Citing persistent violence, including a homicide directly in front of its main building, Amazon recently announced that it was temporarily relocating its Seattle staff to a new location. The quirky but beautiful Pacific Northwest city—boasting houseboats, good coffee, and great jazz—is following a familiar formula for urban decline.
The first step in that process is to elect a mayor who cares less about the nuts and bolts of governing a city than about an ideological agenda. The last Seattle mayor who paid attention to details and had a vision for improving everyday life was Paul Schell, who served from 1998 to 2002. Under Schell’s no-nonsense leadership, Seattle built a new City Hall and several libraries, parks, and community centers, while rebuilding its opera house and symphony hall.
Then the city drifted into progressive fantasy. Greg Nickels, mayor from 2002 to 2009, decided that he should lead the charge in environmental activism but couldn’t manage the city’s own environment—a 2008 snowstorm hurt his reelection bid, while homeless tent cities (derisively named “Nickelsvilles”) cropped up downtown. Self-proclaimed progressive outsider Mike McGinn, who served as mayor from 2010 to 2013, demanded higher taxes and marijuana legalization while making clear, amid violent riots, that Seattle had no place for police officers who did not share his views on social justice. Ed Murray, Seattle’s first openly gay mayor, began his term in 2014, but resigned in disgrace in 2017 following multiple allegations of child sex abuse. In 2017, the city elected Jenny Durkan, who distinguished herself mainly by criticizing Donald Trump and allowing the formation of the lawless Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in downtown Seattle in June 2020. (Asked how long the occupation could last, Durkan said: “I don’t know. We could have another Summer of Love!”) Following a series of political blunders and recall efforts, Durkan and Seattle decided that one term was enough. Residents can only hope that newly elected mayor Bruce Harrell, who bluntly stated that he “inherited a mess,” will break the streak of ineffective leadership.
The next step to urban dysfunction is undermining law enforcement. Virtually every Seattle mayor for the last two decades has singled out the police department for criticism, but the last two years have seen the trend accelerate. When the city told police to abandon a precinct station in the middle of CHAZ, a series of shootings, murders, and sexual assaults ensued. The city council decided to roll with the national defund-the-police movement by cutting $4 million from the police budget, which led directly to the resignation under protest of police chief Carmen Best. City residents followed the officials’ lead and turned on the department. Last year, Seattle saw a record spike in homicides and shootings. A recent article in the Journal of Criminology and Public Policy summarizing the CHAZ affair noted that “police abolition, the most extreme form of police defunding, may significantly compromise public safety.”
The final step in destroying a city is to stop prosecuting crimes. Seattle falls under the jurisdiction of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, led since 2007 by Dan Satterberg. Satterberg was selected, then elected, as a non-ideological Republican. He initially followed a sensible pattern of punishing violent crime severely and using lesser punishments and diversionary options for minor offenses. But, blown by political winds, Satterberg has drifted leftward. He eventually came to support supervised injection sites for illegal drug use, banning the death penalty, sanctuary policies for illegal aliens facing deportation, and de-prosecution of drug crimes. He switched his registration from Republican to Democratic in 2018. Perhaps sensing that the damage cannot be undone, Satterberg announced that he will not run for reelection, joining former mayor Durkan in staging a strategic retreat.
Downtown Seattle’s loss of Amazon, whether temporary or not, is a self-inflicted wound. After decades of feckless political leadership, undermining of law enforcement, and a political chameleon of a prosecutor, the city has created its own crisis of violence and disorder. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and other American cities should pay attention. If they follow Seattle’s lead, they will end up with similar results. For some cities, the warning may already be too late.
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