In Seattle mayor’s race, candidates try to out-liberal each other

Mike McGinn

Mike McGinn

Ed Murray

Ed Murray

I don’t think there is a mayor’s race anywhere in America quite like the one we’re having right now in Seattle. The two candidates, who seem to have identical platforms, are trying to out-liberal each other, a far cry from the liberal-versus-conservative-versus Tea Party contests elsewhere. Mayor Mike McGinn, the incumbent, and State Sen. Ed Murray, the challenger, have both advocated tax increases, new spending, crackdowns on the police department, compassion for the homeless, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, construction of affordable housing and opposition to fossil fuel coal train shipments through town.

Sure, there are races around the county where one of the candidates is pushing the liberal line. The candidacy of Bill de Blasio in New York City comes to mind. But he’s vying against a genuine fiscal conservative Republican, Joe Lhota. Were he running in Seattle, de Blasio would be the most right-wing candidate in the race–by far.

Seattle is about to become the country’s largest city with legal recreational marijuana use (the state is still working on the final rules, which include mandatory labeling stating in all-capital letters that “THIS PRODUCT IS UNLAWFUL OUTSIDE WASHINGTON STATE“). It already is the only U.S. city big or small sporting a statue of Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.  Politically progressive proclivities seem to go back decades (starting at some point after the city ended its outrageous racial segregation). So maybe dueling tax-and-spend campaigns should be no surprise here.

But to me, still New To Seattle, I see a big contradiction between the progressive values–that’s the local codeword for liberal–being espoused in this campaign and the way Washington State in general, as well as Seattle in particular, organizes its fiscal affairs. To put it bluntly, no other state comes down harder on its poor.

When it comes to tax fairness–the burden on the poorest compared to the richest–Washington State ranks dead last. It’s been that way for a long time–I wrote about the topic here last year. But a story last week on the Seattle news site Crosscut citing official state sources really laid it out.

An average taxpayer among the state’s poorest 20 percent saw 16.9 percent of his or her income go to state and local taxes in 2010. Meanwhile, a Washington taxpayer in the top 1 percent likely paid 2.8 percent of his or her income in state and local taxes, according to figures from several sources collected by the state … That is the worst disparity between the any state’s top and bottom income earners in the United States.

The reason mainly is Washington State’s lack of a state personal or corporate income tax coupled with high sales taxes, which fall disproportionately upon the poor. In Seattle the sales tax bite is 9.5%, still the highest among the country’s largest cities.

Now, for all of Seattle’s supposedly progressive proclivities, the rest of Washington State is pretty conservative. In 2010 statewide initiative 1098 to enact a state income tax on the very richest residents–it would have hit fewer than 50,000 taxpayers–went down by a thumping 64%-to-36% margin.  I can’t find quickly a breakout just for Seattle, but in King County, which includes Seattle, the measure also failed, by a 55%-to-45% edge. In normal races for elected office, that’s considered a landslide defeat.

So with no differences on substantive issues, how are McGinn and Murray campaigning? Essentially by calling each other a worthless leader. The 58-year-old Murray accuses the 53-year-old McGinn of governing by divisiveness rather than consensus, one reason that a majority of the City Council backs the challenger. McGinn accuses Murray of being such an ineffective Democratic leader in Olympia that despite a numerical majority he managed to lose control of the State Senate when a renegade Democrat broke to organize with the Republicans.

From what I can tell, both candidates are absolutely correct.

To me, in the two televised debates so far, McGinn enjoyed himself immensely while Murray came across as a hunkered-down character fearful of saying something–well, politically incorrect. I suppose that’s because at last report Murray has a big edge over McGinn in both voter polling and fundraising, and may just be playing it safe.

But that could ignore McGinn’s strength as an underdog with a proven ability to get out the vote (which in Seattle is by mail-in ballot only). In 2009 McGinn, a lawyer and former Sierra Club official running his first-ever race, got elected after the then-incumbent got picked off in the primary and McGinn mustered a coalition of organized labor, environmentalists and minorities.

I know this: Every candidate call received so far this time around at the New To Seattle world headquarters–located in a neighborhood that in the nonpartisan August primary went heavily for Murray–has been on behalf of McGinn. That suggests a robust, aggressive organization.

Meanwhile, about the only thing McGinn and Murray haven’t promised yet is a chicken in every pot. But hey, Election Day is still more than three weeks away.

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