Virgin on Business: Winners & Losers

In the next Seattle city election, it’s pretty easy to predict who’ll get the shaft.
However inadvertent and unintentional it was, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray provided some candid insight into policy formation in his administration when uttering what might have been the quote of the year, local politics division.  “We’re actually making this up as we go along.”   The mayor was speaking specifically about the city’s policies on the homeless, but he might just as well have been addressing the totality of issues Seattle faces, from housing affordability to traffic congestion to the arena to crime to sharing-economy companies to “what new department can we create this week?”
The quote suggests far more coherence in policy strategizing than has been evidenced in the first three years of Mayor Hapless’ tenure, providing tankers of fuel for outrage voiced by those who are sure that the next election will correct the problem and add to the city’s growing inventory of former mayors.
What those critics fail to recognize, though, is that in the current political reality of Seattle, the electorate may be just fine with the job the mayor and the runaway, madcap city council are doing. Ed Murray is going to be replaced? By whom? And what makes you think what you’ll get will be much different, or any better, than what you have now?
Those unhappy with Seattle’s political status quo can grumble all they want about low voter turnout and bad candidates, but as has been said in another context, “The future belongs to those who show up for it.” Kshama Sawant, a favorite lightning rod for criticism, got nearly 56 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election. Some other council members did even better.
That’s the context in which Seattle’s business community faces the municipal election of 2017, with the mayor and two council posts on the ballot. It’s worth repeating that business is not monolithic, especially when it comes to politics, and that’s going to be evident in how four specific subsectors regard the electoral festivities.
For tech, the engine behind Seattle’s current economic good fortune, it’s largely a nonevent, so long as the city continues to leave it alone. The sector is likely to get its wish. For all the muttering about the impact of all those techies and the office and residential high-rises to house them, city politicos also understand it’s what funds their fits of social engineering. Should the mayor and council get the notion to micromanage tech companies the way they do, say, restaurants, that situation will change, but for now uneasy coexistence is the most likely scenario.
Ditto for developers. Some electoral elements want everything from huge offset fees to building-size limits to price controls, and they may get some pieces of an agenda. But developers and the city have a much bigger worry: What happens if activity stops because demand evaporates? 
Industry is in a more difficult spot. City officials talk a lot about wanting to keep industry and its “family-wage” jobs. But talk to enough of those running such companies and you’ll hear a recurring lament, even from those inclined to stay, that “man, they make it tough to operate here.” Some of those costs and pressures city government can control; others, like escalating real-estate prices, it can’t, no matter who runs or gets elected.
The biggest loser, barring a dramatic reversal of political climate, will be small businesses, particularly small retailers. For all the yammering about how much the city likes small, independent businesses, the net effect of minimum wage, medical leave, scheduling and other initiatives is more indicative of loathing. Small businesses operate with small margins, little pricing power (thanks to that behemoth online retailer) and zero political influence. 
Monthly columnist BILL VIRGIN is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News.

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