Seattle Mayor's Race 2013

A Cola Q&A with Peter Steinbrueck

PubliCola sits down with mayoral contender Peter Steinbreuck.

By Erica C. Barnett February 13, 2013


After five years out of the public spotlight, former city council member Peter Steinbrueck, who served from 1997 to 2007, is challenging Mayor Mike McGinn.

Unlike 2009, though—when Steinbrueck (whose father, Victor Steinbrueck, was a notable Seattle architect widely credited with saving Pike Place Market) would have been the highest-profile candidate in a race against then-mayor Greg Nickels, and when a "draft Peter" group formed to encourage him to run—Steinbrueck is now just one in a crowded field of strong candidates, including state Sen. Ed Murray (D–43), city council members Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, and, of course, incumbent McGinn. 

Steinbrueck has never been a shrinking violet, and he's come out swinging as a candidate for mayor, taking aim at McGinn's plans for South Lake Union, the arena (read the excerpt of our interview where Steinbrueck talks about that proposal here), and his relationship with the city council. 

Since his time in office, Steinbrueck has worked as a consultant for the Port of Seattle on the arena, an advocate against Vulcan's plans for taller buildings in South Lake Union, and a fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. He's also gone through some personal tumult: The father of two boys, one a young adult and the other just finishing high school, Steinbrueck got divorced last year. He sat down with PubliCola at his Pike Place Market office.

We've already run two excerpts from our extensive interview with Steinbrueck—a brief Q&A on his concerns about the arena deal and a discussion about regionalism.

Here's the rest of the hour-long sit down:

PubliCola: There are so many strong candidates running this year compared to 2009, when the two leading candidates were a guy who worked for T-Mobile (Joe Mallahan) and the head of the Sierra Club (now-Mayor Mike McGinn). You were on a lot of people's short lists to run in 2009. Did you think about it at the time, and do you regret not running then, when there were fewer serious contenders?  "I think it is really poor form to be calling for heads to roll in a very politicized manner. You don’t persecute people publicly for political and personal gain. I think it’s really abominable, frankly."

Peter Steinbrueck: I was never really intending to run in 2009, but maybe by not saying, "No, never, not ever," then people thought, maybe he will; maybe he just needs some encouragement.

But I had lots of issues to deal with back then, and I’ve dealt with many of them, so it wasn’t the time for me. Some people jump in and do it blindly. A lot of people do. I know too much to do that, you know, and I would only do it with forethought and intention, and fully considering family and personal relationships. And for me those [considerations] were great back then.

Perhaps I would have had a great shot at getting elected [in 2009]. A lot of people think so. There’s still a whiff of anger and irritation that I didn’t run the last time. People still tell me that to this day. But I didn’t, and I had my reasons for not running, and having had the incredible experience at Harvard, I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That was a life-changing experience.

You have to see the mayoral race of 2009 in context. It was only a short time after I left the council,  and I had made a commitment to myself and my family that I was going to go through a cleansing period and shake off all the stress and anxiety. I remember feeling physically and mentally like I was wound up like a tight clock and had been on a treadmill for 10 years.

You don’t really ever get used to four to six hours of sleep every night, and the anxiety and stress and tension. I only realized that after quite a few months, after I had recovered from that lifestyle. And not everybody’s that way, and it’s not like I internalize everything and I’m a high-stress person. I’m not. I have lots of ways to relax. But you just don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been there, about how much you get into a 24/7 lifestyle.

PubliCola: That doesn't sound very fun. Why would you want to do it again? 

Steinbrueck: I needed to take a break. I needed to try to experience other things. I needed to restore balance in my life. I needed to give my family more attention.

I have the experience now—I know what the job entails, and I know the lifestyle, and I know how hard it is to maintain personal balance with public life. My children are adult age and nearing adult age. They're doing well. They're great boys. I’m independent and single and I can make choices for myself about how I spend my time. I know that job [of mayor] requires a 24/7, round-the-clock commitment. So it’s all of those things. 

PubliCola: Are your kids helping out on your campaign?

SteinbrueckBen [the younger of Steinbrueck's two sons] has, in particular.

They're both very very different kids. Mason is socially conscious and concerned to an extreme about the world. He refuses to get a drivers license. He rides his bike everywhere like a maniac. It’s one of those crazy bikes that is completely stripped-down, with a fixed gear, and he put it together from scraps. Hopefully he’ll get some balance. He was a vegetarian for five years

Ben is the star athlete. Ben is very socially conscious, too; they both are. Let me give you a little example. When he was about four years old, I was at a political event, and he had gotten used to hearing me say, "Thank you all for coming." And at the end of the event, he ran up to the microphone and grabbed it and said, "I want to thank you all for coming."

He’s a basketball star. He’s a point guard on the Nathan Hale varsity basketball team. He’s been playing basketball since he was two. He wants the Sonics back; I want them back. We want to go to games, and he is my advisor on this topic.

PubliCola: You resigned from working for the Port—

Steinbrueck: And left a lot of my contract on the table in that resignation.

PubliCola: —and on South Lake Union. But you’re still working for the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on waterfront planning around the tunnel, which is obviously another huge public project that could come up as an issue in the mayor's race. What’s the difference?

Steinbrueck: My work with the Port was directly tied to a highly policitized issue. The WSDOT thing is an area of expertise that I have that has nothing to do with politics. I am their historic architect for the landmarked buildings over the tunnel project.

The work has nothing to do with potlitics or anything that’s controversial other than that it is the tunnel. But the tunnel’s going forward. We’re not debating whether the tunnel’s going to be built or not. We are debating what happens in South Lake Union and SoDo. 


PubliCola: You've said you like the latest version of James Corner's plan for the waterfront, parts of which you initially opposed. Do you think we can pay for it? 

Steinbrueck: I do have concerns about how it will be paid for. I think things need to be prioritized in terms of what’s completed first and what’s going to move us toward a really successful, exciting outcome, which is: Get the viaduct taken down; design a beautiful, multimodal boulevard, and open up the east-west connections that will improve the linkages to downtown

PubliCola: So the swimming pool isn’t your priority. 

Steinbrueck: Honestly, no. It’s hilarious. And this cloud thing – [Corner] has this big art installation that creates a fog effect down there, and I don’t understand why would we need more clouds. I don’t get it! So some of those things are things we can let go of. This is a master plan; it's not something that you do all at once. This is something that we should move forward on with some intentional outcomes that appear over time as we can afford to fund them.

PubliCola: Let's talk about South Lake Union and density. 

Steinbrueck: I’m so glad you asked that!

PubliCola: You fought to increase heights downtown in exchange for a lot of the same incentives Vulcan is proposing in South Lake Union, like affordable housing and child care. So frankly, we're a little confused about why you're opposing taller buildings there 

Steinbrueck: The downtown plan increased development capacity by more than 50 percent over what the zoning allowed prior to that. But if you go back and look at my approach, [the downtown plan] was conceived as a livability plan, inspired in part by Vancouver’s but tailored to Seattle, to address things like quality of life, streetscape, walkability, weather protection, family-friendly opportunities, range of housing types, architectural design, and urban design.

The only thing we did not include, because there was resistance to it, was open space, which always should go hand in hand with density. When you have two residential towers that are on the same block and 15 feet apart, you’re not enhancing livability, you’re decreasing it.

There’s this myth about density. If you’re simply pushing slavishly by higher density goals, it can backfire if it’s not done well. If it’s done well, on the other hand, people will embrace it."[Transit-oriented development] has not got a good track record, just like charter schools, around the country."

My dad was an urbanist, and I learned a lot about urbanism on my own over the years. It’s not simply a matter of, density is good, sprawl is bad. That is an oversimplistic way of looking at it. And also, density is a dumb word, because it has no value associated with it. It is simply a statistician's number of people per square mile. 

My feeling about the proposed rezone [in South Lake Union] is that it could be made better. When you’re planning these things, they’re going to be there for a long time. The policies, regulations, and provisions are here to stay with us for decades. We can’t reverse bad decisions, and if buildings go up that cast long shadows on the public realm, we can’t reverse that.

PubliCola: Some of your supporters, including Real Change director Tim Harris and the Seattle Displacement Coalition's John Fox, are very opposed to transit-oriented development—dense housing, retail, and entertainment opportunities centered around transit hubs. John shot down a TOD proposal before the legislature almost single-handedly back in 2009. Do you agree with them that TOD is bad for low-income people? 

Steinbrueck: It could be, if it’s not done right. TOD has not got a good track record, just like charter schools, around the country. I’m actually working on a TOD project as well in the U District, where I live. 

PubliCola: But you supported a plaza instead of a competing proposal to build housing at the Roosevelt light rail station. 

Steinbrueck: Open space needs to be part of the areas where you densify and are pushing more compact transit-supported communities. The myth about density is that you densify and you’ll get all these other things that we want with it, like walkability, diversity, and retail activity.

PubliCola: Where do you think TOD is working?  

Steinbrueck: The Capitol Hill [light rail] station has a pretty good framework. It is seen as a civic center, and I think the University District station could be seen as a civic center as well. 

If we think we’re going to somehow achieve a transit-friendly station area by zoning for an office tower over the top of it and having people come out little rabbit holes, like what is currently down in the Pioneer Square station—is that going to get the kind of outcome that we want? No, it’s not.

[The UW confirms that they have not yet decided whether they plan to build housing or an office building on top of the U District light-rail station. –Eds.] 

PubliCola: When you were on the city council, you called then-mayor Greg Nickels a bully who used "Gestapo-like tactics," and you've made a similar point about current Mayor McGinn. But isn’t it the mayor’s role to push for his or her agenda? Are you going to be the touchy-feely mayor? 

Steinbrueck: First of all, McGinn and Nickels are very different. Greg Nickels had far more experience in politics and government going into office, and there were some things he was very good at. His method broke down time and time again because it was a strong-arm approach that is not characteristic of, nor has it been very successful in, Seattle politics.

I felt at the time, under the Nickels administration, that the legislative function was not respected and that we, on the other hand, were expected to act at the mayor’s behest on the mayor’s agenda. And that is not how I see city government working successfully in Seattle. I think that model led to his demise. I don’t think it was just a snowstorm.

McGinn doesn’t have the experience, and he has not shown the ability to be collaborative nor listening. If there’s one complaint I hear all over the city, it’s that he doesn’t listen or he doesn’t give access to his office unless you happen to agree with his narrow agenda.

I would also bring more transparency and accountability to the office, which I feel is lacking. And by that I mean, I don’t support secret negotiations that go on for a year over a major public investment that are announced as a done deal, if you know what I’m referring to. [Hint: It's the arena–Eds.] That’s not the way I do things.

We can’t go on with this dysfunctional relationship between the council and the mayor. There should be back and forth, and that is not occurring. From everything I hear from council members, there is no working relationship. I don’t think we need that kind of polarization.

PubliCola: In the wake of a damning report from the Department of Justice and the appointment of a court-ordered outside monitor for SPD,  one of your opponents, Tim Burgess, has said he would fire Police Chief John Diaz. Would you? 

Steinbrueck: I think it is really poor form to be calling for heads to roll in a very politicized manner. I think it’s unfair to the individuals, and I will not do that. You don’t persecute people publicly for political and personal gain. I think it’s really abominable, frankly. But I do think leadership at the top needs to change and reforms are needed.

PubliCola: You were on the council when police accountability was a huge issue, and yet—despite the creation of the Office of Professional Accountability and various review boards to oversee that office—we're still talking about racial bias in policing, police brutality, and accountability. Did the reforms the council implemented when you were there work? 

Steinbrueck: Obviously, they haven't. [But] I think we are on a better track now, in terms of the settlement agreement, particularly the community component to that, which was resisted heavily by the current mayor.

The mayor is obviously the commander in chief [of the police], and the fact that we’ve had to get a surrogate in there speaks volumes about the elected leadership that has led us to this point, both on the council and in the mayor’s office. We knew about these problems a long time ago before the DOJ review. The failure of leadership is in part responsible, and some of it’s institutional, and institutional changes are called for. 

PubliCola: Can you give an example of institutional changes you'd support at SPD? 

Steinbrueck: Yeah, I sure could. One of the things the DOJ missed was the [police] academy. Where are police trained? Rookie cops, many of them coming out of military backgrounds, where do they get their training? Where are they indoctrinated into the culture of policing? At the state academy. Was there any examination of practices there? No.

When [former police chief Gil] Kerlikowske ran the Seattle Police Academy, we had the opportunity to cultivate professionalism in policing that was appropriate to Seattle and the challenges that officers face in Seattle. The [state] academy is statewide. Policing in a small town or a rural area is going to be very, very different than in a dense urban setting like Seattle. I think Seattle needs its own training academy. I think that would be a good way to address the cultural issues that are raised by use-of-force police tactics, and I think there’s a professionalism that should be cultivated.

I think the supervision issue is important, but you can’t just promote officers to sergeant if they’re not prepared and experienced enough to be sergeants. Just changing the numbers isn’t necessarily going to change the quality of supervision—there needs to be mentorship. I think some areas of the city need two-officer squad cars so that one isn’t acting alone and in a risky, dangerous situation waiting for backup. In the John T. Williams case, for example, if he had had a sergeant or mentor there this would not have happened.

I also believe fundamentally that we need more police officers, and we need to use them more effectively in terms of resource deployment and in a neighborhood and community fashion. What we have now is a 911 response system that drives most of the police resources. Nick [Licata] and I proposed the community policing initiative, which called for 50 new officers a year for 5 years. I want to bring that back.

PubliCola: In such a crowded field, you're going to have a tough time getting your message out, much less getting elected. What's Peter Steinbrueck's path to victory? 

Steinbrueck: If you look at the constitutencies of most of the other candidates, they’re pretty narrow. Mine is not. I don’t think that a lifetime of civic involvement, activism, and commitment to public life just simply vanishes because I’ve been out of office for five years.

So, that being said, can I regain the support? I had a pretty consistent and increasing level of support with each of my runs for office, so I did leave on a high note. I have been actively involved since I left the council in civic life. I’ve served on the Washington Environmental Council, as I still do, and as a board member of the Library Foundation to help the successful passage of the most recent library levy that now provides open libraries across the city on Sundays.  

Clearly, I have an environmental base, and I would challenge anyone to disprove that I have a better environmental record than any of the other candidates, including the incumbent. I have a base that is citywide, not exclusive to one rising neighborhood in the city. I have a great record with labor and particularly with the maritime-industrial base.

PubliCola: If you could wave a wand and get the endorsement of any one group or person, who would it be?

Steinbrueck: The Sierra Club! [The Sierra Club has endorsed McGinn–Eds.]. I would certainly be very proud and would value the environmental endorsement.

Here are our sit downs with mayoral candidtates: Bruce Harrell, Tim Burgess and Ed Murray. We also sat down with Mayor Mike McGinn. We will publish that full Q&A soon. Here are two excerpts—one on the arena deal and one on the SPD monitor.

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