollars short of where i thought it should be, given the location and the general swankness. they put up signs saying that there was going to be a hotel/residence/shopping center put in at that location. every morning at 7, i was awakened by the charming symphony of drills and heavy machinery. (i do, strange as it may seem, love noise music.)

    a year later, when i left, the parking lot was still a construction zone, with no foundation having been laid.

    i think that was the beginning of the end, as far as the construction industry and the economy were concerned.

  • The condos, which had to be redesignated as high-end apartments are empty here too Dave. By my count, they’ve rented one in the development thats actually finished.

    Yet there’s another one going up not half a block away. Down the street closer to my house (where my rent is dirt cheap by the way), we have the “grand canyon” because they apparently just gave up on that project.

    The good news is that in Seattle, we apparently do know how to vote them out. Hopefully, whichever of the newbies ends up getting voted in will get the message.


  • Glen, it’s both heartening and dismaying to hear that Austin isn’t the only city afflicted with these Development Democrats and their “smart growth” insanity. Here in Austin they’ve built all these giant, empty condo buildings all over downtown, given subsidies to swanky stores to move into eco-friendly neomalls where no one can afford to shop and there’s no parking, and now they’re converting all the roads to toll roads and forcing nonsensical light rail on us as they make it impossible to drive anywhere.

    Sadly here we haven’t figured out how to vote them out of office on a permanent basis. New ones just keep popping up to replace the old ones.