Ed Murray: One of America's Most Progressive Mayors

But can he survive in an increasingly liberal Seattle?
by | August 2015
(David Kidd)

When Ed Murray walked into Seattle City Hall as mayor-elect in late 2013, he couldn’t help thinking about the physical changes that had taken place. In his days as a city council aide in the early 1990s, Seattle’s center of government was a far cry from the curving, glass-paneled marvel of green design that it is today. It looked more like an aging hotel -- plain, blocky, uniform -- and in fact was regularly panned by critics for exactly that reason.

If the old city hall wouldn’t recognize the new city hall, completed in 2003, the old Seattle in many ways wouldn’t recognize the new one, either. Yesterday’s aircraft manufacturing port city with a working-class bent has become a tech beacon with some of the fastest-rising rents and property values in the country. Always left of center in its politics, the city has developed even more of an appetite for banner liberal causes and a tone that’s more impatient, angry, even strident.

It’s a politics that another liberal local leader, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came to power the same year as Murray, is trying to take national, asserting himself as the premier champion in the fight against income inequality. On a recent visit to New York City, Murray joked about the size of de Blasio’s office, a more modest space that predates the American Revolution. “I got a better office than you,” Murray said. But that’s not the only thing that Murray can boast about.

The New York mayor won an early victory in his campaign for subsidized pre-kindergarten, but Murray soon matched him, persuading voters to support his pre-K plan over a union-backed alternative. Murray also got the city council to pass a $15 minimum-wage package that’s now taking effect -- a plan that clearly influenced San Francisco and Los Angeles, which both set a $15 floor as well. Murray has succeeded with paid parental leave for city workers and expanded public transit. After stumbling out of the gate in his handling of police conduct, he’s now taken some steps to add more community accountability. In terms of pure popularity, Murray is also riding higher than de Blasio, with 70 percent approval by the most recent publicly released count. And while both men have grand ambitions on housing affordability, Murray may be less constrained by forces at the state capitol as he embarks on an agenda to triple the city’s pace of low-income development.

“To me, the legacy is about equity,” says the 60-year-old Murray, who grew up in an Irish Catholic household in West Seattle, one of seven children born to a father who worked in steel manufacturing and logging, when he had work at all. “My parents could afford a house despite having seven kids and inconsistent employment on my father’s part,” he says. He wants Seattle to be “a city that families like mine -- working class -- can work in, where their kids who go to school and get degrees can actually work in. Because that’s not the case so much right now. We’re a star as far as the economy, but it’s not our kids that are necessarily filling in the new economy.”

But some of the same forces that are making Seattle an epicenter of progressivism and helping Murray to a historically productive start also make it an increasingly volatile place to govern and to hang onto a job in city politics. The last three Seattle mayors all had periods of popularity, but all were eventually unseated by aggressive insurgents. Murray is beginning to get some criticism from the right -- whatever exists of it in Seattle -- but his bigger challenge is knowing how far left to push. There are few places in the United States where a mayor like Murray -- with his progressive first-term achievements, a successful same-sex marriage campaign in the state legislature, and a legislative record that included support of higher capital gains taxes and rent control -- could be criticized as hewing too closely to the center, but Seattle is one.

By his own admission, Murray’s career before entering politics wasn’t terribly exciting, but it gave him time to harness his interest in public policy. After graduating from the University of Portland in 1980 with a degree in sociology, he did pretrial work for the city’s public defenders, then returned to Seattle to work as a paralegal and become immersed in local politics.

He established himself in Capitol Hill, a center of artistic and gay culture in Seattle, directing a gay and lesbian political action committee called the Privacy Fund. He befriended Cal Anderson, the first openly gay state legislator in Washington’s history. Anderson came to the legislature in 1987 by appointment to fill a vacancy, then won re-election in his own right with Murray as his campaign manager.

Anderson worked to downplay his sexual orientation, calling himself “a Democrat who happens to be gay.” For Murray, who is also gay, that mentality struck a chord, and he adopted it as he himself entered elective politics. When Anderson died of AIDS in 1995, a House seat opened up and Murray was appointed to it.

That launched a 17-year legislative career most notable for major transportation packages, a leading role in budget writing, a stint as Senate leader before Democratic defections left nominal control to the GOP, and the legalization of same-sex marriage -- the latter an effort that took some 12 years and placed Washington in the rare company of states that dealt with the issue through legislative action rather than court order.

Murray developed a reputation in the legislature as reliably progressive but willing to compromise and build varied coalitions to strike a deal. He did it twice on transportation by getting business and environmental groups to work out their differences, on one occasion reviving a deal that voters had rejected just a year before. When he led the Senate Ways and Means Committee in 2011, Murray closed a $5 billion budget gap by negotiating with one of the chamber’s most ardent fiscal conservatives. “A lot of legislators don’t know how to count to 25 [a majority in the Senate],” says Sen. Steve Hobbs, one of the Democrats’ more conservative members. “He knows how to do that, when to hold strong and when to compromise. He knows that sometimes progress is done one step at a time.”

That was a notable contrast to Mike McGinn, the one-term Seattle mayor whom Murray challenged in 2013. McGinn, a lawyer and environmental activist, developed a reputation as brash and difficult to work with early in his tenure, which was marked by bitter relations with a city council that openly disdained him. Thanks to his Sierra Club credentials and outspoken nature, McGinn was seen by many as the more liberal choice, but Murray outflanked him in part by seizing on the minimum-wage issue. There was already a campaign for a $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, the community surrounding the Seattle airport, and from Kshama Sawant, a Socialist city council candidate who went on to an unexpected victory in the same election. “I think very early on, he realized that he needed to protect his left flank,” says David Brewster, a journalist who’s been a close observer of city politics for more than 40 years, “and he had a Socialist on the council leading the charge, so he had to co-opt that.”

Murray applied his penchant for consensus-building to the minimum-wage fight, in which he accepted a gradual phase-in of the higher wage rather than an immediate boost. That tactic left him open to criticism from some that he was too eager to find the middle way. But he also has shown that he’s not too fixated on the so-called Seattle Process, an effort at finding dialogue and wide agreement that’s derisively equated to spinning the wheels of consensus-building without moving forward. On pre-kindergarten, he clashed with some blocs of the Service Employees International Union, but ultimately defeated them handily. Then he returned to coalition politics on the housing issue, tapping into a committee of developers and affordable housing advocates for recommendations to control fast-rising costs. The mayor’s goal: produce or preserve 50,000 housing units over the next decade, 20,000 of them priced for those earning 80 percent of the area’s median income or below. To get there, Murray wants a series of city council measures designed to get developers to commit more money for affordable housing, but he also wants zoning changes to add more density in some places, as well as a major increase in the city’s housing levy.

Murray signed a $15 minimum-wage package last year that's now taking effect. (Seattle Mayor's Office)

Affordable housing is a combustible subject in Seattle these days, one that keeps generating new cracks in the progressive political front. Some advocates point to federal housing data that show the residents most burdened by rising costs are actually those earning less than 50 percent of the median income, and they want solutions more targeted to those people, who are mainly renters. At the same time, there’s a market-rate building frenzy going on, and this has led to the loss of 7,300 units of lower-income housing since 2005 in favor of new construction, according to John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. “Growth, and how to deal with it, is the No. 1 issue in Seattle right now,” he says “The mayor hasn’t grabbed this bull by the horns, and I’m just not sure he’s set up a process that’s going to help him move forward with an aggressive agenda to preserve the low-income housing stock.”

Sawant wants the city to include a blunter approach among its levers: rent control, which Murray once supported as a state legislator but now opposes. That would actually require a change in state law, but Sawant is asking the council to go on record in favor of rent control and to issue hundreds of millions of dollars in city bonds to preserve existing affordable units and build new stock. “Given the scale of the problem,” she says, “what we need are bold, urgent solutions to deal with this crisis. When you have a committee that is at least half full of developers, whose interests are diametrically opposed to what we’re trying to do, I don’t see that coming.”

Sawant embodies a level of forcefulness that’s finding traction elsewhere. The entire city council is up for election in November. (Seattle passed a ballot measure in 2013 that shifted the council from an at-large system to mostly district-based representation.) Many of the fresh candidates veer sharply to the left and are backing aggressive housing agendas, ones that include rent control. The mood overall is fiercely anti-incumbent: Any official who’s perceived as “too establishment” faces a backlash from the left, no matter what his progressive bona fides may be. For example, some local Democrats recently declined to back Council President Tim Burgess because they thought he was too close to city hall, even though he had been a key player on the pre-kindergarten issue.

What’s fueling the insurgent mood and a harder shift to the left? Common threads that come up again and again are the city’s surging population and the growing sense of income inequality. Seattle has been among the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. in Census figures for several years now, and in 2012-2013 it ranked first in that category among the nation’s 50 most populous cities. The growth has largely come in two shades: rich and poor. Of the 85,000 new households that came to King County between 2000 and 2012, about half earn less than 50 percent of the median income, while the other half earn more than 180 percent of the median, according to county officials. Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2013, rents shot up 11 percent, the steepest rise among big cities in the country. The Occupy movement, which was particularly potent in Seattle compared with other American cities, helped cement all of this in the minds of local voters.

The growth is also brushing up against a housing culture that values single-family homes over high-rise apartments. About 60 percent of the city is zoned for single-family housing, and something approaching half of the overall stock comes from that -- which makes Seattle an outlier among major cities. A vocal contingent of developers and urbanists say the only way to accommodate the growth affordably is to allow for greater density. But activists such as Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, argue that much of the affordable housing in the city comes from that existing stock, and replacing it to make way for denser growth means losing the most viable low-income options remaining. Owners of existing single-family homes tend to take Fox’s side in that debate, as they did when the city council debated the merits of micro-apartments and opted for stiffer regulation, which the pro-development faction said would be the death of an affordable option for renters. “There’s not even a clear progressive camp,” says Seattle labor leader David Rolf, “because the urbanist coalition includes developers and renters, and the antidensity crowd is single-family homeowners, environmentalists and antidisplacement people, and both sides claim the mantle of progressivism.”

About 60 percent of Seattle is zoned for single-family housing, which makes up much of the city's affordable housing stock. (David Kidd)

The public criticism of Murray that has come from the right stems from his well-publicized stand against allowing a Shell oil rig bound for the Arctic to dock at Seattle’s port. He has no direct authority to actually prevent it, but he’s sounded off on the expansion of fossil fuels it represents and tested the limits of what he can do with the leasing company’s permits. In response, he’s been accused of playing to environmental extremists by business leaders who say the mayor didn’t object until the docking rig became public knowledge, a claim Murray rejects. “He was very interested in winning our support [during the campaign], and to turn on us like this without any attempts to reach out and discuss possible solutions, to simply lash out with what is so obviously a purely political maneuver, was a surprise to us,” says Peter Phillips, a former president of Seattle’s Marine Business Coalition.

Still, it’s the left that Murray needs to worry about as he prepares to run for re-election in 2017. That’s where the discontent comes from, despite the long string of progressive victories in the past 18 months. In some ways it’s an impossible constituency to satisfy. “Wages, police accountability, pre-K, more bus service -- these are all benchmarks for the progressive community, and yet the anger among certain elements of that progressive left is not subsiding,” says Christian Sinderman, an influential political consultant in Seattle, who worked for Murray in 2013. “I don’t know if that’s fomented by the Sawants of the world for whom nothing will ever be enough or if it really is a growing class consciousness driven by forces beyond the city limits.”

So far Murray has managed Seattle’s progressive wave with painstaking care and keen political sense, an achievement ascribed to the mayor’s knack for always looking over his shoulder. If he keeps it up, he could leave city hall as one of the most well-regarded leaders in Seattle’s history and occupy a special place among the big-city liberals of his time. But it’s a challenge for anyone to navigate Seattle politics right now. “His skill is riding the wave,” says Councilman Nick Licata. “I honestly don’t know whether he’d be leading the charge, but he recognizes that this is where people are going. A lot of people fall off the surfboard.”