When asked about the a $15 minimum wage at yesterday's mayoral debate, Mayor Mike McGinn quipped: "Some might even say it's a divisive conversation to have." (McGinn famously pushed the wage issue by recommending that the city turn down Whole Foods' request for an alley vacation—the sale of a public alley to the private company—because the company is non-union.)
The line was a witty rejoinder to the ongoing accusation from Ed Murray's camp that McGinn is a "divisive" mayor. It was McGinn's clever way to reframe his reputation: He's not divisive, he's just bringing up issues that make the establishment uncomfortable.
"Divisive" in other words, is the establishment euphemism for righteous challenges to the status quo. (I'm sure that McGinn diehards are unwittingly nodding in agreement as they read that totally sarcastic sentence.)
Before I get to what truly bothers me about McGinn's claim that he's a noble agitator, I want to take a second to unpackage McGinn's claim that his issues are inherently divisive. So first, which issues is McGinn referring to? Clearly, he's talking about: his fight against the establishment's pet downtown tunnel project; his larger overall urbanist agenda for more density, mass transit, and yes, bikes; and, per his answer at last night's debate, his push for living wages.
Looking for a truly divisive issue—one that actually challenged the status quo? Rewind to 2004, when Republicans won the presidency by stirring up the culture wars and demonizing gay rights.
1) Fighting to stop the tunnel was definitely divisive, but not because it reflected a populist cause. McGinn's claim that he was standing up to a an elitist agenda lost all credibility at the polls when voters (the "people," to use McGinn's common refrain) overwhelmingly supported the tunnel in a 2011 special election, 58-41.2) As to density and urbanism and bikes, I'll admit McGinn is divisive in the way that he means it. Unfortunately, especially on bikes, he's not being "divisive" enough. Seattle is actually falling behind other cities in the race to be a green metropolis. That's not meant as a criticism of McGinn—he's nudging the city in the right direction when it comes to the Evan's School of Urban Design and Planning syllabus, but, unfortunately, due in part to the way he handled the tunnel, he's had trouble being a successful spokesman for that green agenda. And that's where the "style" criticism becomes germane.
3) Finally, regarding living wages, McGinn's opponent, state Sen. Ed Murray, is also talking about the issue. In fact, Murray beat the mayor to the punch in coming out in support of $15 minimum wage, thus winning the endorsement of the left-wing Service Employees International Union 775, which is simultaneously leading SeaTac's living-wage campaign.
The specific rap against McGinn on the wage issue isn't so much the substance of the policy, it's that he sprung his objection on the council and the city with a politically timed, unprecedented letter about the Whole Foods development. (The Seattle Department of Transportation, which oversees street vacation requests, told PubliCola they could not remember another time that the mayor had weighed in on an alley vacation decision, which is under the purview of the council).
McGinn was quickly accused of election season kowtowing to the grocery workers' union to win their endorsement and thus politicizing the wage issue. In short, it was McGinn's grandstanding rather than his goal that gave way to accusations about divisiveness. Calling for living wages hardly ruffles feathers in liberal Seattle.
Gay marriage, obviously, is not divisive in Seattle. Nor, however, should living wages and fighting climate change be divisive issues. Unfortunately, they tend to be under the current administration.
Looking for a truly divisive issue—one that actually challenged the status quo?
Rewind to the mid 2000s, when President George W. Bush won reelection by stirring up the culture wars and demonizing gay rights, making it a litmus test issue for the GOP. Try, in that icy context, to be a Democratic legislator from Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood pushing gay rights in Olympia.
Enter then Rep. Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill), who quickly took up the divisive issue, and within 15 months of Bush's reelection passed a gay civil rights bill. And rather than letting such a truly divisive issue polarize Olympia, Murray managed to bring some Republicans along; it passed senate 25-23.
Next, navigating the political situation, Sen. Murray passed a series of domestic partnership bills that gave gay couples all the rights of married couples without setting the movement back, and then, last year, again with bipartisan support, he passed a marriage equality bill, making Washington state just the seventh in the nation to legalize gay marriage.
Gay marriage, obviously, is not divisive in Seattle.
Nor, however, should living wages and fighting climate change be divisive issues. Unfortunately, they tend to be under the current administration.