Civic scandals used to mean something in Seattle. Gunslinger Wyatt Earp paid off City Hall to operate his 1890s gambling joint here. In the 1950s, bar owners were leaving lunch bags of money on their counters for beat cops who threatened to shut them down if they didn’t. A half-century later, aging mobster Frank Colacurcio did what he could to keep corruption alive with a political payoff scandal known as Strippergate. Though Colacurcio was later indicted for racketeering and prostitution, he beat that rap this year with a sure-fire defense: sudden death.
Alas, what passes for scandal today is a city council member rudely signing a piece of paper that the mayor was supposed to sign, but wouldn’t. The dust-up did have an underworld aspect—it had to do with Seattle’s proposed car tunnel—and conflicted with the mayor’s personal vice: a perverse fondness for bicycles. But it was a pitiful turn for a city with such a rich history of shame, dishonesty, and corruption. Our cops used to row people out to the middle of Lake Washington with large metal balls clamped around their necks, and tell them to swim back—or talk. We endured gangland murders and car bombings, and had a steady daisy chain of bribes, kickbacks, and payoffs moving up through the police department to the top floors of City Hall.
As detailed in my new book Seattle Vice (Sasquatch Books, $17.95, out Nov. 1), which is excerpted here, we once had the kind of corruption worth bragging about. And for a good part of a century, it was accepted and expected. As Colacurcio observed, “You go with the flow.” And in Seattle sex, violence, and dirty money began flowing about 120 years ago.