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 Democratic state senator Ed Murray, city council members Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell, and, of course, incumbent McGinn.
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 the Harvard 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 the editors of PubliCola at Seattle Met in his Pike Place Market office.
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 McGinn. Do you regret not running then, when there were fewer serious contenders?
Peter Steinbrueck: I had my reasons for not running. 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.
PubliCola: That doesn’t sound very fun. Why would you want to do it again?
Steinbrueck: 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.
PubliCola: You resigned from doing consulting work for the Port of Seattle—
Steinbrueck: And left a lot of my contract on the table in that resignation.
PubliCola: —and on density in South Lake Union. But you’re still working for the state Department of Transportation on waterfront planning around the tunnel, 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 politicized issue [the arena]. 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.
PubliCola: Let’s talk about South Lake Union and density. 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 we’re a little confused about why you’re opposing taller buildings there.
Steinbrueck: 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 on the same block and 15 feet apart, you’re not enhancing livability, you’re decreasing it. If you’re simply pushing slavishly for 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.
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. We can’t reverse bad decisions and, if buildings go up that cast long shadows on the public realm, we can’t reverse that.
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 if you densify you’ll get all these other things that we want with it, like walkability, diversity, and retail activity.
PubliCola: When you were on the city council, you called then-mayor Greg Nickels a bully who used “Gestapolike tactics,” and you’ve made a similar point about McGinn. Isn’t it the mayor’s role to push for an agenda? Will you be the touchy-feely mayor?
Steinbrueck: 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.
McGinn doesn’t have the experience, and he has not shown the ability to be collaborative or 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. 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.
PubliCola: In the wake of a damning report from the Department of Justice and the appointment of a court-ordered outside monitor for SPD, your opponent 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. ... 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 oversight by review boards—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. I think we are on a better track now, in terms of the settlement agreement.
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 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 [current] 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 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 five 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 constituencies 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.
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.
Published: April 2013