When Mayor Mike McGinn first ran for election in 2009, the former Sierra Club leader, Great City founder, and light rail champion sold himself as a maverick—an outsider who would shake up a City Hall controlled by entrenched big-business interests and old ways of thinking.
Running on an urbanist, environmentalist agenda—McGinn's signature issue, of course, was opposition to the downtown deep-bore tunnel, although he was always careful to say that he wouldn't try to stop the project outright if elected—he was a new kind of candidate, a grassroots campaigner who pledged to "listen" to Seattle residents' concerns.
A hagiographic eight-page black-and-white campaign handout even loudly proclaimed, "MIKE LISTENS," and his inaugural speech stuck largely to that theme.
Ironically, early in his administration he gained a reputation for not being a very good listener. A series of early missteps marked him, fairly or not, as a mayor more interested in pushing his own agenda than seeking collaboration—a guy who hired up much of his young campaign staff, most of them enthusiastic but inexperienced in city government, to work on the 7th floor of City Hall.
After promising to fire 200 city workers based entirely on their job title of "strategic advisor," proposing a massive seawall bond ballot measure without consulting the city council (who were in retreat the day he announced it and couldn't be consulted in any case), firing several popular department heads, and fighting the tunnel despite promises he wouldn't do so, McGinn got off on a bad foot with many city employees, colleagues, and voters.
McGinn obviously learned a lot of lessons from those early missteps, backing off on his brasher promises and rolling out a number of successful initiatives, including a doubled Families and Education Levy, a successful proposal to accelerate planning for light rail to Ballard, and, of course, the arena agreement.
Over the year or so, McGinn does seem to have gotten his legs, rolling out smaller-scale initiatives, including a study of the economic impacts of the coal train proposal (which he opposes), new investments in Seattle business districts as part of his Seattle Jobs Plan, a gun buyback program, and a modest expansion of broadband on Seattle's unused "dark fiber."
At the same time, though, he got mired in the middle of the debate over whether the Seattle Police Department is racially biased and whether their use-of-force policies are adequate, and fought against the city's selection of an independent monitor to suggest changes at SPD. That battle continued this week, as McGinn feuded with city attorney Pete Holmes over who has jurisdiction over the implementation of recommendations by the city's outside police monitor, Merrick Bobb.
We sat down with McGinn a couple of weeks ago at PubliCola's offices for a long, and sometimes testy, interview, which we've excerpted in two previous posts focusing on the arena and the DOJ investigation. Here's Part 1. (We'll publish Part 2 later today.)
PubliCola: Let's start with SPD. When we talk to people, one criticism we hear of Mayor McGinn is his handling of the SPD stuff—from the DOJ agreement [between the city and the Department of Justice] down to the monitor. The sense was, there was resistance from you—that you obstructed the appointment of the monitor, that you took the SPD’s side. What was behind your resistance to the DOJ's recommendation, particularly after such a lopsided [8-1] council vote to appoint Merrick Bobb?
McGinn: Look, here’s the deal. There were four candidates brought to us. Three came out of the internal interview process, and one was moved forward by DOJ. That was Merrick Bobb.
I don’t know how much I want to talk about this, but everybody else seems to talk about everything. I did have an internal conversation with the council members around the table talking about the pros and cons of various candidates, and what happened was somebody in that room, in what presumably was an attorney-client privileged conversation, somebody went out and spun up the story that I was against the monitor.
Three of the four candidates were perfectly acceptable to me. The fourth one [Merrick Bob] I had concerns about because one of his board members at PARC had written the report, and so there were questions about could he be a skeptic or was there a conflict of interest-type situation. ...
My objective in the monitor selection was to find a place where we’re all together. We had heard concerns raised, and I had raised those concerns internally. There’s a narrative, I know, that’s out there, but look at what we’ve actually done and I think that answers the question of how we work well with people.
PubliCola: That brings up a more general question—
McGinn: Frankly, it’s an election year and certain council members came out there and said, are you pro-reform or anti-reform, and that story stuck because you’re reporting it to me. And all I wanted to do was work at bringing people together around effective change. ...
So I said, let's find somebody everybody can agree on. But again, it’s an election year and what we’ve seen repeatedly is that council members are prepared to play politics with public safety, and they saw their opportunity and they jumped on this one too.
PubliCola: Only two council members [Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell] are running against you. Are you suggesting that everyone else who voted for Bobb just went along for political reasons?
McGinn: I believe the third person in that group, Sally Clark, had not yet ruled out a run at the time. That’s where they wanted to go, so, you know, when they won that vote we went with it and we’re proceeding with the monitor.
PubliCola: You are perceived, much like your predecessor Greg Nickels, as having a prickly relationship with the city council. How do you respond to that? Is that a fair perception?
McGinn: What I look at is what we’ve accomplished. We have balanced the budget each year and our budget has substantially been adopted. We’ve actually increased the Rainy Day Fund to almost pre-recession levels, which took a policy change. We have sick leave and rental housing inspection legislation. We have a Transit Master Plan. We finally got the seawall to the ballot. There’s a whole host of accomplishments. We have a DOJ agreement, which the council praised at the time. We’ve got a Families and Education levy that was doubled.
If you want to do the Nickels comparison, Nickels didn’t increase the Families and Education levy with that council. We doubled it with this council. So there’s a narrative, I know, that’s out there, but look at what we’ve actually done and I think that answers the question of how we work well with people.
PubliCola: There are a couple of examples where you've been criticized for not working with the council—there was the whole debate over the EIS letter with Richard Conlin [McGinn accused Conlin of violating the city charter by signing off on an agreement with the state moving the tunnel forward].
And we thought you guys were going to come to blows over the seawall. You gave that example as one of your successes, but it took you almost three years after you wanted to get it on the ballot before you actually did, in part because you pissed off the council in the way that you announced it.
McGinn: When does a good idea become a bad idea? I proposed a 30-year bond measure. I spoke to [then-council president] Richard Conlin before I sent it down. Some council members, you’re correct, took offense that I didn’t consult with them first. I sat at the council table and said, 'I’m sorry, I want to work with you on it.' But apparently, my apology wasn’t good enough either.
So the question you really have to raise is, why did it take them so long to approve, substantially, what I sent down? Did I apologize the wrong way too? Seriously—isn’t it the job of elected officials to focus on the issues and work hard on them and not let personalities get in the way of the public good? That’s always been my objective, and I’ve focused on working with all the council members.
If you look at the work we did—we sent down a seawall proposal that they ultimately adopted; we sent down a Transit Master Plan that they delayed several times, but that they ultimately adopted, so who’s pulling teeth? Who was the partner that wasn’t helping?
Let’s take a look at a number of other factors. We, [King County Executive] Dow Constantine and I, have found a way. Nickels and [former King County executive Ron] Sims didn’t take care of [replacing] the South Park Bridge. Dow led on that, but we were there to help. We made a deal on the county jail. We have an agreement on the arena to bring back the Sonics. We got a [Memorandum of Agreement] on Third Avenue [safety and transportation], how we coordinate between Metro, SPD, the King County sheriff and the Downtown Seattle Association that Nickels and Sims could never get done. We’re partnering on gun buyback. We just put together a proposal with mayors across the state about what a local transit funding options package should look like.
So there’s a narrative that’s being driven, but it’s a narrative that’s being driven because there are indeed policy differences, but I’ve never raised personality in this. Come on! There’s political gain to be made from the narrative.
PubliCola: One of your biggest complaints during the campaign was, they sent us this tunnel deal and you wanted to consider it more closely. But another thing you hear about you is that you present deals as done deals, the arena being one, and then if you look at the good things people now say about the arena deal—that came from the council.
McGinn: We put together a deal which had unprecedented guarantees and securities. We put together a deal that’s unprecedented in terms of the level of private involvement for an arena deal nationwide, and of course when you put something together you send it down to council. And we invited the city council in at a certain point to consult and work with us before we sent it down. And of course, the council takes public testimony and works to improve it—that’s their job, just like it’s my job to submit it—and the fact of the matter is we got it done, so there you are.You know, I know how the process works. We submitted the seawall. We wanted to work with them; they said we need to do certain things first. So we sat down and worked with them.
PubliCola: But it does seem like there’s a difference between the way the council worked with Nickels, and that was not always well, and their critiques of working with you—that you present things as a done deal after working for them behind closed doors
McGinn: Of course it’s not a done deal, because it’s submitted to council for public hearings and consideration. So we do present things to the council; they deliberate and make changes. The same is true of the budget. We work internally to develop a proposal and we send it down. We worked with Richard Conlin on regulatory reform. We worked with Nick Licata on paid sick leave. We worked with Sally Clark on rental housing regulation.
PubliCola: What have you worked with [city attorney] Pete Holmes on? Because it seems like you have an odd—
McGinn: So you see the point. There’s lots of legislation that we’ve [the mayor's office] developed jointly. We [the mayor's office] worked with Conlin on development of the Transit Master Plan. We worked with Tim Burgess on the Families and Education Levy. We worked with Jean Godden on changing the policies on our rainy day fund so that we’re rebuilding it now instead of letting it decline.
I think you’ll also see that in this administration—unlike the prior administration, which put a hard barrier between them speaking to department heads—we have always made staff and department heads available to them on a direct basis, so that we can work with them.
So again, I think you have to look at where the story’s coming from and what’s the motivation. With every new mayor, there’s a territoriality dispute. But if you look at our record of passing legislation, balancing the budget, working on new programs—we worked with Bruce Harrell on broadband legislation and the development and passage of the City Light strategic plan.
PubliCola: What do you think of Bruce Harrell's proposal to allow cities to pass their own gun laws?
McGinn: I think it’s important for the city of Seattle and even more broadly, it's really important for those who advocate for more sensible gun regulations, to work in coalition at a statewide level. Whether or not that leasds to a ballot measure—that’s something that has to come from the advocacy community. First, it’s not necessarily the job of Seattle or our elected leaders to try to lead a statewide debate on that. I came charging in trying to change everything at once, and there are limits to how quickly you can change things.
PubliCola: So you said you think you work well with the council. Is there any place where you—
McGinn: And look where our economy is going. We’re going jobs at a faster rate.
PubliCola: Wait, Erica was in the middle of a question, Mike. What was that?
McGinn: Go ahead.
PubliCola: Well, maybe I should skip to my question about how you don't listen. I’m just curious: Is there anything you regret or mistakes you’ve made that you feel like you’ve learned from?
McGinn: I came charging in trying to change everything at once, and there are limits to how quickly you can change things. I think that the proposal to reduce 200 strategic advisors was ill-conceived, and in fact, we pulled back on that.
PubliCola: Do you regret making such a big issue of the tunnel?
McGinn: We raised the policy question of who’s going to pay the cost overruns. What about the transit money? What about the Port’s contributions? Can we get those things resolved before we proceed? And the pundits, you guys, can decide whether or not that was good or bad for me politically. I do think it was appropriate to raise the policy questions and try to get them resolved.
From a political and tactical standpoint, did I raise the issues in the right way? You can try to work through that a bunch of different ways, but was it important to raise those issues before deciding to proceed? I do think it was appropriate to raise them. And we put it to a vote of the people, which I think was appropriate for something of that magnitude. From a policy standpoint, I think that was the right thing to do. The public deserved to have a say in that decision.
PubliCola: Let's go back to Pete Holmes—when you guys were both elected back in 2009, we were super excited about Mike McGinn and Pete Holmes, and it struck us that here are two real change agents and political allies. And then I was disappointed that the two of you weren't teammates. You butted heads over the tunnel, for example. What is your relationship like now?
McGinn: He's a separately elected city official who has his own policy ideas about what the best ways to proceed are. As the chief executive, I can use legal advice sometimes. And sometimes Pete doesn’t agree with the policy direction that we’re going, so we just have to navigate that. For example, on the tunnel, he took the position that the public wasn’t entitled to have a vote on it. We’ve worked together on certain things, but on that one we disagreed.
PubliCola: What have you and Pete worked together on?
McGinn: We’ve been working together on the development of how do we regulate marijuana locally. We also worked closely with the law department on what used to be called the joint enforcement team—now it’s the code compliance team, which reflects our different approach to how we work with nightclubs.