Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, during a visit to the city’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said gun violence and homelessness are the two most intractable issues facing him today. To tackle them successfully requires a shift in culture ― easier said than done and, most often, not done at all.
He pointed to public-health approaches to homelessness and drug abuse as the most viable remedy for these deeply rooted social problems. That would mean, for instance, coming to grips with a heroin epidemic in the Northwest “the likes of which we haven’t seen since the '60s.” Yet he noted that social service programs to curb illegal drug use and address mental health are starved for funds.
Gun violence, too, he likened to an epidemic with no politically palatable treatment in sight. “There is bipartisan support to do nothing to change our gun laws,” said the mayor, an active proponent of gun control measures that have gained no traction.“When the culture changes, the politics change,” he said, but on matters involving gun violence, “we’re pretty stuck.”
Murray said he continues to look for ways to reduce the availability of high-powered weaponry. “I grew up hunting. My uncles had guns. But they were hunting rifles, not semiautomatics.” While he sees no prospects for gun control legislation, he said the city is looking to leverage its potential clout with gun-makers as a buyer of ammunition for local law enforcement. That strategy is being tried in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Murray was invited to speak to research center staff in Pelton Auditorium by the Hutch Diversity Council, an organization that promotes diversity in hiring and holds frequent seminars on related issues within the region.
“Diversity is intentional,” the mayor said, noting that while liberal Seattle generally respects diversity in principle, implementing wholesale change toward a more-diverse workforce is another matter.
Murray, while discussing his cabinet, said that may have meant letting white, male city appointees go, and hiring women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians. “This is the most conservative liberal city in America. We want diversity, but we don’t want to change anything,” he said.
The mayor cited his own law-enforcement agency as an example of a city institution that needed a change in culture. “Our police department was in a psychological bunker, and not connected to the community,” he said. Part of his solution was to hire Kathleen O’Toole as Seattle's first female police chief. “I chose her, because she was good,” he said.
During the discussion he defended the city’s crackdown on hookah parlors, which he said has been misconstrued as an attack on the East African community. “If you know anything about the East African community, you know that hookah is not part of their culture,” he said. He also pointed out that it is illegal to smoke in commercial establishments. “The worst thing we can do is tell minority communities that other people can use them for cover so they have to deal with the crime that happens.”
Murray also said that some “so-called medical marijuana” outlets have become “an incredible center of illegal activity in poor and minority communities.”
Murray sat for an hour-long conversation on stage with Juan Cotto, Fred Hutch director of Outreach, Diversity and Inclusion. After the forum, Murray and his staff met privately with Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland.
But during his presentation, Murray purposely circled back to the need for a cultural shift in the city he oversees.
And in perhaps his most candid remarks, Murray said nothing was more “shocking” to him than the dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Murray said he came out as a gay man in college, at a time when it was extremely difficult to do so. He feared most telling his Irish Catholic family, he said, but when he revealed his sexuality to his five sisters and brother, their answer surprised him: “We knew.”
“Which I found rather insulting,” he joked.
And although it took decades of legislative effort, he said one of the most moving days of his life was when lawmakers in Olympia, Washington's state capital, passed anti-discrimination laws for gays and lesbians. It was the sea change that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court approval of the right to gay marriage.
When he first joined the legislature, there were elected lawmakers who would not shake his hand. Yet these days, he said, “Some of the most conservative, right-wing Republicans became my closest friends, and remain my closest friends…But it sure did not start out that way.”
Murray also spoke of his 24 year relationship with Michael Shiosaki, whom he married two years ago. Although they had been a couple for 22 years, the mayor said he was emotional at the ceremony. “My lips were shaking.”
The mayor said that it was “rare” for him to discuss his private life in public. “I think it is dangerous for politicians to talk about themselves, so I hope I am not going over the line here.”
Forum host Cotto also asked the mayor how he deals with expectations of the gay community, who have at times been at odds with his style. “The biggest community I’ve always had a challenge with has always been the LGBT community. I’ve never satisfied them. I can’t be ‘gay enough,’” Murray said.
He said he felt the ire strongest from that community when he pushed for an incremental path toward gay marriage, after a court decision in 2006 threw out the original proposal.
“I stood in the community’s way,” he said. “But if you are going to change culture, you’ve got to bring people along. And I strongly believe that if we had brought (gay marriage) to the ballot, we would have lost.”
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at email@example.com.