SEATTLE — Liberal champion Rep. Pramila Jayapal wants congressional Democrats to pursue an equity-based economic agenda modeled after her home city of Seattle, which has spearheaded a law creating the highest minimum wage in the nation.
The left-wing agenda encounters plenty of skepticism, including from more moderate members of the Democratic Party.
To make her case, Ms. Jayapal brought the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth to Seattle this week to showcase her hometown as a liberal success story.
“There’s this idea that we’ve passed these crazy ideas and somehow the economy is tanking, and that’s not the case,” Ms. Jayapal said. “We have a really thriving economy, and I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand how our progressive policies here have really led the nation, led the state, and how we have continued to thrive.”
The visit highlighted the priorities of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the largest ideological and most left-leaning faction of House Democrats. Ms. Jayapal is the chair.
Seattle’s laws read like a liberal wish list that Democrats have been unable to achieve on the national stage:
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• The city’s paid parental leave policy guarantees four weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child or children.
• An ordinance requires paid time off for employees to care for themselves or family members for physical or mental ailments, including visits to doctors or when a school or place of care is closed.
• The highest minimum wage in the U.S., at $17.27 per hour, applies to workers at businesses such as McDonald’s, Target and Starbucks. It includes workers at any chain store with more than 500 employees globally or fewer than 500 if tips or health care benefits are not provided.
Seattle this year became the first city to set a minimum wage standard for gig workers, such as app-based delivery drivers. The city’s “pay up” bill would set the minimum wage for these workers at $17.27 an hour starting next year.
Doubts about Ms. Jayapal’s agenda started with her Democratic colleagues who took the junket with her to Seattle.
“Is this replicable if you don’t have a major research university and two monster multinationals?” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the select committee.
He was referring to the University of Washington and Microsoft and Starbucks, which have headquarters in the Seattle metropolitan area.
“What works in Seattle might not work everywhere else. I’m not sure what works in Seattle would work in Bridgeport,” Mr. Himes said. “Parts of it, maybe, like making progress for gig workers. That may work in more places rather than raising the minimum wage to $15, which may actually be disruptive in a very low-wage jurisdiction.”
Ms. Jayapal also brought along Reps. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio in hopes of persuading colleagues from the more conservative Midwest to embrace her bold priorities.
Seattle has a vibrant economy. Last year, it ranked as the 10th-largest regional economy in the country, surpassing the Atlanta metropolitan area, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The city’s unemployment rate of 3.3% in June was a few ticks below the national rate of 3.8% and ranked 127th among metropolitan areas.
Studies of the city’s economic policies have shown mixed results in tackling the income inequality it was supposed to mitigate.
A 2021 study examined by the University of Washington School of Public Policy and Governance, which looked at the phase-in of a $13-per-hour minimum wage increase from 2014 to 2017, found a boost in pay but a reduction of hours worked for low-wage jobs. Wages for those earning less than $19 an hour rose by 3.4%, but the number of hours worked decreased by 7%.
The rate at which low-wage workers were hired also decreased as wages rose, according to the report.
The city also struggles with crime and homelessness.
Rep. Bryan Steil, Wisconsin Republican and ranking member of the committee, said Seattle’s challenges with homelessness and crime are examples of the city’s policy failures.
“You don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach based on Seattle’s model,” he said. “The homeless situation is really significant, and when you talk to folks who live here and work here, it is altering people’s daily lives. And then the downtown people, the number of people who are homeless is incredibly significant.”
Seattle ranks as the 18th-largest city in the U.S. but has the third-largest homeless population with at least 11,751. The homelessness rate is 1.59%. Only Los Angeles and New York had larger homeless populations, according to a 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Among big cities, only Los Angeles had a higher homelessness rate, at 1.63%.
Seattle also has a crime problem, though it’s not as bad as in other cities caught up in the national crime wave.
Seattle received national attention for its political unrest in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd. Demonstrators pressured the city to make drastic cuts to its police force, a move linked to the rising crime rate.
The Seattle Police Department’s final 2021 report showed a 14-year high in violent crime.
Reports of violent crime increased by 20%, with 4,466 in 2020 and 5,340 in 2021. More than 42,000 property crime reports were filed, indicating a 9% uptick from 38,714 in 2020.
Rampant crime has driven businesses out of the city and into the suburbs. From March 2020 to March 2021, more than 160 Seattle businesses closed or relocated. Most of them cited violent crime concerns.
A survey commissioned by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and conducted from March 13-20 found that 67% of the city’s residents considered moving out of Seattle because of overall quality of life concerns, public safety and affordability issues.
Wendy, a Seattle native who gave only her first name, blamed ultraliberal policies for the departure of residents and the rise in crime and business losses.
“The city is just so, so far left that they’ve just completely destroyed everything, and the crime is so bad. I never go downtown like I used to do,” she said.
City and state officials pointed to statistics that showed a thriving business environment.
Last month, Forbes magazine declared Seattle among the top 10 cities in gross domestic product growth. National Small Business Week ranked the city as the seventh best in the country for starting a small business.
Washington state had the best economy in the nation in a June report issued by the personal finance website WalletHub.
“There’s sometimes a narrative around safety and that people don’t want to live in Seattle. That’s not the case,” Ms. Jayapal said. “Looking at the successes of the city, [you see] people do better. You raise the minimum wage, people do better. You provide child care, people do better, and the country thrives.”