Case Study: Washington

In November 2013, Seattle passed the nation’s first $15 minimum wage. Beyond voting in a minimum wage increase (as well as a socialist city councilwoman), the Seattle-Tacoma region has become a kind of model for pushing progressive change and sustaining economic growth while answering to questions of economic and racial inequit. But, much like other urban progressive hubs, the problem is that, often, "What happens in Seattle stays in Seattle"—meaning the progressive change there does not necessarily spread to other regions or scale up to the state.

In fact, the opposite is happening: Thanks to the growing electoral success of the Tea Party in other areas of the state, an increasing number of conservative lawmakers have assumed elected office. Democrats are only one seat away from losing a majority in the legislature in what was previously perceived as one of the most solidly Blue states in the nation.

These political conditions make it difficult to move progressive issues at the state level—including the state’s main source of revenue: taxes. Currently, Washington’s tax system is the most regressive in the country as it has no income tax and corporations (including those in the highly-lucrative technology, aerospace, agriculture, and mining industries) pay next-to-nothing. Lower-wage consumers bear a greater tax burden through sales taxes. As a result, the poorest 20 percent pay nearly 17 percent of their income in taxes, while the top 1 percent pays only 2.4 percent. Furthermore, this system is bringing in insufficient funds for public schools, infrastructure, and social services—and has been the focal point of both progressive and conservative agendas (the former pushing reform, the latter pushing the status quo).

Progressive organizers have not taken the state’s recent rightward shift passively and are working to elect progressive state legislators, such as Senator Pramila Jayapal—a leader who came directly out of progressive grassroots organizing as the founder of One America, an organization building power in immigrant communities. Working with fellow progressive legislators, Senator Jayapal has pushed bills like the Washington State Voting Rights Act (WVRA), which would help localities shift from at-large to district-based elections in order to stop the dilution of votes from communities of color. Nonetheless, due to the current right-wing backlash, the WVRA, tax reform, and other progressive bills have stalled.

Early Voting

Mail Only

Voting in Washington and Oregon is done exclusively via mail.

But Washington has some structures in place to protect equality, democracy, and justice. For example, Washington has one of the nation’s only all-mail voting systems. While this system is not perfect, it can dramatically increase voter turnout, and some progressive state lawmakers are working to pass automatic voter registration to further increase voting access. Progressive movement and advocacy organizations are also sharpening their voter engagement, to keep low-income and underrepresented communities engaged beyond the election cycle and in local and even judicial elections. Indeed, prior efforts to elect judges who would best represent all Washington’s residents (not merely those who paid for campaigns) were critical to sustaining progressive possibilities today. Indeed, the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional several ballot initiatives bought and paid for by the Seattle region’s (and so the nation’s) wealthiest—most notably, in January 2016, the Court ruled unconstitutional an attempt by anti-tax millionaire Tim Eyman—who has singlehandedly paid for no less than 20 unsuccessful ballot initiatives—to force a two- thirds majority to approve any tax increases or new spendin. The Court also struck down a charter school initiative, sponsored by a group of and Microsoft tech executives and outside elites like Eli Broad and Wal-Mart’s Alice Walton, as illegally rerouting funds meant for "common schools" into private interest.

But what is proving harder is not just protecting particular arenas (like the electoral) or institutions (like public schools), but building power in regions that have normally been underserved by progressives. According to interviewees, the "parachute" model of sending representatives of progressive organizations into rural areas of Eastern Washington—which are increasingly communities of color—has fallen short. This model is particularly problematic in light of a more subtle issue in the state’s (rather Seattle-centric) social justice circles: While there are active movements representing progressive people of color and immigrants in Seattle, these are often distanced from the more well-known environmental and often-white progressive movements. It is that much more important, therefore, that Washington’s pathway to progressivism is not from the urban progressives to the rural, but from the grassroots up. And as suburban and rural Washington have experienced some of the state’s greatest demographic change in recent years, they are rife with potential.

Population Growth 1990-2010

State National Rank
Total 38% 24% 10th
POC 186% 85% 10th

The trick thus seems to be finding a way to bridge both the racialized divides within Seattle’s own progressive movements and those that geographically cleave this region from others in the state. And both can only be resolved through long-term strategies that build the power of constituencies of color throughout urban and rural areas, fostering home-grown leadership, and strengthening political pipelines.

Fate, or the propensity of Pacific Coast residents to progressivism, did not help Seattle revolutionize urban equity. Years of patient grassroots organizing, alliance building, ../data-sharing, philanthropic coordination, and above all dialogue (especially with unlikely allies) all were part and parcel of providing a model where growth and equity can go hand-in-han. Neither is there some natural conservative-libertarian politics destined to keep the rest of Washington state red, especially with continued demographic and economic shifts sweeping the rural regions. Progressive organizers and policymakers throughout the state are coming to see that what will make the difference now for the state is a shared vision (born of some hard dialogues) that can respond more carefully to questions of racial inequality, but also an expansion of the progressive infrastructure into new areas to empower and equip those communities left out of the conversation.