How Will Mayor Jenny Durkan Influence the Seattle Economy?

The economy will take care of itself. Not alienating the middle class is more difficult.

This article appears in print in the January 2017 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Four years and five mayors ago (McGinn, Murray, Harrell, Burgess and now Durkan), this column opined that when it comes to devising and carrying out economic development policy, no big-city mayor has it as easy as whoever happens to be running Seattle this week.

“Heck, when it comes to economic development, the place practically runs itself,” that column stated, and the intervening years and turnover of mayors haven’t eroded that view. As long as Amazon et al keep hiring, as long as the developers keep the cranes aloft and as long as the tourists keep coming, the mayor is free to engage in further rounds of government expansion and social engineering. It’s not as though any of those mayors or their predecessors created the tech booms that made Seattle what it is today, but they’ll happily luxuriate in — and spend — the tax revenues those booms generate.

The flip side is that Seattle mayors don’t have a lot of influence over the things that can send its big economy-driving sectors sideways or down, but even there is a cushy silver lining. Mayors usually don’t get pinned for the blame when aerospace, or tech, or the national housing and banking markets swoon. Much more local or personal issues are what do mayors in. If Jenny Durkan leaves office of her own volition rather than being jettisoned by the voters, she’ll be the first elected mayor to do so since Norm Rice in 1997.

Glib as this description of the mayor’s influence over global macroeconomic forces that determine whether Seattle is in full-on growth or recessionary contraction may seem, it also happens to be true — as far as it goes.

Where the mayor and her frenemies on the City Council will wield considerable influence is in the local segment of the economy — that part made up of small and midsize businesses, and the owners and employees of many of those businesses, a group once known as the middle class.

That’s going to be a significant issue to watch in 2018. 

For this segment of the population and the business community, an official city policy of neglect would be a welcome improvement. Mandates that larger companies can throw money at or dodge were ladled on top of the usual hassles of operating in an urban environment, making financial life precarious for thin-margin businesses. 

The middle class, meanwhile, found itself the target of derision as well as being financially squeezed. Single-family home ownership, once considered a defining element of being middle class and a foundation to stable communities, was instead labeled selfish, wasteful and racist. Businesses and residents who voiced objections were told to live with it, or leave.

Durkan ran as content-free a campaign as possible while still appeasing the two camps she was playing to: the progressives and the establishment. The “supporting and protecting small business” section of her campaign web page’s “affordable Seattle agenda” platform makes noises about ensuring those businesses are “not forgotten or marginalized” while at the same time announcing that everyone’s on board with Seattle’s “progressive values.”

As for specifics, outside of a three-year B&O tax exemption for startups, Durkan’s small-business program is heavy on things to be considered, looked at and explored, as well as that time-honored Northwest favorite for avoiding actual decision-making, the naming of an advisory council.

Not that either small businesses or the middle class want to hear this, but Durkan’s mayoralty won’t survive or fall on how she treats them, or how the economy fares. Civil unrest, crime, snow removal, civic scandal, personal scandal: Those are the issues that can cost a mayor her tenure. Fail on one of those and the “It Has Been (fill in the blank) Days Since Seattle Changed Mayors” meter will have to be reset to zero — again. 

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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