PubliQ&A: Mike McGinn

By Erica C. Barnett August 2, 2009

In anticipation of our endorsements in the Seattle mayoral races (as well as city council, King County Executive and Council, Seattle Port Commission, and Seattle school board races) which we will publish on Monday, we’re running a special series of Q&As this weekend with the four major candidates for Seattle mayor.

Questions and answers are excerpted from our endorsement interviews with the candidates.

Yesterday we heard from Jan Drago and Joe Mallahan .


Up third: Mike McGinn, the former head of the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the founder of Great City, an urbanist environmental group. McGinn's main issue is his opposition to the proposed $4.2 billion waterfront tunnel, which all the other candidates in the race support.

PubliCola : You have a bit of a reputation as a "no" guy: You opposed the 2007 roads and transit ballot measure, you ran the "no and hell no" campaign against the viaduct replacement measure earlier that year, and your primary issue now is that you don't want a tunnel on our downtown waterfront. As mayor, you won't be in a position to organize against things the same way as you have as an outsider. What makes you think you can get more done on the inside than you have on the outside? And have you fought for anythingv?

Mike McGinn : I think I've gotten a lot done with very few resoures from outside, so imagine what I could do with the resources of the mayor's office.

If the mayor had made the right decision in the first place, we wouldn't have had to organize the campaign [against the tunnel in 2007]. We knew it we going our way when King County Executive Ron Sims went from ambiguous to opposed on the "No and Hell No" campaign. When Ron Sims came out and said there are 48 little things you can do to replace the viaduct [without building a new viaduct or digging a tunnel], he had a tremendous impact. You can have a huge influence as an elected official.

I served on two committees that worked on [the 2006 transportation funding measure] Bridging the Gap. I helped shape that package so that it included [funding for bike and pedestrian projects].

The [successful 2008] parks levy campaign was a "yes" campaign.

I served on the state stakeholder committee to talk about how we reduce greenhosue gases from transportation. I worked to help create the Cool Cities initiative.

PubliCola : You talk a lot about boosting transit service and fixing Metro. But Metro's a county agency. What can you do, as mayor of Seattle, to impact our region's transit system?

McGinn : With the [proposed changes ] at Metro, they're just trying to mitigate the cuts, when we could be investing in new transit [in Seattle]. There's a huge amount of potential local funding. Parking tax revenue is completely flexible. Parking meter revenue goes straight to the general fund. It can be used for anything. You could use a [Local Improvement District, or special tax on property owners in the area that benefits from extra transit] to fund a host of things. We could have a local transportation benefits district to fund transit. We could get money from the legislature.

Beyond funding, how streets are used is the responsibility of [the Seattle Department of Transportation]. Where bike lanes are, where parking is, where bus stops are—all of that is the responsibility of SDOT. We would have to couple that with a push for funding—if you're going to have bus lanes, they need to have buses in them. I would push to use our street grid more efficiently.

We tend to think about transit as the cost to the government of providing the system, but we don't think about the cost to the users. People who live in walkable, transit-oriented communities spend 8 percent of their incomes on transportation. People who don't live in walkable, transit-oriented communities spend 25 percent of their incomes on transportation. The economic implications are obvious.

PubliCola : A lot of the other candidates for mayor criticize Nickels on style—they say he's a bully. But you strike us as having a similar, "Mike's way or the highway" style yourself.

McGinn : Look at the way I've engaged the political arena. I'm very clear on where I stand, but I find out where the shared agenda is.  There's a reason I'm asked again and again to serve on city advisory groups. It's because I bring a perspective and a willingness to work with people to find solutions. [But] I do have the capacity to stand up and say, "No, this is a bad idea." I was a lawyer for years and I did trials and I settled 98 percent of the cases I worked on. But by God, if you can't reach an agreement, you take it to the judge.

Look at the way the other candidates are conducting themselves in this race. I hear everyone calling Nickels a bully. My reaction is, if you don't like what somebody's doing, don't call them names. Organize. Change it. Never in this campaign have I gone there. Never in this campaign. Nor will I, because it's not about personalities, it's about objectives.

PubliCola : At the CityClub forum a couple of weeks ago, you refused to answer a question about whether you'd fire SDOT director Grace Crunican. Why wouldn't you answer, and how is that not an appropriate question given that that's a decision you'll have to make if you're elected?

McGinn : When I came into this race, I didn't want to talk about department heads at all. I don't think it's fair to make public employees into political issues. I thought the question of, Should she be fired now by Greg? was really inappropriate. A mayor gets to choose his or her team and I would not keep Grace, but that's different than asking if the mayor should fire her now.

I think we're in an era for transportation—with oil prices predicted to rise dramatically, with concerns about global warming, with concerns about using our resources wisely—you have to think about, How do we make a very significant transition to a cleaner, more efficient system?  I think Seattle can be a model for that. So I would take that [transportation] appointment very seriously.

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