Virgin on Business

Dreading the Election of 2021

Seattle is a mess, and the business community appears powerless to change that

By Bill Virgin October 27, 2020

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Were not even done with the misery of the election of 2020, but its already time to begin contemplating and dreading the election of 2021.

The serious dreading will be done by the voters of Seattle, who will be asked to choose a mayor and two at-large positions on the City Council. But voters outside the city limits shouldnt feel left out. At the very least, Seattles increasingly fractious and chaotic political scene will provide entertainment for those with a taste for farcical political drama. At the most, how Seattle votes will have major implications for the rest of the region.

What happens in Seattle has long mattered just because of the citys size and its status as home to many of the Puget Sound regions leading employers as well as civic and cultural institutions. But the election of 2021 will amplify Seattles influence on the rest of the region, for good or ill, intentionally or inadvertently.

In a normal city with a semi-normal political climate, Jenny Durkan would be a prime candidate to join the growing list of mayors Seattle has tried and discarded. Between her failed attempts at triangulation between the warring factions in the citys politics, her management of issues including homelessness, her puzzling relationship with her own police chief and the cringeworthy handling of the Capitol Hill debacle, Durkans record is not that of one who should be expecting to coast to a second term.

But Durkan has one powerful advantage in her reelection quest: she can point to the City Council and say,Do you really want those people running the city?

That might be enough to carry her to victory and a second term in 2021. The mere mention of Seattle in a political context has been the inspiration for much eye rolling and schadenfreude for the rest of the country, and considerable disgust among those who live in the city and pay for it.

Or are they really that unhappy? Perhaps the electorate is just fine with how the Council is managing Seattle. Its members didnt sneak into the building when no one was looking (although some argue low voter turnout amounts to the same thing). Their supporters showed up at the polls and are likely to again. A lot can change between now and the elections of 2021, including the candidates who file for office, but those elections will still represent a public-opinion referendum on the job performance of the mayor and council members.

The one community likely to be ignored in that discussion is business.

Its a truism that still needs to be repeated on occasion: The business community is not monolithic. Whether differentiated by size or sector, businesses dont share one voice or view. Nor are they viewed in the same way by the political class. Small business is ignored; big business is valued principally as a revenue source.

What small and big business in Seattle do share is the degree of influence they hold over municipal public policy. Currently, that would amount to nearly zero. When Amazon and other large companies tried to wade into the last round of municipal elections, they wound up with a council even more antithetical to their interests than the previous version.

That leaves the business community with some decisions to make. It could attempt another expensive and likely futile effort to sway the results. It could sit out the election and hope against reason and experience for a favorable result.

Businesses could also decide, as some residents are doing, theyve had enough and their energy is better expended elsewhere. That doesnt mean a high-profile abandonment of the city. Over time, businesses can quietly move operations and expand in places with lower operating costs and hassles, and where government, even if it is hostile to business, isnt quite so open about it.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. Reach him at [email protected].

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