Seattle Mayor's Race 2013

Cola Q&A with Mayor Mike McGinn, Pt. 2

PubliCola sits down with Mayor Mike McGinn, who's up for reelection this year.

By Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit March 6, 2013

When Mayor Mike McGinn first ran for election in 2009, the former Sierra Club leader, Great City founder, and light rail champion sold himself as a maverick—an outsider who would shake up a City Hall controlled by entrenched big-business interests and old ways of thinking.

Running on an urbanist, environmentalist agenda—McGinn's signature issue, of course, was opposition to the downtown deep-bore tunnel, although he was always careful to say that he wouldn't try to stop the project outright if elected—he was a new kind of candidate, a grassroots campaigner who pledged to "listen" to Seattle residents' concerns.

A hagiographic eight-page black-and-white campaign handout even loudly proclaimed, "MIKE LISTENS," and his inaugural speech stuck largely to that theme.

Ironically, early in his administration he gained a reputation for not being a very good listener. A series of early missteps marked him, fairly or not, as a mayor more interested in pushing his own agenda than seeking collaboration—a guy who hired up much of his young campaign staff, most of them enthusiastic but inexperienced in city government, to work on the 7th floor of City Hall.

After promising to fire 200 city workers based entirely on their job title of "strategic advisor," proposing a massive seawall bond ballot measure without consulting the city council (who were in retreat the day he announced it and couldn't be consulted in any case), firing several popular department heads, and fighting the tunnel despite promises he wouldn't do so, McGinn got off on a bad foot with many city employees, colleagues, and voters.

McGinn obviously learned a lot of lessons from those early missteps, backing off on his brasher promises and rolling out a number of successful initiatives, including a doubled Families and Education Levy, a successful proposal to accelerate planning for light rail to Ballard, and, of course, the arena agreement.

Over the year or so, McGinn does seem to have gotten his legs, rolling out smaller-scale initiatives, including a study of the economic impacts of the coal train proposal (which he opposes), new investments in Seattle business districts as part of his Seattle Jobs Plan, a gun buyback program, and a modest expansion of broadband on Seattle's unused "dark fiber."

At the same time, though, he got mired in the middle of the debate over whether the Seattle Police Department is racially biased and whether their use-of-force policies are adequate, and fought against the city's selection of an independent monitor to suggest changes at SPD. That battle continued this week, as McGinn feuded with city attorney Pete Holmes over who has jurisdiction over the implementation of recommendations by the city's outside police monitor, Merrick Bobb.

Despite some lackluster polling, and insider grumbling about McGinn, don't even think about writing his eulogy; McGinn is a formidable campaigner, and his commitment to environmental causes and urbanism is a strong sell in an increasingly green (and urbane) Seattle. 

We sat down with McGinn a couple of weeks ago at PubliCola's offices for a long, and sometimes testy, interview, which we've excerpted in two previous posts focusing on the arena and the DOJ investigation.

Here's Part Two. (We published Part One earlier today.)

And here are interviews with some of McGinn's mayoral opponents: Tim BurgessBruce Harrell, Ed Murray, and  Peter Steinbrueck.

PubliCola: One criticism we've heard about you—and not just from your political opponents—is that you don’t listen, and that you surround yourself with people who agree with you, who don’t challenge you.

McGinn: I think that if you sat around our table you'd find that we have very strong-willed individuals up on the 7th floor [of City Hall]. We invite discussion over issues—hell, I’ve done 108 town halls and walking tours. We go out there and we listen to the public. When I put together my budget, we invited ten people at a time from various groups to tell us what they thought we should do. With the Youth and Family Initiative, that was shaped by input we heard from the public on what’s important.

There are lots of folks out there who talk about how accessible this administration is to them, and I think that’s part of the difference. I really want to drill down on this right now. What you’re hearing from is council members and staff who want to be the drivers on legislation.

PubliCola: We're not talking about council members and staff.

McGinn: Well give me names and specific examples.

PubliCola: It's people who have worked in your administration and have left, people who have been active on your campaigns. And the criticism is: 'I got frustrated because Mike didn’t listen.'

McGinn: I hardly know what to say, because look at the issues we’re working on. These are issues the public says are important.

PubliCola: You’ve proposed a lot of city-led transportation initiatives, as opposed to regional initiatives like Sound Transit. Should Seattle be trying to go it alone more so we can get stuff done faster?

"Sound Transit will need to accelerate their planning, and that’s something I’ve been advocating on and working on as a member of the [Sound Transit] board."

McGinn: I think you’re creating an either/or that doesn’t speak to the situation we face right now. Where we are right now is that at the current course and speed, there’s no Sound Transit 3 until 2024, and when there are new dollars available, those will be about 1/5 the size of Sound Transit 2.  So Sound Transit will need to accelerate their planning, and that’s something I’ve been advocating on and working on as a member of the [Sound Transit] board.

The next question is, how do you pay for it if there’s no money available until 2024 and it’s not very much? So we’re going to have to lay the stage for new money from the legislature—can they reach a 2016 ballot? That’s what I’ve been working toward. Sound Transit will pay for part [of the five high-capacity transit corridors identified in the Seattle Transit Master Plan], but we’re going to have to look at how do we pay for the rest of it. There's a transition that has to occur in the thinking of the city and the [Sound Transit] board and the county as to how do we jointly move together towards that future?

PubliCola: Have you spent much time in Olympia this year?

McGinn: I went down this morning. I met with the Seattle delegation and met with [Majority Coalition Caucus leader] Rodney Tom [D-48] after that. I’ve had regular meetings with [House majority leader] Frank Chopp [D-43] in and out of sessions. That’s been another difference between the prior administration and this one—we have a stronger relationship with Speaker Chopp

PubliCola: What did you talk with Rodney Tom about?

McGinn: Our priorities. We spoke about the need for education revenue. We spoke about transportation.

PubliCola: What did he say about transportation?

McGinn: It sounded to me like he was interested in trying to push for a transportation package soon, and that he wanted to link up the state and the local stuff. We don’t want Metro Transit funding to be held hostage to a state package that may or may not ever get through. We're interested in looking at what a state package might look like, and if we get there, great, but we need Metro money.

And I expressed that to him our local economy depends on Metro. Downtown depends on Metro. And so, cutting Metro would be a bad idea. We hope that they could see the advantages to helping Metro. Even if they did, that we’ve got some big needs. It’s not like we’re all done then—we still need a statewide package.

PubliCola: Going back to "narrative"—one narrative about you is that you're "Mayor McSchwinn" label. How do you respond when you’re in Greenwood in the grocery store and somebody says, 'Hey, Mayor McGinn, how are the bikes?'

McGinn: This city is rocking right now. I mean, seriously, look: We’re creating jobs faster than anywhere. More people are riding bikes. More people are using transit. Our nightlife, arts, and culture are rocking. We have more hotel room stays last year than ever. We have new office buildigns going up. We have more housing units being built

Look at the record, which is a really strong record of collaboration with all of the folks that make up Seattle. The Seattle Times will write their narrative, and I’ll just keep working with the public and count on the public to see how we’re working. Some narratives get written in stone and we’ll just keep working with the public to see how factual they are. I can spend my time worrying about it, or I can say, what do you care about in this neighborhood? What do you want us to be working on?

"If somebody says, 'Hey, I don’t like bikes,' I would say that a lot of people in this town like to bike more, and more people are biking, and they should be safe. And we should make sure our streets are safe for everybody."

PubliCola: So if you ask that question, and someone answers, I don’t like bikes in this neighborhood—

McGinn: My answer on bikes is, if somebody says, Hey, I don’t like bikes, I would say that a lot of people in this town like to bike more and more people are biking, and they should be safe. And we should make sure our streets are safe for everybody.

PubliCola: That narrative is definitely out there—that you’re taking away lanes from drivers and giving them to cyclists.

McGinn: To some degree, there is some truth to that because I have in fact implemented the Bike Master Plan. I think that is a distinction between me and my predecessor. Nickels wasn’t prepared to move ahead with [road diets]. I care a lot about safety. We’ve had a lot of horrible accidents in my neighborhood with kids crossing the street, and that’s what rechannelization does. And with every one of them, somebody says, Oh, you can’t do that. We do it because that’s what the transportation engineers tell me is the right thing to do on that street for safety purposes. And in no cases has it seriously impeded traffic flow because we’ve done it on streets with relatively low traffic volumes.

I do think our budget decisions should reflect the changing world that we live in and start making those investments that meet the increasing demand, and that’s reflected in my budget, but I’m not going to get down on anyone for whatever choice they make. I’m not going to do it.

PubliCola: If you could have any endorsement from a group or individual, what would it be?

McGinn: I’ve got a whole bunch of great ones already.

PubliCola: It’s not a trick question.

McGinn: No, I get that, but take a look at the endorsements I have already today. Those make me feel really good. The Sierra Club came in right away. [Minority Executive Directors Coalition head] Dorry Elias-Garcia, [El Centro de la Raza director] Estela Ortega, [civil rights activist] Harriett Walden. I have lots of other endorsements from communities of colar as well. My mom was a teacher and my dad was an educator. My dad was the son of immigrants whose dad died when he was a teenager. It means a hell of a lot to me to have the support of our communities of color and social justice advocates along with environmentalists. You’ll see the depth of support that I've gotten from the East African [immigrant] community as well.

"I think some of the complaints about people saying, 'I don’t have the access or influence over the mayor’s office that I used to have,' and it’s the mayor’s personality—I don’t think they're used to such a large circle of people having access. So in some way their access has been diluted."

PubliCola: Why is the East African community supporting you?

McGinn: What we’ve done is we’ve taken their concerns seriously. Through the Families and Education levy, we did outreach to those communities. We built portions of the program in that were responsive to their concerns. We've been working really hard with them through [the Human Services Department] to help them build the capacity to win funding to support their communities.

If I can get to talk narrative for a minute, our office has been open to groups that have never had access to the mayor’s office before in any meaningful way. Everybody has access to our office. When I do meetings, I don’t just go out there alone. I bring agency staff with me, and if somebody has a question, I’ll connect them right there. We have done that in a way that I don’t think any mayor has done. That is something I’m really proud of—the level of accessibility.

I think some of the complaints about people saying, 'I don’t have the access or influence over the mayor’s office that I used to have,' and it’s the mayor’s personality—I don’t think they're used to such a large circle of people having access. So in some way their access has been diluted because anyone can come in and talk to me. I think some people have gotten used to it being a smaller, closed shop and having a smaller circle of influence.

PubliCola: The picture in the 2009 election was that you were able to corner the left. Now you’ve got lefties running against you, like Ed Murray, Peter Steinbrueck, and potentially Ron Sims. How do you navigate that?

McGinn: We go out and tell our story. We say what we believe in. You heard my platform. We're going to continue what we’re doing on education. We're going to launch an early learning initiative. We're going to keep working on transit. We're going to implement broadband and work every day on jobs and public safety like we’ve been doing. It's a wide-open race and we’ve got to go out and get our votes based on what we’ve done and our vision of the future. I can’t worry about the other people very much because I am what I am, I believe in what I believe in, and we’re going to see how that plays. I feel pretty good about that, because I’ve got a good record.


 PubliCola: You've been raising less money than some of your challengers, including Murray. Are you worried that you won't be able to raise enough?

McGinn: We’ll raise enough money to get our message out and we will have the best grassroots campaign of the group. In a race like this, there will be a lot of focus on what the candidates believe and what they care about, and that’s great. Seattle voters are going to dig that. And the more people look, I think we’ll compare very favorably.

PubliCola: Last question: What should be done about aPODments?

McGinn: This is what we know. We can take a look at the notice and the process. One of the things people complain about is that they’re surprised by them, and that’s a fair concern when somebody doesn’t realize what is going to happen in their neighborhood and they’re surprised.

So we need to take a look at it. The flip side is that we’ve built a lot of very affordable units. They’re selling out. We’ve got so many jobs coming to our city right now, if we don’t come up with a strategy to create more housing, both subsidized and market rate, we’re going to price everybody out.

Photos by Carryn Vande Griend

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