Mayor’s Fall in Seattle Shakes the Gay Community He Rose From
SEATTLE — Being young and gay in this city in the 1980s, said Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, was all about being comfortable being out. There were shadows — AIDS was ripping through the community, and gay-bashing was common — but you didn’t have to hide the way previous generations had, and that was a powerful, exhilarating thing.
“You’re accepting who you are, you’re letting everyone else know who you are, you’re going out dancing, you hang around with people who are like you — you never thought they existed,” he said. Those years, he added, are a big part of what shaped him as a man and a politician.
But what happened back then, or did not, has now circled around to end Mr. Murray’s political career. He announced last week that he would not seek a second term in November, even though as recently as a month ago, with the local economy booming, he faced little opposition.
“The thought that I’m going to step away from this is like my life coming to an end,” Mr. Murray, 62, said during an interview in his top-floor office at City Hall.
“Ever since I’ve been a little kid, I’ve been obsessed with politics,” he added. “It’s been my life. It’s been my hobby. It’s been my job.”
Four men have come forward, in court filings or interviews, and said that when they were teenagers in the 1980s, under the age of legal consent, Mr. Murray had paid them for sex. He has called the accusations “untrue,” and said the law firm representing one of the men had a history of homophobia and political motivations to take him down.
But he said the city was being hurt by the story and its distractions, and so he would leave office at the end of his four-year term after this fall’s election.
Mr. Murray’s story parallels that of his city’s transformation from a town of waterfront grit to liberal, high-tech sheen. He grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family of seven children, came out at 25 while a student at the University of Portland in 1980, then on his return to Seattle found that the rungs of power could be climbed back home.
That mix of experiences became crucial to his political brand. In the State Legislature, starting in the mid-1990s, he led the fight for a statewide anti-discrimination law, which bears his name. He is also widely credited with forging the coalition that made Washington one of the first states, in 2012, to pass a same-sex marriage law through a statewide ballot initiative.
By the time he ran for mayor in 2013, beating an incumbent to become the first openly gay man in the job, he was a well-known quantity to Seattle voters, and his sexual orientation barely made a ripple.
But now his exit is making a splash. Lincoln C. Beauregard, the lawyer who filed a lawsuit against Mr. Murray last month in King County Superior Court, called the mayor’s accusations of a political motive and homophobia “not true” and “disgraceful.”
“He’s a disgusting man and doesn’t have the judgment or integrity to be in office at this point based on his actions since we filed the case,” Mr. Beauregard said in an interview.
In the gay, lesbian and transsexual community that has largely worshiped Mr. Murray — and especially in its heart, Capitol Hill, where Mr. Murray and his husband, Michael Shiosaki, have lived for decades — a pall of uncertainty and sadness has descended.
“It’s such a complicated sadness,” said Monisha Harrell, the chairwoman at Equal Rights Washington, a statewide advocacy group that worked closely with Mr. Murray in promoting the Anderson-Murray Anti-Discrimination Law, which was passed in 2006.
“There’s a sadness for the loss of a leader who has put himself on the front line of many of these causes that have been so important to us,” she said.
Other people who live or work in Capitol Hill, where many of the crosswalks are painted in gay-pride rainbows, said they were struggling with what to think, because no matter what is decided in court, many young gay, lesbian and transsexual people are victims of crime, exploitation and abuse.
“What do we do?” asked Elyse Rylander, the executive director and founder of Out There Adventures, which specializes in what it calls “queer wilderness education.”
“We don’t want to contribute to the vilification of a member of our community,” she said. “But we also don’t want to be supporting someone who maybe was an abuser. We don’t want to alienate people who have been abused.”
The man behind the lawsuit, Delvonn Heckard, who said he was 15 when Mr. Murray, then in his early 30s, began paying him for sex, could have potential credibility issues — he has dozens of criminal convictions on his record, including about 13 felonies, said his lawyer, Mr. Beauregard. The lawsuit seeks unspecified money damages.
But The Seattle Times also interviewed two other men who said they were paid to have sex with Mr. Murray in the 1980s when they were underage. A fourth man filed a declaration with the court this month saying he was an underage victim of Mr. Murray, too.
Mr. Murray said he could not comment in detail about the accusations, except to say that they were “not true” and that more would come out as the lawsuit moved forward.
The suit has drawn attention to a grungier Seattle, and Mr. Murray has admitted that the 1980s were a time of partying — at gay bars like Neighbours, at the gay gym and at the gay beach on Lake Washington.
“On the one hand, you’re having the time of your life,” he said. “But at the same time, the shadow of the plague of AIDS is haunting you.”
He talked about the complex emotions of getting a test for H.I.V. with a friend. “After we got our negative results, we went down and lit a candle at St. James, and then went out to the bars to find boyfriends,” he said.
In the Legislature, Mr. Murray became known as a coalition-builder who pushed to the left, slowly creating a majority to back legal protections for gay people. In Seattle, after his election as mayor, he created a group of labor and business leaders, telling them to find agreement around a $15-an-hour local minimum wage — more than double the federal minimum — which he signed into law six months after taking office.
But he also gained the reputation of working with the real estate industry on compromise agreements — anathema to some more liberal Democrats here — that allowed taller buildings and more density, in return for more affordable housing.
Mr. Murray’s impact on the city, and on gay rights, makes his fall all the harder to absorb, said Aidan Key, the executive director at Gender Diversity, a group that works with transsexual children. But Mr. Key said new threats to those rights that he fears coming from the Trump administration, not looking back, must now be the priority.
“I absolutely don’t have time to live in fear,” he said.
The dozen or so candidates for mayor already jostling for position, including a former United States attorney for Seattle, Jenny Durkan, and a former mayor, Mike McGinn, mostly talk about the future, too. And even some of Mr. Murray’s past supporters, like Joe Fugere, are starting to say that maybe Seattle drifted too far to the liberal side in the last few years.
“I believe the City Council in Seattle has gone way left,” said Mr. Fugere, a business owner and founder of a chain of pizzerias called Tutta Bella. Mr. Fugere (pronounced fu-JER) said he was looking for a candidate who understood the crisis that small businesses like his faced in costs and city mandates.
The politics of sexual identity in Seattle, and how it is emphasized or not in the next mayor’s race, could also be affected by Mr. Murray’s fall. Ms. Durkan, for example, in announcing her candidacy last week, stressed her credentials as a trailblazer in becoming the first openly gay United States attorney, but barely mentioned Mr. Murray at all.
Mr. McGinn, who lost his job to Mr. Murray, said his decision to start a comeback bid even before Mr. Murray had bowed out was based on the needs of the city, and was nothing personal. “Of course, I looked at the lay of the land,” he said.