You would have thought that the members of the new Seattle City Council had single-handedly orchestrated the collapse of the Soviet Union given the way they gushed about how their elections, a huge political win for Mayor Bruce Harrell and Council President Sara Nelson, marked a return to greatness for a city held captive by progressives for the last four years. 

During the swearing-in ceremony in January and during their campaigns, council members implied that the last council’s comparatively left-wing ideology made them more prone to bickering, pouting, and general childishness, which kneecapped their productivity in office. But at the swearing-in ceremony, Nelson said “there is cause for optimism,” despite the council’s greeness. “Today, we usher in a new era of pragmatism and results at City Hall,” she proclaimed. 

So when’s that new era actually going to start? 

Since taking office seven months ago, the Seattle City Council has passed little legislation, and almost none that sprung from their own imagination rather than the mayor’s office. 

Twitter complainers and podcasters have levied criticisms that this new council may be the "Do Nothing" council, but their slowness doesn't seem to bother the business interest that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into their recent campaigns. And maybe progressive critics shouldn't lose sleep over the current dynamic, either. Despite her flexes of power in the first few months of the year, the mayor and Nelson have so far declined to use their new political strength to advance anything major. 

As of July 8, the Seattle City Council has passed Public Safety Chair Bob Kettle’s bill that aims to accelerate police hiring, somewhat of a fool’s errand amid a national recruitment shortage. Otherwise, the council passed labor contracts the mayor’s team already negotiated, the mayor’s emergency legislation to allow for quicker demolition of vacant buildings, the mayor’s surveillance plan, along with a few housekeeping bills. 

In terms of raw numbers, the 2020 city council passed 12 more ordinances in their first six months than the 2024 city council. Furthermore, the 2020 council didn’t have a long time on their training wheels before they had to react to the COVID-19 public health crisis and the racial reckoning brought on by the murder of George Floyd. By this time in 2020, the previous council had overturned racist, classist anti-loitering laws and barred cops from covering their badges. They made quick work of temporarily increasing worker protections, small business aid, and tenant rights in response to the COVID-19 emergency. They also passed campaign finance reforms, first-in-the-nation eviction protections, and the JumpStart payroll tax, which has saved the City from financial ruin in every budget negotiation since its unanimous passage. 

Council President Sara Nelson did not respond to my request for comment about why her council has taken so long to find its footing. 

But Nelson had anticipated a steep learning curve in her remarks at the council’s swearing-in. The 2020 city council boasted 20 years of experience between its nine members, not including time that many of them spent working in council offices. By contrast, the new council has 10 years of experience in office and elected Nelson, who’d served just two years in office, to be their council president. With such little experience, rather than lawmaking, the new council spent several months hearing presentations from central staff about the basics of municipal governing. 

One could argue that the council has less power to enact new policy because of the quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit projected in 2025. They can’t actually pay for new programs because the City can’t even pay for existing ones. The council will not discuss new revenue streams until the budget negotiations this fall, and the council does not have a clear pro-taxation majority. However, the council can enact policy changes—new tenant protections, zoning reforms, etcetera—at no cost. 

But not everyone shares this criticism. For many council members, their true constituency is big business, real estate, and the other conservative forces that paid for their seats.

Indeed, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce seems satisfied with their return on investment in the council, bought by more or less the same business and real estate interests that formed their now defunct PAC. In an email to The Stranger, Chamber CEO Rachel Smith said the council is "...working on exactly what the voters said are their top priorities. It’s much harder to solve problems than to create them, and I see a strong commitment from all council members to finding–and taking action–on solutions."

For Smith, the council's successes include Kettle's cop recruitment bill, a bill to expand the previous council's automated license plate reader pilot, Council Member Dan Strauss's so-called audit, the recent transportation levy that the City had to write this year, and some tweaks to the Mayor's voter-approved housing levy that put more rental assistance in landlord pockets.

Smith also signaled support of the council's future actions, including a bill to incentivize developers to convert office buildings to housing (which was Mayor's legislation by the way, and such small-ball shit in the face of the housing crisis that it’s barely worth mentioning), wayfinding improvements (Mayor's thing again), and an upcoming bill to crack down on street racing (City Attorney's bill).

Given their constituency, however, it may not be the council’s goal to progress but rather to conserve, and, in some cases, to backpedal.

Notably, the new council rendered two years of stakeholdering and policymaking useless by rejecting Council Member Tammy Morales’s Connected Communities bill, which would have made it easier for low-income communities to build housing and community centers. 

Nelson picked a fight with labor early on, letting corporations dictate a repeal to the gig delivery driver minimum wage ordinance passed by the previous city council. The bill went through several rounds of committee meetings, faced ethical concerns, and has been delayed since June 18 when the council struck its final vote from the agenda. In this case, the council’s seeming incompetence may have prolonged the life of the minimum wage ordinance, which is a win for labor, Nelson’s political enemy.

Behind the scenes, interest groups are lobbying for other repeals, from renter rights to anti-loitering laws. Those kinds of actions would take a lot of political will, and Nelson's clumsy attempt to claw back labor rights has not demonstrated the council's ability to coalesce around and enact blatantly corporatist and conservative policy. 

While inaction lets existing crises fester, prolonging the suffering of marginalized people in Seattle and hobbling opportunities for progress, perhaps an incompetent council is not a worst-case scenario for those who reap the nominal benefits from the work of the previous council. With this crew, doing little is better than doing anything at all.