Day of the Un-Mayor

McGinn gets flak for not resembling past mayors, but his vision for Seattle is firmly fixed on the future.

By Eric Scigliano April 21, 2010 Published in the May 2010 issue of Seattle Met

ON MARCH 24, nearly three months into Mike McGinn’s mayoral administration, his harshest critic, Seattle Times political columnist Joni Balter, delivered her bluntest critique so far: McGinn’s first quarter in office “stunk.” He was “perhaps the most immature politician I have ever encountered,” a “stumblebum” who didn’t “read the manual” or “play well with others,” a dismal dud after that statesman Greg Nickels. To right his foundering regime, McGinn should do what Nickels did: Can the big vision and fix some potholes. Otherwise he faced political oblivion as Seattle’s “un-mayor.”

The next day, McGinn showed he was neither cowed by Balter’s scorn nor persuaded by her prescription. At an executive meeting of the Puget Sound Regional Council—our local UN—he introduced himself as “the un-mayor.” Then he cast one of just two votes against Transportation 2040, a long-range, long-in-the-making regional plan. His reason: It included “billions and billions of dollars of unfunded projects that will contribute to sprawl [and] global warming, that don’t support good land use patterns, and that don’t provide affordable transit to those who need transit the most.”

McGinn’s vote seemed to confirm the rap that he stubbornly rejects compromises struck before he came into office. Cases in point: He’s challenged the state’s requirement that the city pay any (inevitable) cost overruns for the waterfront tunnel that would replace the viaduct—a project he opposed outright till the city council endorsed it. And he insists that a new 520 bridge be redesigned to accommodate light rail. “You only have one chance to get it right,” he says. Too late, say the state and the city council. Impossible. “What elected officials are supposed to do,” replies McGinn, is “figure out how to make things possible.”

That may sound like making the perfect the enemy of the good. But McGinn has a funny way of turning the perfect into the possible. In 2007, he and the Sierra Club opposed a megabillion-dollar roads-and-transit initiative backed by nearly every local elected official and environmental group. Organizing below the radar, they killed the plan. The next year they helped get a transit-only initiative passed. “McGinn was a huge reason why,” says Brady Montz, who chairs the Cascade Sierra Club’s Seattle group, who worked with him on that campaign and others. Rather than settling for an easy victory, he kept everyone’s eyes on the long-term goal of improving transit.

McGinn’s opponents misunderestimated him again during last year’s mayoral campaign. Again he ran below the radar, via online and old-fashioned social networking, enlisting young volunteers rather than the usual donors and endorsers; the Cascade Bicycle Club rather than the Alki Foundation; swooning Stranger writers rather than grumpy Times pundits.

They may be underestimating him yet again. They dismiss him as a one-issue ideologue: “I call him Mad Mike the Messiah,” says one City Hall insider. “All he cares about is global warming.” But McGinn waxes just as passionately about redressing inequities in city services to neighborhoods such as Bitter Lake and the Rainier Valley—and even more passionately about his Youth and Families Initiative.

McGinn has given his critics plenty of early fumbles to chew over. Facing a budget chasm, he promised to fire 200 high-level city employees, then backtracked when howls rose and morale plummeted. A close adviser resigned after getting caught claiming a nonexistent PhD. He transferred (or, as others saw it, demoted) a revered longtime budget director, who then quit to take the top county budget post. He announced without informing, let alone enlisting, council members, who were on a retreat, that he’d speed the $240 million replacement of the crumbling waterfront seawall.

“The longer he takes to get his act together, the stronger the council becomes,” notes ex–city council, now county council member Jan Drago, who fell far short in her own mayoral bid last year. “As long as [a veto-proof] seven of them stick together, they can run the city.” Detractors also carp at what Balter calls McGinn’s “idiosyncrasies”—his casual style (Ad-libbing his State of the City speech! Addressing Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer as “Steve”!), rumpled look (lately somewhat tidied up), and zest for bicycling.

The McGinn bashers forget that Greg Nickels didn’t start out so smoothly or gently either. Nickels fired a revered neighborhoods director who was much more in the public eye than some backstage bean counter. He riled Northgate neighbors by pushing ahead a controversial development plan. And he restricted council members’ access to city staff, ordering that all inquiries go through his office. That angered them more than McGinn’s seawall surprise.

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Indeed, some council members appreciate his regime’s relative openness. Council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen said he’d been meeting monthly with the mayor, and “monthly is a lot more time than we got with Nickels. Even though we disagree on the tunnel and 520, I’d say we’re working well on other things.” Finance chair Jean Godden thinks Beth Goldberg, McGinn’s “smart, energetic” new budget director, “probably will work well with the council.”

McGinn’s troubles in his first quarter recall the flak Barack Obama took in his first year as president. But, like Obama, he continues to inspire his followers, especially younger ones. Both are outsiders who’ve confounded the pros and aspired to transformational roles. And their campaigns have the same organizational DNA. In 2005, Marshall Ganz, a farmworkers’ organizer–turned–Harvard lecturer, conducted leadership workshops with the Cascade Sierra Club and three other chapters, emphasizing the importance of social relationships among movement members. Ganz used the techniques developed there to train the ground campaign that put Obama over. Many of those Ganz trained went on to campaign for McGinn—with similar results.

Pundits love comparing McGinn to other local politicians, from 1970s mayors Wes Uhlman and Charley Royer to current council member Nick Licata. McGinn is unimpressed. “Parallels are nice,” he shrugs, “but there’s something else going on, and I don’t think they’ve quite got it yet.”

That something is partly generational, and McGinn—who’s 50, has three young children, and goes to Blue Scholars concerts—talks generational politics like a ’60s campus organizer: “There is, particularly among the younger generation, a very deep concern that we’re not on a sustainable environmental path. I think there’s more acceptance of diversity and tolerance towards others, not just as an abstract thing…. The younger generation has a different vision of what Seattle is going to be that doesn’t fit into prior generations’ expectations.”

As long as he shares that vision, young McGinnites don’t mind a few rookie blunders. They were key to McGinn’s victory last year, and they’re still his base; a March Publicola poll found that 57 percent of voters under 35 approved of him and just 17 percent disapproved. Only 24 percent of those 45 to 59 approved.

Seattle’s demographics favor McGinn: In the 2000 census, 25-to-34-year-olds outnumbered the peak 55-to-64 boomer cohort nearly three to one. Nearly a third of city residents were 20 to 34.

McGinn’s notorious informality is one reason he connects with ordinary folks, especially young folks, in ways his starchier predecessors Nickels and Paul Schell never could. When we met in early April, an aide stepped in to say his next guests were here: a dozen immigrant student journalists from Horn of Africa Services. McGinn was plainly delighted to receive this delegation: “This is the best part of the job!”

“How you doing, man? Good to meet you,” he said, shaking a young hand. Everyone was at ease. “What opportunities does the City of Seattle have for young people?” one student journalist asked. McGinn recounted how his Youth and Families Initiative had held five town hall meetings and nearly 100 caucuses seeking ways to address just that question. Next week it would convene a youth “summit.”

“I’d like to hear from you guys,” he said. “That’s why you should come to the town halls. In fact, I invite you to organize a caucus!” Ever the organizer, he didn’t miss a chance to recruit.

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