Progressives and Business Leaders Are Going to War in Seattle, With Major Implications for the Country’s Future

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SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 9: Competitors run with the monorail and Space Needle in the background during the 2019 Rock'n'Roll Seattle Marathon and 1/2 Marathon on June 9, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images for Rock'n'Roll Marathon )

If there’s a left-leaning policy being proposed by a Democratic presidential candidate this election season, odds are it has already been suggested—and probably even tested—in Seattle. Want to tax the rich, like Bernie Sanders advises? Seattle’s city council unanimously passed a bill doing so in 2017 (though it quickly got tied up in court.) Want a $15 minimum wage for all workers, as Elizabeth Warren calls for? Seattle passed that into law five years ago. How about a bill of rights for domestic workers, a measure supported by Kamala Harris? Seattle passed that last year. And while critics of those plans say they put an undue burden on businesses, local officials in Seattle say they’re helping, not hurting, economic growth.

“The interesting role that Seattle has played in the last 10 or so years has been to lead with progressive policy and show that it worked,” says Teresa Mosqueda, a 39-year-old city councilwoman, from her second-floor office in Seattle’s City Hall, which is dwarfed by huge skyscrapers on all sides.

But business leaders in Seattle are pushing back against left-leaning officials like Mosqueda, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into attempts to defeat proposals that raise taxes to benefit low-income workers and the homeless. “There’s a basic feeling that [the City Council] isn’t doing a good job, and we don’t want them to take actions that are going to hurt the one thing that is going well in our town—the economy,” says Heather Redman, a venture capitalist and chair of the Washington Technology Industry Association, whose membership includes hundreds of tech companies doing business in the area, including Microsoft and Amazon.

An unprecedented seven of nine seats on Seattle’s city council are up for grabs in November. Local business leaders, especially those in tech, see November’s election as a way to reset the city. “There is really this sense that the council has moved too far to the left, and the Chamber [of Commerce] sees this election as a way to really take control of the council,” says Knute Berger, a columnist for Seattle magazine. National politicians may want to keep an eye on Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in the country, where businesses are trying to convince voters that there is such a thing as too liberal. The city’s upcoming election will be a test of whether Democratic voters are truly willing to stand behind the progressive ideas being talked about nationwide after they’re passed into law.

Seattle City Councilor Teresa Mosqueda speaks to protesters before the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting at WAMU Theater, on March 20, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.

Seattle City Councilor Teresa Mosqueda speaks to protesters before the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting at WAMU Theater, on March 20, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.
Stephen Brashear—Getty Images

Seattle’s recent legislative history reads like the ultimate progressive checklist. In 2014, it passed a landmark minimum wage law and created a city office that enforces the law and investigates potential violators. Two years later came a “secure scheduling” law that requires employers to give workers more notice about what hours they’ll be working, and compensate them if their hours change without enough notice. In 2015, Seattle passed a law making it easier for Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. (The U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenged it in court; the case is ongoing.) In the last month alone, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan introduced a bill that would tax ride hailing companies and establish a minimum wage for drivers, the council voted to avoid doing business with any company that leases land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, and council member Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, led a march on City Hall to support rent control, which is currently illegal in the state of Washington.

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