Election 2013

Mayoral Candidate Tim Burgess: On the DOJ Agreement, Density, Education, and More

City council member and mayoral candidate Tim Burgess on the city's police-accountability agreement, education, density, and more.

By Erica C. Barnett December 11, 2012


City Council member Tim Burgess, who announced his plan to run for mayor last month, had an inauspicious campaign debut.

First, after apparently promising an "exclusive" announcement of his long-rumored candidacy to the Stranger, Burgess responded to numerous media questions about his plans to run, angering the alt-weekly. Then, Burgess included an estimated debt of $1,000 to consultant Christian Sinderman for November, even though Sinderman said he had not yet agreed to work for Burgess. 

But never mind all that: Burgess, who has reported raising just shy of $16,000 in his first four days of campaigning (including $5,000 of his own money), remains a formidable candidate in a race that could include several other tough contenders, among them former King County executive Ron Sims, state senator Ed Murray (D-43), and former city council member Peter Steinbrueck. 

On the ideological spectrum, Burgess insists he's a born-again liberal—a former Republican who did consulting work for the homophobic, anti-choice group Concerned Women for America but who has since seen the light and now toes the Democratic Party line.

However, he may have trouble shaking off his conservative image—he sponsored unpopular legislation (vetoed by McGinn) that would have banned so-called aggressive panhandling; he's an ex-cop; and he's supported "broken windows"-style law-and-order legislation such as cracking down on graffiti and a focus on known "hot spots" where crime is rampant. 

On the flip side, Burgess has supported gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and efforts to protect prostituted children, among other liberal causes.

We sat down with Burgess at the 40th-floor Starbucks in the Columbia Tower last week (where, coincidentally, McGinn happened to walk by in the middle of our interview) to talk about his image, his campaign, and his plans if he's elected in November.

PubliCola: Mayor McGinn has had some trouble working out an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform the police department and ensure that officers aren't using excessive force. What would you have done differently? 

Tim Burgess: I think we have very different philosophies of policing, including police reform, and that has played out over the last year since the Department of Justice report came out. My colleagues and myself have been very disappointed in the management of the process. I was an advocate, along with my colleagues, that we enter into collaboration with the DOJ to reach an agreement very early, by February or March. That didn’t happen until the summer. 

PubliCola: To what do you attribute that? Why do you think McGinn didn't get an agreement earlier?

Burgess: I think it’s because he's a litigator by training, and I think he was hesitant to move first. And [council member] Bruce [Harrell] and [council member Sally Clark and I were wanting to be proactive with the DOJ and sit down and collaborate with them. This was back when we withdrew from the process with the mayor because we were making no progress at all.

One very specific difference was when the mayor sided with police union and police chief on the selection of the [DOJ] monitor. ... We were pushing hard for the best monitor. We had to go to a public fight over that.

PubliCola: Besides accountability, how else does your policing philosophy differ from the mayor's? 

Burgess: We have not fully embraced and created a culture of inquiry in the police department. We have not embraced widespread innovation. We have not brought the science of policing to Seattle to the extent that we could. We need sweeping reform—shifting from the tradition of American policing from the policing of people to the policing of place. The evidence and science behind policing places is indisputable, yet American policing is focused on responding to crime as opposed to preventing it.

PubliCola: Ed Murray has said that one of the first steps he'll take if he's elected is to ask for all city department heads to offer their resignations. Would you do the same? And specifically, would you move to replace police chief John Diaz?

Burgess: I think it's pretty common that when the mayor changes, the department heads offer to go or stay, because the mayor gets to choose his own department heads. I think that will happen no matter who is elected mayor. The police chief is the single most important appointment the mayor makes. "There’s no doubt that I’ve gone from Republican to Democrat, from social conservative to social liberal. You can go back over my life and see that arc. I think I overcome [the impression that I'm conservative] by just being who I am."

PubliCola: Rightly or wrongly, you're considered a conservative by Seattle standards. You worked for Concerned Women for America, you reportedly voted for George W. Bush [this is something Burgess won't confirm], and you've sponsored legislation that your more liberal council colleagues have opposed, like the anti-panhandling bill. Is that a fair critique, and if not, what would you say to dispel it? 

Burgess: I think Seattle will elect the person that they think will be the best mayor. ... There’s no doubt that I’ve gone from Republican to Democrat, from social conservative to social liberal. You can go back over my life and see that arc. 

I think I overcome that [impression] by just being who I am. I think I fit very well with Seattle. I had all the environmental groups endorse me. I was testifying in Olympia on marijuana before this [marijuana-legalization] initiative ever showed up. I was going to retirement homes and arguing for gay marriage.

PubliCola: What about the aggressive-panhandling proposal, which was vetoed by the mayor and ultimately opposed by a majority of your council colleagues? Do you regret proposing it? 

Burgess: I don’t regret it. It was a innovation that we tried. It didn’t work. It [initially] worked at the council, but not with the mayor. I’m not going to return to that. I think that was a valid attempt to solve a problem that we still have. Everyone wants safe streets. ... 

I’ve been advocating for a continuum of responses. Sometimes it’s police response. Many times, it’s diversion programs. I think it’s shameful that we don’t provide a level of drug and alcohol treatment programs that we obviously need.

PubliCola: Density is a perennial issue in Seattle, most recently in South Lake Union, where the mayor has proposed raising building heights to as much as 400 feet in exchange for incentives like affordable housing and childcare. Do you support the mayor's approach? 

Burgess: I’ve been absolutely consistent from day one on the council. I’m a huge advocate of density—concentrated density in urban villages, urban centers, and along major transit corridors. ... I have favored density in the right places, and I think that’s not trying to make people live in shoeboxes or throw away their car or whatever. I think that’s just strong urban planning and it makes for a better city.

I favor multimodal transportation, including bikes, but the whole way [McGinn has] gone about it has damaged that cause—the way he stressed the bike as opposed to all the transportation modes and he got people angry out in the neighborhoods.

PubliCola: You've focused a lot on education in your time in office; what can the mayor do to improve the public school system, given that the city doesn't control the schools? And did you support I-1240, the charter schools initiative? 

Burgess: I did not support charters. 

As for what the mayor can do: The mayor has a huge bully pulpit. ... [The school district] should reach out and invite the city to be [their] ethics enforcement arm. That was one way that I stepped in and helped make that happen. There’s a lot of places where a city official can help to guide public education in our city.

The Families and Education Levy is a great example. We put together a citizen panel that rewrote and redesigned the levy. ... People said we should retain it at the same level. I said, we need to double it. They agreed and voted unanimously [to double the size of the levy]. Then I took it to my colleagues. That was a little more difficult, but they voted for it unanimously. And the voters of our city voted for it too. 

PubliCola: Given that there seem to be some pretty significant revenue shortfalls on the downtown tunnel already, was McGinn right? Is Seattle on the hook for cost overruns? 

Burgess: We haven’t seen the cost overruns because we are not into all those expenses yet. We have a revenue issue, and we’ve got three years to figure that whole tolling thing out. Clearly, we have a challenge that we’ve got some time to figure out on the cost side. We’re not over on costs, and if there are cost overruns, the contractor has to pay. So let’s be careful about rushing to judgment. There aren't any cost overruns yet and let's hope there won't be.

PubliCola: Finally, who did you vote for in the 36th District state house race—Gael Tarleton or Noel Frame? 

Burgess: I don't disclose who I vote for. 

Subsequently, PubliCola contacted Burgess by text, pointing out that he told us how he voted on I-1240. His response: "I didn't tell you how I voted. I just told you what I thought." Touché.

Check out our interview with mayoral candidate Ed Murray here.

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