SEATTLE CITY COUNCILMEMBER Tom Rasmussen isn’t usually one to use sports metaphors or sharp words. So it was doubly shocking when, at a council committee meeting in late September, he ripped into Mayor Mike McGinn for trying to redo a deal with the Museum of History and Industry that his own parks director had signed after years of negotiations. The city had agreed to give MOHAI several million dollars from the sale of the city parkland on which the museum sits. McGinn argued that circumstances had changed: MOHAI had scored a windfall by selling its old quarters to the state, and the city’s finances had cratered.
A deal’s a deal, Rasmussen declared: “Nobody is going to want to do business with the city if every time an administration changes its mind it’s back to square one.” Worse, he saw “a pattern occurring in this administration that I think is very divisive…pitting the haves against the have-nots”—the haves who cherish cultural institutions like MOHAI, and the have-nots who depend on the city for vital services, services that McGinn has repeatedly warned are at risk if the city throws its money around.
“This is Strike Two,” Rasmussen warned. “And this is a strategy that’s not going to work as far as I’m concerned, and I hope as far as the rest of the council is concerned!” A momentary silence fell, and then councilmember Bruce Harrell cheered: “Tom Rasmussen is in the house!”
The audience burst into applause.
Everyone knew what Strike One was: McGinn’s refusal to get with the program on another consensus item, the deep-bore tunnel to replace the perilous Alaskan Way Viaduct. Last year candidate McGinn urged doing away with the waterfront highway altogether. Then, just before the election, the council headed him off by approving the tunnel. He announced he wouldn’t try to block a done deal, which reassured enough voters to let him squeak through the election.
McGinn, who didn’t have time to be interviewed for this article, has nominally kept that promise. But he’s ardently opposed the legislature’s requirement that property owners benefiting from the tunnel be on the hook for the all-but-inevitable cost overruns—an extraordinary provision that may not prove enforceable anyway. “Maybe it’s genius,” says councilmember Sally Clark, “that the mayor has been able to find this very precarious ground he’s standing on: ‘I’m just watching out for the interests of the city, I won’t stand in the way of the tunnel.’ ”
This qualified semiopposition, together with McGinn’s bid to redo the MOHAI deal, is what makes critics inside and outside the council complain that he can’t be trusted, and that he’s an advocate who doesn’t know when to quit rather than a politician who gets results—“a true believer,” as Clark says. Colleagues from McGinn’s premayoral days, when he led the Cascade Sierra Club and his own nonprofit Great City, likewise describe him as “tenacious” and “persistent.” They say he’s also a savvy strategist, yet deceptively straightforward about his goals. “McGinn’s strength and weakness is his pure focus,” says one former colleague, Brady Montz, who chairs the Cascade Sierra Club’s Seattle chapter. “When he’s thinking about the tunnel, he’s thinking about the tunnel.” No ulterior motives.
“He can be stubborn, but he’s no diehard,” says environmental attorney Rod Brown, the president of the Washington Environmental Council. When it comes to setting legislative priorities, he says, “I have seen him compromise many times. But because he’s an optimist about social change, he’ll continue to fight longer than some of us would.”
McGinn’s optimism and stubbornness came to the fore in 2007, in a showdown foreshadowing the subsequent tunnel battle. Brown and the WEC signed onto the something-for-everyone Roads and Transit initiative, agreeing to support more highway funding in return for transit funding. McGinn and the Sierra Club opposed this supposed done deal and held out for a transit-only measure. At first they were dismissed as utopian. In the end they were vindicated: Roads and Transit went down at the polls. A transit-only package passed the next year. And candidate McGinn continued fighting the same fight, for more transit and no new highways—this time over the tunnel.
Seattle’s charter establishes a strong council and a strong mayor. Let the games begin.
McGinn, who grew up in New York, may simply be more accepting of disagreement than the Seattle ethos usually allows. City councilmember Mike O’Brien, a fellow Sierra Club veteran and tunnel opponent who was elected to the city council last year, recalls one meeting of the club’s state political committee, which McGinn chaired: “We were at the Elysian Brewery, arguing over some political endorsement.” McGinn was the lone holdout. “We were all willing to keep arguing about it, but he finally said, ‘I’m clearly outnumbered, why don’t you just take a vote and outvote me?’ ”
Conflicts between mayors and city councils are a staple of the local political scene. Eight years ago, Mayor Greg Nickels and his forceful deputy, Tim Ceis, clamped down hard on both city staff and the council, sparking resentments that burned till Nickels was voted out last year.
Some conflict is built into Seattle’s charter. In many Eastern cities, councilmembers are elected by district rather than at large; they tend to have small bases and parochial agendas, enabling strong mayors to divide and rule. In Portland the mayor has weak powers and councilmembers strong ones. In Tacoma, Bellevue, and other Washington cities, the mayor is in effect an extra councilmember with figurehead duties, and a city manager runs the shop.
Seattle, by contrast, has both a strong council, elected at large, and a strong mayor with broad executive powers. Let the games begin.
Several factors now pique that inherent conflict. After years of feeling oppressed by the Nickels regime, when McGinn came into office the council rose up like Spain after Franco. “We’re not trying to take over,” insists council president Richard Conlin, though the fact that he says so suggests how widespread the perception is that they are. “But we are an assertive council. We’re very clear about what we’re doing.” All the more so because the current council is a relatively collegial, cohesive group; many members regularly go for beers together. Even McGinn’s old ally O’Brien has been at pains to show he’s not the mayor’s man; after initially abstaining, he voted with the rest to override McGinn on MOHAI.
At the same time Team McGinn’s shakedown year has been relatively chaotic, with much high-profile turnover. That’s left more space for the council to assert itself, and also left members sometimes frustrated over whom to talk to in the administration. Under Nickels, says Rasmussen, “you always knew who to go to”: Tim Ceis.
The painful budget cutting that the city underwent in November has further raised the tensions. Conlin thinks McGinn exaggerated the budget woes, as mayoral regimes routinely do: “It’s a great way to deflect resistance, to say, ‘Look how much we have to cut!’ In fact, this isn’t much more difficult than what we saved in 2002–03,” following the last recession. But the recent cuts come on top of others made then and not restored; libraries whose open hours were trimmed under Nickels may not lose more hours, but they’re losing their librarians.
Some community centers fared worse. The mayor proposed drastically reducing hours at five, all in prosperous, largely white neighborhoods—on grounds those centers offered fewer services than others and were close to others that could pick up the slack. At the same time, McGinn, who has been more attentive to the less-privileged South End than perhaps any of his predecessors, urged boosting funding for youth activities there.
That prompted councilmember Tim Burgess to suggest that McGinn was fomenting interneighborhood class war. At a Queen Anne Community Council meeting as queenanneview.com reported it, Burgess declared, “You can see a pattern here of public policy decisions that the mayor has been making that, I’m not going to question his motives, but they are dividing our city.”
A furor rose—one commenter compared Burgess’s remarks to “Glenn Beck race baiting”—and Burgess quickly recanted. He stipulates that Seattle is already divided in terms of resources: “It’s like Charles Dickens’s two cities. There’s terrible inequity, in public safety, streets, sidewalks, parks.” The challenge, he says, is to “acknowledge this and then say, ‘We need to work together.’ ”
That could be a mantra for the council and the mayor as well. After his ill-considered words, Burgess called McGinn to apologize. “He asked to meet in person. We got coffee at the corner on Fourth. He was very gracious about the whole thing.”
Let the mending begin.