Tim Burgess: Ultimate Limousine Liberal

"Assommons les pauvres!" --Charles Baudelaire, Paris, circa 1865 Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times
“Assommons les pauvres!” –Charles Baudelaire, Paris, circa 1865
Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times

What is this thing called liberalism? Here in Seattle, that question cuts deep, indeed, since so many of our local elected public officials have claimed to be liberals in order to get elected to crucial positions within our city government. Seattle is of course known nationwide as one of America’s premier urban liberal meccas, which makes claiming liberal credentials a must for any city government candidate here.

Nevertheless, liberal is as liberal does. Ever heard the expression “limousine liberal”? It’s a longtime political pejorative denoting someone who claims to be a liberal for political and/or social expediency while ultimately behaving in ways antithetical to the ideal of genuine liberalism — usually involving socioeconomic class status. And when a limousine liberal is also an elected public official, you can bet big money that their ultimate constituency is not the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and boring.

Consider Tim Burgess. The Seattle City Council incumbent, first elected in 2007 and currently running for re-election as a citywide candidate in Seattle’s brand-new district-based council system, has long played the well-weathered electoral campaign game of acting vaguely liberal for three months every four years. And with our city’s November 3 general elections mere weeks away, he’s now in classic limousine liberal character once again.

Case in point: Last week on September 10, at a council candidate public forum, Burgess announced his endorsement of Initiative 122, a local public campaign financing measure on this year’s general election ballot. This apparent flip-flop comes after many months of Burgess avidly opposing grassroots efforts to bring public campaign financing to Seattle’s municipal election system — including Initiative 122.

Who is the real Tim Burgess? Among Seattle’s longtime political cognoscenti, he’s always been considered the council’s most conservative member — although he could pass for a genuine liberal in a city such as, say, Spokane or Yakima. One can best gauge his ultimate politics by considering his ultimate financial supporters: namely, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and several owners of huge swaths of private property in Seattle and its environs. Not uncoincidentally, these same constituents have also dictated certain noteworthy items of legislation that Burgess has brought before the council during his tenure.

Lest we forget, Burgess’s greatest stumbling block in his latest election-season efforts to assuage the doubts of Seattle’s genuinely liberal voters remains the infamous aggressive-solicitation bill which he wrote and introduced in Seattle City Hall in February 2010. That bill, obviously meant to appease wealthy and/or class-aspirational constituents who then apparently lived in mortal fear of Seattle’s underclass, would have created a new class of civil penalty for panhandlers — despite the fact that aggressive begging was then already a criminal offense under city law. Burgess wanted to fine violators $50 each. If they wouldn’t — or couldn’t — pay or show up for court, they’d be issued a warrant and therefore face jail time. Social justice activists fiercely opposed the bill — as did the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which voted unanimously to oppose it. Although the bill was ultimately defeated, it still stands today as a significant political dog whistle for Burgess’s ultimate constituency among Seattle voters: namely, the rich and boring.

Meanwhile, Burgess’s challenger this year, former Tenants Union of Washington State executive director Jon Grant, can claim genuinely liberal credentials much more credibly than Burgess. Grant in fact presents such a strong contrast to Burgess that Seattle’s Rental Housing Association — a key Burgess supporter — recently proclaimed in an e-mail to its members that “retaining Tim Burgess is essential for the [Seattle rental housing] industry to assure sensible discourse at City Hall for the next four years” and declared Grant “the worst possible outcome for the industry in the November election.” Need I say more?

Why has Tim Burgess now changed his tune regarding public campaign financing in Seattle? Jon Grant’s grassroots challenge from the genuine left is the obvious answer to that question. Burgess is clearly attempting to diffuse Grant’s strongest criticism of the incumbent with his latest flip-flop. Also, almost every other council candidate has now expressed support for Initiative 122, making Burgess’s change of strategy electorally expedient. How do you pronounce “career politician”?

Same as it ever was, indeed: Tim Burgess is once again cynically posing as a liberal, mere weeks before facing Seattle’s famously liberal electorate. Don’t get fooled again.

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