Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Taxi Essay: Seattle's Mayor And His Betrayal Of The Local Taxi Industry

Recently listening to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray commenting upon a local controversy concerning the dry-docking of a floating Dutch Shell oil rig, I was reminded once again how savvy of a politician he is.  While acknowledging the divide between us concerning Seattle's governance of Seattle and King County's taxi industry, I recognize that he is the most capable and competent mayor Seattle has had since at least Charles Royer (1978-1990), and Wes Uhlman (1969-1978), who survived a 1975 recall attempt.  Until Murray's election we have had a veritable mayoral chamber of horrors over a 24-year period beginning in 1990 and ending in 2014.  In apple-pie order those scary mayors were Norman Rice, Paul Schell, Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn. 

Rice stood out for ordering the physical eviction and crack-down upon a group of activists occupying the Pacific Hotel on the corner of 4th and Marion, the Seattle Police violently tossing them out.  Perhaps appropriately upon leaving office, Rice immediately transitioned to the post of CEO and President of the Federal Loan Bank.  He also made unsuccessful runs for Congress and Washington State governor.  Last year I saw him and his wife at the Canis Restaurant waiting for a stretch limousine, the valet shouting at me because I was somehow impeding "His Honor" while picking up a lesser diner. Shame on me for failing to recognize greatness directly in front of me!

Paul Schell oversaw the twin municipal disasters that were the disruptive 1999 WTO protests along with the infamous 2001 Pioneer Square Mardi Gras riots where a young man was beaten to death.  That he was a mayor quite "over his head" was too obvious for him to last more than one term.  I will always best remember Schell for using his position as head of the Port of Seattle as an excuse for frequent visits to Europe upon Port business yet somehow each time conveniently ending up at his cottage in the south of France.  How this man ever became mayor remains a mystery to me.  I also remember when he recommended that everyone utilize taxis as "their second car" while simultaneously allowing his police force to terrorise us, issuing rapid-fire tickets.  A fun era it wasn't. 

Nickels of course allowed the NBA franchise to leave town even though two years remained on the Key Arena lease, dooming multiple lower-Queen Anne businesses once dependent upon the Supersonics.  Even worse was his handling of the huge snowfall in December of 2008, paralysing the city for nearly two weeks, a lack of adequate snow removal leading to his own departure, failing to even survive the primary.  Citizens still joke how his residential street in West Seattle was the first to be cleared.  His son's personal tragedy of stealing $5000.00 from an Indian casino only deepened Nickels' personal malaise.

Mike McGinn was an idealist minus an usable compass, coming into office with a hopeful agenda developed in part as a Sierra Club chapter president.  Favoring bicycles over cars, McGinn feeling that any accommodation with that "devil automobile" could not be part of his environmental religion, got into an immediate fight with the City Council over proposed plans to dig a massive tunnel replacing that 1950s concrete dinosaur known as the Viaduct span of State Highway 99.  That the project was already approved and funded didn't sway McGinn, objecting to the bitter end, and unfortunately, sabotaging his now preordained one term tenure.  Still he has left his mark with bike lane projects on major arterials like 2nd Avenue downtown and the First Hill section of Broadway Avenue, complicating the daily commute for tens of thousands Monday through Friday.  Like so many visionaries of his kind and ilk, he lacked both commonsense and mundane eyesight, somehow not seeing that Seattle is a city squeezed between two huge bodies of water (Lake Washington and the Puget Sound) and the mountainous foothills of the Cascades tapering into Elliot Bay and the Sound (now popularly referred to as the Salish Sea).  McGinn was "master of the mess" and it will take successive generations to repair the damage.  My favorite McGinn monuments are the part-time or late-night cab stands sitting idle throughout the city.  I might even use them myself occasionally if only SPD would begin ticketing all those cars illegally parking in those ill-fated stands.  If only, if only but course they haven't and never will.  In 28 years I have never seen one ticket upon the violator's windshield. How is that possible?

Especially compared in relation to McGinn's amateurism, Mayor Ed Murray is the consummate career politician, having spent first 11 years in the Washington State House of Representatives, and then, from 2007-2013, in the Washington State Senate.  From my handful of visits to Olympia, it is completely clear that power and money rule the roost, which accurately explains why Murray chose Uber over those orphaned children, the Seattle and King County taxi industry.  In his mind, and I don't blame him for this assessment, taxi is the hamstrung racehorse and and Uber a corporate Seattle Slew.  He knows who to put his" money on," liking what he see in those Silicon Valley Uber jockeys. 

During that interview aired over NPR radio, Murrary, alluding to his fight to achieve gay marriage rights, said progress is incremental, that by questioning whether Shell Oil had the proper City permits he was acknowledging that fossil fuel dependency, perhaps far in the future, someday will end, an assessment I completely agree with.  He also added that he bore no malice toward the State of Alaska and its current economic reliance upon oil and natural gas revenues.  Murray was conciliatory, he was sincere but most of all he was effective, simultaneously taking a strong position while reaching out to any and all possible opponents.  Of course you do this when facing one of world's largest and most powerful companies.  As I said, Murray is savvy, knowing where his political bread is buttered, of course fully explaining his approach to Seattle's transportation needs.  Seattle's taxi industry historically has proven itself to be inept.  Again, why embrace a loser when you have an new "up and comer" on your block?   The answer is obvious.

Even so, it is hard to justify what Murray did to a regulated industry.  If he had instead de-regulated taxis, allowing us to compete equally, I would have applauded the move.  But no, Murray embraced Uber, and even worse, knowing who he was dealing with, invited the taxi industry into negotiations that gave nothing away.  In other words, Murray, the smart and capable politician he is, knew that taxi would walk directly "into the punch" and be knocked out.  He was also extremely wise to exclude anyone who could take a punch to the head and remain standing. Murray knew where he wanted to go and he went there, not caring how much damage he caused to an already crippled industry. As he saw at both the State House and Senate, it was and remains survival of the fittest.  While I am sure he would not mind if we survive our current hardships, he won't be crying if we disappear.

And if we do vanish from the face of the taxi planet, who will we blame?  Uber?  Murray?  The Seattle City Council?  No, there will be only one group of individuals who will have been responsible.  Ourselves and no one else, alone in our incompetence and dysfunction and stupidity, Murray just the convenient hammer nailing our self-constructed coffin shut. 

If anyone disputes that, I say, think again.  The sorry truth is is that we are suicidal and have done little to change our distorted psychology.  We are on the edge and Murray's hand is pushing upon our backs.  Are we ready to both leave the cliff and push back?  I don't know.  I like to think so but that too could just be delusional.  What is true is that Murray isn't going anywhere.  He will be reelected.  About us, like I said, I don't know.  What kind of industry we will be by next May I can't tell you.  If historical precedent remains true, at best we will continue limping, not roaring down the road.  We are in trouble, and Murray is not are friend.  That is something I do know for sure.  He is not our friend.


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