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.