Ed Murray, Seattle’s Do-You-Like-Me Mayor
One of the country’s most popular mayors still can’t seem to please them all.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Minimum wage, marijuana legalization, gay marriage — this guy’s at the forefront of them all.
It’s another perfectly perfect, sunny summer day in Seattle’s post-hipster Capitol Hill neighborhood, and a couple dozen people have gathered in the back of St. Mark’s Church to discuss poverty and hunger. Beige metal folding chairs sit empty around tables, while long-haired, plaid-shirted folks are lined up, plastic take-home containers at the ready, anxious to dig into a free spread of kale on kale and oatmeal cookies. Backs turned to the stage, nobody is much concerned with the headlining speaker that afternoon — the high-flying, wildly successful Mayor Ed Murray.
In fact, Murray is not just any mayor. At the moment he’s boasting one of the highest approval ratings in the country with a whopping 70 percent. But his pack of policies might surprise you. He’s the first elected married gay mayor of a major American city, though originally he was a voice against pushing gay marriage through the Washington legislature too quickly. His policies are as liberal as any mayor’s, and yet the most liberal of liberals aren’t happy with him. He’s passed the country’s first minimum wage law — at a rate double the federal rate — but both waiters and restaurant owners are groaning. No wonder kale quiche is the big star at this afternoon’s event.
Murray is living proof of an intravenous truth in American politics: You can run your opponents out of town (there aren’t many conservatives left in Seattle), and you can give your voters what they want, but in the end, divisiveness will reign supreme. And so Mayor Murray tells me what’s keeping him up at night, pacing his bedroom in thin socks: “After everything I’ve accomplished for this city,” he says angrily, a reddish color flooding up his milky cheeks, “I’m still ‘the man.’”
Amy Schumer is in town tonight, headlining a comedy revue. “You guys,” she begins as she sets down a water bottle, “thank you so much for taking a break from composting to come out tonight.” Sure, Seattle is a lot of what you’d expect. But after being hammered by the Boeing and dot-com busts of years ago, Emerald City today is exploding with growth from all sides — in business, housing and construction. Anchored by Starbucks, Microsoft and an expanding workforce at Amazon, this city of 650,000 is quickly becoming a new mini Silicon Valley for migrating companies. Hotels are packed in a land where modest Airbnb rentals go for $350, and a $5 billion construction boom is in full swing.
Murray, of course, is at the center of it all, and despite his approval ratings, he’s feeling the heat. The dirty underside of the boom includes the accompanying housing crunch and ballooning cost of living, high priorities for his government. And not everyone is happy about the minimum wage: Some of those closest to its impacts — like David Meinert, a local restaurant owner — argue the new law will be bad for bars and servers because it’ll do away with tips. The fallout remains to be seen, though Murray has positioned himself at the forefront.
From the top floor of his city center office of curving glass, Murray points to where he grew up, on a hill across the water in West Seattle, amid a hodgepodge of housing. It’s in eyeshot, but a world away. Back then, Murray was one of seven children of Irish Catholic parents. His father worked in the steelyards — sometimes. Financial stability and meals were irregular, but every week there was Sunday Mass. Murray, the student body president and altar boy, would soon flip the script. While at college in Portland, a Trappist monk gave him a book on homosexuality to read. Until that point in time, Murray was nicknamed “Ed Oblivious”: He dressed sloppily and slept on a mattress on the ground. “I was the least-gay gay person you could find,” he laughs. When Murray soon came out to his Irish Catholic family, he was met with support: “My family wouldn’t cut me off because then they couldn’t meddle.”
Murray says he’s felt the loneliest in his career on one of the issues closest to his heart: gay marriage.
On a hiking trip 24 years ago, he met his husband, Michael, who “brought organization to my life … and helped me dress better.” Yet as an openly gay man, politics seemed like a foreclosed option — until Cal Anderson ran for Washington state legislature. Murray knew he also wanted in, and he became the second openly gay politician elected to the state legislature, where he served 17 years. When he’s reflected on what makes someone a masterful politician, it’s usually been from his favorite place: a rented cabin in the woods on the Washington coast, curled up fireside with red wine, Bach and a political biography about leaders, like Nelson Mandela, who are willing to take risks “even if it means you go through a period of significant unpopularity, alone.”
As it turns out, Murray says he’s felt the loneliest in his career on one of the issues closest to his heart: gay marriage. Back in 2007, many of his colleagues wanted to push it through the legislature. Murray, who worried it would fail and draw backlash, thought slow and steady was the better strategy. “No one in my community was supporting me,” he remembers. All those biographies, he says, stopped him from caving on his own political instinct. In the end, incrementalism won out: Same-sex marriage was passed in Washington via referendum in 2012, and Murray was elected mayor the next year.
Washington state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who worked with Murray on the minimum wage committee, says back when Murray was running for mayor, she was “surprised at how incredibly open he was, and to see his passion.” And she recognizes his challenge today in navigating his city’s future, which she notes is in a “big clash” — is it a rich, tech-titan town that pushes people out, or a diverse city that allows for people who don’t have a lot of money? “I empathize with him trying to keep everyone together,” she says.
As he considers his legacy, Murray turns to a sign of a Seattle man — a bracelet of beads on his right wrist, carved out of olive wood from Jerusalem by Benedictine hermits. “My obituary has been written,” he says. “If I fail at this job I am going to be OK; I did what I wanted to do.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized the mayor’s stance on Washington’s gay marriage referendum.