One Question

One Question for Mike McGinn

McGinn says he's fighting the establishment. Who are they, though? And what do they want?

By Josh Feit August 14, 2013

Mayor Mike McGinn has been pitching himself as the anti-establishment candidate. It's a good tag for a candidate who's running in a progressive town like Seattle, where voters like to thumb their noses at The Man.

But what exactly is this so-called "establishment," and what specifically is its agenda?

McGinn's campaign spokesman, John Wyble, said that what McGinn really means when he talks about challenging the establishment is this: "He's not against the 'establishment,' but [he] has a goal of bringing in more voices than the usual people who get attention at City Hall."

Asked to give examples of traditional outsiders who now have access to city hall, and how that has impacted city policy, Wyble suggested we take a look at McGinn's campaign co-chairs: Estela Ortega, the head of Latino civil rights group El Centro De La Raza; Robby Stern, an iconic local labor activist and former lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council; Tony Lee, the all-star lobbying director for local social services group Solid Ground; and Kathleen Ridihalgh, a senior staffer for the local Sierra Club.

People like Stern, who led the campaign to increase Washington State's minimum wage in 1998 and helped organize the WTO protests a year later, are hardly Chamber of Commerce types, but calling them outsiders is a stretch. (Stern, for example, was honored by Gov. Gregoire in 2008, she declared May 2 "Robby Stern Day," and Olympia insider Lee is allies with state Rep. Frank Chopp, the speaker of the house.)

Trying to suss out the practical policy implications of McGinn's election year frame (McGinn = anti-establishment; his opponent state Sen. Ed Murray = the Establishment), today's One Question goes to Mayor McGinn.

One Question

We asked McGinn to name some things he supports that the establishment is against, and to name some things that the establishment supports that he's against. 

"It's about priorities. Making sure we invest in all our neighborhoods, not just downtown."—Mike McGinn

Here's what McGinn told PubliCola:

It's about priorities: Supporting low wage workers when we make policy decisions. Pushing for transit, and investing local dollars, when others say slow down. Prioritizing maintenance and repair of local streets over highway expansion. Not just investing in the waterfront, but expanding Community center hours and getting new parks and playfields in our neighborhoods. Making sure we invest in all our neighborhoods not just downtown, for example, Linden Ave. [a north Seattle sidewalk project completed during McGinn's administration] or Rainier Beach Community Center [a $20 million McGinn budget item that had been instigated by Mayor Greg Nickels, but only partially funded by the previous mayor.]

His list of sound bites called for some follow-up questions.

Does he hold the establishment responsible for slowing down the Ballard light rail study? (And has light rail actually been delayed?)

McGinn spokesman Wyble told us that McGinn is "inferring," based on the city council's decision "delaying" a $500,000 Ship Canal crossing study, that they are catering to the "usual cast of characters."

The city council did reject McGinn's call to accelerate a planned study of rail across the ship canal by one year. However, they have authorized a joint SDOT-Sound Transit rapid transit study, part of which Sound Transit itself was already working on. Additionally, they are studying high-capacity transit through Eastlake, the center city, along Madison, and to Ballard.

McGinn should be trumpeting all of this work that the council approved as a win, not highlighting his battle with the council. And the council, which did broaden SDOT's goals by adding some short-term bus rapid transit solutions into the mix on Eastlake, is poised to sign off on ship canal rail planning as well—just not as fast as McGinn would like. There doesn't appear to be a conspiracy against rapid transit.

However, McGinn is right to excoriate the "establishment" (by which we assume he means Murray and the state legislature) for passing transportation budgets that prioritize roads over transit. However, as Murray likes to point out on the campaign trail, there is a $1.8 billion backlog in basic street and bridge repair. But that's more the recession's fault than McGinn's.

As for the waterfront, a $1.07 billion proposal to upgrade the waterfront that will require downtown businesses to pay more in taxes through a Local Improvement District plus millions more from the city's general fund and a citywide levy, is McGinn saying the waterfront revamp is an elitist project that the city should scale back and instead spend money on other neighborhood projects? Are there neighborhood projects he supports that the establishment opposes? Was that the case with Linden Ave. and the Rainier Beach Community Center?

Wyble: "I think [McGinn] is concerned that the waterfront project could have big budget implications and the city could underprioritize community centers and parks." He added: "Everybody makes choices. The usual trend is for influential people in the city to want more attention paid to downtown projects and by default that means less attention to neighborhoods."

That last bit is curious coming from a mayor who was all in on South Lake Union expansion and on a downtown sports arena that would have required the city to put up $120 million in bonds and shut down a major street (Occidental Ave.) for San Francisco hedge fund manager Chris Hansen. Is McGinn suddenly against downtown development? His donor list would imply otherwise: Top executives from Clise Properties, Vulcan, and Sellen Construction show up on his reports.

As for McGinn's headline fight with the establishment—"Supporting low wage workers when we make policy decisions"—Wyble said McGinn was talking about the Seattle Chamber's resistance to paid sick leave and McGinn's recommendation that Whole Foods' West Seattle "alley vacation" request (for its mixed-use development in West Seattle) gets put on hold unless the fancy, non-union grocery agrees to pay a livable wage. (Both McGinn and Murray have gotten contributions from the law firm that's working for Whole Foods on the alley vacation petition.)

When the Seattle Chamber went down to Olympia pushing legislation to undo the city's paid sick leave law,  Murray voted 'No' and gave a floor speech denouncing the legislation.

Murray has said he disagrees with McGinn's use of street vacation policy to get livable wage concessions from Whole Foods because, he said, the mayor was trying to override the usual city process to score political points with his union backers. (Footnote: Whole Foods reportedly plans to pay a minimum of $11 in West Seattle, and says it pays an average of $16 an hour. The minimum wage in the state is $9.19). McGinn says he supports a $15 an hour Seattle minimum wage in general, though he thinks we should prioritize changing the law at the federal and state level. Murray says he believes in incremental steps toward a $15 minimum wage.)

As for paid sick leave, perhaps the defining Seattle chamber of commerce issue: When the Seattle chamber went down to Olympia in Februrary pushing legislation to undo the city law, Murray voted 'No' and gave a floor speech denouncing the legislation; go to 48:42 minute mark.

Murray, who uses the term "divisive" to describe McGinn just as much as McGinn uses the term "establishment" to describe Murray, used his floor speech against the chambers' effort to call their proposal "divisive." 

The divisive, establishment bill passed the Republican dominated senate, but languished in the Democratic house.


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