From Sports to Minimum Wage, the Seattle Public Makes Itself Heard

Seattleites are having a profound effect on the ways business and government operate
| Updated: November 27, 2018

Is Seattle’s progressive populism changing the game nationally?

In terms of sports franchises, we are for sure. Seattleites were furious at being ignored by politicians who pushed for stadiums the public opposed. King County voters, for example, opposed funding a new baseball stadium back in the mid-1990s. But, the politicians in Olympia funded an expensive Safeco Field anyway. People were angry that their wishes weren’t heard.

Voters did approve funds for Century Link Field shortly after, but only after the governor declared an “emergency” to hold a special election for the purpose of saving the Seahawks from leaving town. The subsequent demolition of the Kingdome occurred before it was paid off and while it still had use left in it. Cynicism grew. The citizens of Seattle passed a law making it very difficult for the city to fund future sports teams. Billionaire Starbucks exec Howard Schultz sold off the Sonics when the Seattle wouldn’t pat for arena improvements. Resentment grew.

That attitude lingers: opposition continues to more public funding of upgrades to Safeco Field is a current example. A petition has been filed to put further funding on the ballot for the voters to decide. Let the Mariners pay for it, critics say. Public money should be for more important things, like homelessness.

The result is a hardheadedness when it comes to sports. And that, combined with an economic boom, have changed the dynamics. The $700 million private investment in revitalizing Key Arena is a major accomplishment. It’s a public private partnership that, if it works as designed, benefits the public, salvages a key facility and puts more economic activity at the publicly owned Seattle Center, and will result in possibly two new sports franchises—NHL hockey (perhaps soon, according to a confident Mayor Jenny Durkan) and the eventual return of NBA basketball—coming to town. Seattle has become a desirable market, so we can play hard to get. We’re a leader in a new template that says that the public should benefit from private investment in major league team sports, not the other way around.

Even more significantly, news also comes that Amazon, under much criticism for its treatment of warehouse workers, is upping its minimum wage nationwide to $15 per hour. That’s double the federal minimum wage. The $15 fight was first engaged here, in Sea-Tac and then in Seattle where labor, progressive groups, business leaders like Nick Hanauer and socialist firebrands like Kshama Sawant, and a new liberal mayor, pressed to institute that minimum wage here. The political and business community figured out a way to do it, against much criticism and amid dire warnings. Seattle was the first major American city to do it and as such has been a “guinea pig” for the economics of it. It has largely worked and the sky hasn’t fallen (indeed, construction cranes have continued to rise). The Amazon figure matches the Seattle number, but also exceeds it for lower-cost communities where many Amazon employees work. It, in effect, helps to set a new national standard.

Seattle often gets criticized for flaky left-wing politics. But local activists have had a profound effect on the ways business—from Amazon’s blue-collar wages to requiring a shift in how cities deal with sports franchises—operate. But there is important substance too.

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