Is Consensus Gone After Tim Burgess?
Illustration by Mike McQuade
Tim Burgess does this thing when he has a guest. He’s done it for years. Other Seattle City Council members might send an aide to fetch the visitor from the council offices’ waiting room. Burgess insists on moseying down to the waiting area himself.
So here he is. Six foot two. Bald pate. Blue eyes, white whiskers, a half smile that always looks like he’s holding back. Standing in the doorway on an August day in the cool, air-conditioned confines of city hall. This strategy—this way of letting the people know he’s still just one of them—isn’t without its faults. Because now here’s the look of dread on his face the moment he recognizes another person, a man who’s not the scheduled guest, approaching him for an off-the-cuff conversation. Burgess shakes the man’s hand while also trying to pivot away and rush the guest toward his office.
It’s three days before the Seattle City Council goes on recess. He’s leaving town in two, and the end of his political career is a few short months away. Tim Burgess does not have time for this.
On Monday, September 18, 2017, Burgess, one of the longest-sitting council members—only Bruce Harrell has been there as long—said goodbye to the job he’s held for nine years, a job that came after an unpredictable career trajectory. He was a radio journalist, a Seattle police officer, and then a consultant and business owner before he decided to run for council in 2007 instead of retiring. Most unpredictable of all was his sudden rise to the highest office in the city after Ed Murray resigned: Mayor Burgess. For 71 days, at least.
Asked in August how he wants to be remembered, Burgess pauses. (His phone keeps buzzing with a Google alert for “Seattle City Council.”) “Tim the old white guy,” he says finally. That gets a laugh. “No, that’s not what I want to be remembered as. That’s just a fact.”
Burgess has long held a reputation among city hall outsiders as conservative and pro-business, dirty labels in a city with a rising anticorporate, antiestablishment political movement. Insiders, the staffers and fellow council members he’s worked with, know him as a consensus builder. He’s the guy who asks the fiscally prudent questions, plays devil’s advocate, and entertains opponents’ viewpoints. It’s not uncommon for him to seek out and collaborate with other council members. And getting his approval can be a common benchmark in the legislative process for other councilors. So as Burgess’s political expiration date nears a question remains: What happens when the consensus builder is gone?
A polar shift occurred in Seattle politics in 2013. That’s when Socialist Alternative party member Kshama Sawant joined the council after beating long-term incumbent Richard Conlin. She became an undeniable force. Her supporters packed council chambers and held protests. They demanded rent control. Hoisted “Tax the Rich” signs became a regular council meeting feature. Sawant represented a new, left-leaning swerve for the body, a harbinger of where the city’s electorate was heading. In 2015 she was joined by hard-left Lisa Herbold, former judge Debora Juarez, transit advocate Rob Johnson, and the first Latina council member, Loréna González—all in a year that saw the exodus of longtime council members Nick Licata, Sally Clark, and Tom Rasmussen. Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Sally Bagshaw, and Tim Burgess remained.
There’s not a whole lot of color to Burgess. Arguably none. He’s far from animated, and his dry sense of humor coupled with a calm, soft voice grants him the reputation as the most cut-and-dry, prosaic council member. He’s often found at city hall wearing either a suit and tie to council meetings or, on other days, checkered collared shirts and slacks. “Tim Burgess, human Ambien,” The Stranger’s city hall reporter Heidi Groover once tweeted.
For some, he’s never been liberal enough. “He is ultimately fairly conservative by Seattle standards,” says former mayor Mike McGinn, with whom Burgess (and the rest of the council) clashed during McGinn’s time in office. “Obviously we’re a very progressive city and he has to be responsive to that…. He defaulted to what he thought was his political advantage at the end of the day.”
Opponents like McGinn have long painted Burgess’s response to politics as a weakness, a concession to developers, corporations, and all that stands in the way of the city council accomplishing real progress. But, says city attorney Pete Holmes, “Tim is a guy who’s been unfairly maligned for doing nothing more than his job the best that he can do.”
Relatively speaking, the conservative label just doesn’t hold water. Burgess has his fingerprints all over some of the most recent progressive pieces of legislation—a city income tax, a civilian oversight body for police after a Department of Justice lawsuit, a $1 million legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants. Oh, and his legislation making Seattle the first city in the country to have a dedicated fund for gun-violence research through a firearms tax, which was challenged by the NRA.
But it’s his push for universal preschool education that may, in the end, be Burgess’s greatest political legacy. And to fully understand that, you have to know where he came from.
As a kid growing up on North Capitol Hill, Burgess would get out of Stevens Elementary at 2:40pm and walk a mile to Meany Middle School, where his mother worked in the kitchen, to eat the leftovers from the meals she made for its students. “Because, in my family, we weren’t sure what kind of dinner we would have when we got home,” he says. He was 12 years old when his parents lost their house to foreclosure because they couldn’t make payments. His was an intensely conservative, protestant fundamentalist household with what he now calls a “really distorted view of Christianity.” There wasn’t much focus on education.
Nonetheless he caught the political bug early, having volunteered for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and debated in his GOP party in middle school. He was hired as radio journalist for KJR after high school and got to know city politics thanks to the officials he interviewed. “By just being around city hall, I can beat other stations by several hours,” a young Burgess told a Seattle Times reporter in 1969. Back then he wore black-rimmed glasses and had more hair. You could often spot him with a tape recorder—or behind the wheel of a red Volkswagen Beetle.
He attended North Seattle Community College before transferring to the University of Washington, where he took classes for seven years while also working for the Seattle Police Department. Three years after he was promoted to detective, his shift changed, and he dropped out of UW in 1980 just a few credits short of a bachelor’s degree in political science.
The conservative cop became a progressive convert after he met his future wife, Joleen, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter at the time and a lifelong Democrat. She challenged him with debates about police reform and poverty. It was a shift that created a distance between him and his family.
“My older brothers…they think I’m a communist. So only in Seattle will someone like me get tagged as Mr. Establishment or Mr. Conservative,” Burgess explains. “We don’t talk politics very much at all. It’s a pretty raw topic.”
In 2007, after a stint in business and ready to retire, Burgess and his wife were pedaling in northern Italy on vacation when he realized he wanted to run for elected office. He’d chaired the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and had become familiar with more aspects of city government. “Retirement life’s going to be boring,” Burgess recalls thinking. And when he and his wife returned home, he told her: “I think I should run for the city council. She was quite surprised and quite negative on the idea.”
His three daughters though, he says, jumped right on board.
He beat incumbent David Della with 64 percent of the vote in the fall of 2007, raising a record-breaking amount of money for a Seattle City Council campaign. That race, though, was when the conservative label emerged, thanks in part to attack ads that pointed out that his consulting firm had done work for Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, despite Burgess’s own pro-choice, pro–marriage equality beliefs.
But in office his standing as a former cop didn’t stop him from challenging police unions and only made him more instrumental when in 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city on grounds of excessive force and police bias. He was supportive of the DOJ’s recommendations and a key player in the search for a new police chief. It’s because of Burgess that the city removed a requirement to hire top management only internally—which would have prevented new chief Kathleen O’Toole from bringing in some of her own staff from Boston to work under her.
Still, he remained the “pro-business guy,” known for having some of the closest ties to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He opposed legalizing weed initially, but changed his position shortly after Holmes penned a 2011 op-ed in The Seattle Times supporting decriminalization. A bill he pushed for in 2010 would have made panhandling around ATMs or parking pay stations a civil infraction. It passed in a 5-4 council vote, then got vetoed by then-mayor Mike McGinn—an episode McGinn says didn’t help their already tense working relationship.
To this day, McGinn attributes some of his lack of success as mayor to Burgess, who he sees as having blocked some of his progressive pieces of legislation. He believes it was sabotage in service of Burgess’s own mayoral aspirations. “It was pretty clear Tim had moved in to kind of position himself to run for mayor,” McGinn says.
How much of that claim holds merit is unclear. McGinn famously burned bridges with other council members, one reason Burgess may have hesitated to collaborate with him.
But one thing holds true: Tim Burgess did want the highest office in the city.
He announced his bid for mayor running against McGinn in November 2012. The law-and-order candidate had only one real piece of legislation tainting his campaign: the panhandling ordinance that McGinn vetoed. “I’ve been elected three times citywide,” says Burgess now. “And every time, I get attacked as being the establishment guy, the downtown guy, the pro-business guy, the centrist or the conservative or whatever label they try to attach to me, and I keep winning.”
He knew incumbent McGinn was vulnerable, but other potential primary challengers could be a problem, namely then–state senator Ed Murray. He believed he needed to raise the most money—which he did—to keep Murray out of the race. That didn’t work. In early 2013, one of his high-profile supporters, the sought-after political consultant Christian Sinderman, jumped ship to Murray’s campaign.
Burgess says he didn’t think he could win once Murray decided to run. He says the polling confirmed that. Disclosure reports showed Burgess paid $34,500 for a citywide survey in March 2013; he withdrew from the race in May, days before the filing deadline. Ed Murray beat McGinn in the general election and became the next mayor of Seattle.
Burgess, who’s held a close working relationship with Murray in the past four years, says he was “stunned” when Murray was hit with a lawsuit alleging sexual assault. The mayor dropped his bid for reelection a month later. The council member has stood firmly by his side despite the accusations. “I don’t know what truth is there,” he said in August 2017 of the allegations against his political ally, “and I doubt, frankly, that we ever will.”
Only a month later, those accusations built up to a breaking point. On the morning of September 12, The Seattle Times called Murray to get his comment on a story they were about to publish, that of a fifth accuser, the mayor's cousin, alleging to have been sexually abused as a child by Murray. The mayor called Burgess into his office, where the veteran council member says he told the mayor it was time for him to resign. Burgess says that while he was still sitting with the mayor, his phone lit up with the push notification from The Seattle Times—announcing the final story that would spell Murray's downfall.
Council president Bruce Harrell, who was automatically acting mayor when Murray stepped down, didn't want the job. That left the city scrambling to fill the executive role in time to release the 2018 budget, and left Burgess—the budget committee chair—as the natural successor. Plus, he was the only one who wouldn't have to give up a council seat and wasn't running for reelection. He had nothing to lose.
Some had looked to Burgess as a potential mayoral candidate this year. But he’ll be 72 in four years. It seemed to him like the right time to be done. There wasn’t any sort of revelation, no moment of clarity. The soft-spoken but firm council member was about to end his city career with a soft landing.
“I do think I would’ve been a good mayor," he said in August. "But we’ll never know, will we?"
Except, of course, we would.
For the first time in 91 years, the city will elect a female mayor, Jenny Durkan or Cary Moon. But the 2017 general election isn’t drastically different than in years past—one candidate pigeonholed as the conservative, the other drawing a more radical, populist base. The establishment’s Chosen One this year is Durkan, the first openly gay U.S. attorney appointed by then-president Barack Obama. Like Burgess, she was a key player in the city’s police reform efforts, and—much like Murray—she fought for same-sex rights long before marriage equality had mainstream support. But, yes, she’s pro-business—Chamber of Commerce’s backing helped solidify that dreaded conservative appellation. Her Republican donors, attracted to her platform because it was more moderate than that of urban planner Cary Moon, certainly didn’t help.
What did we learn in the primary? That populism is gaining strength, and third-party movements have momentum. Though Nikkita Oliver, the Peoples Party candidate, didn’t make it through to the general election ballot, her grassroots, first-time campaign attracted scores of young, disenfranchised millennial voters who have a history of not turning up in elections.
Meanwhile, Burgess has concerns about the direction the city is heading. He says council member Kshama Sawant’s rhetoric is divisive and troubling, causing more disruptions at council meetings and less tolerance for differing opinions. “She has a style and an approach that is definitely not mine. I think in many ways the radical left in Seattle is no different than the radical right in Washington, DC,” Burgess says. “They may have a different approach to policy, but their rhetoric and their denigration of others who disagree, their attempt to silence opposition is exactly the same. And I think that is not in the best interest of our city or our nation at all.”
No surprise then that Sawant was the lone vote against Burgess when it came to appointing him interim mayor on September 18.
Now the council must appoint someone during budget talks to fill Burgess's now-vacant council seat until November 28, when election results get certified and the new at-large position 8 can take over. With a city council that has the potential to veer further to the left, Burgess’s retirement leaves two strong progressives who advanced to the November 7 general election for his at-large position: labor leader Teresa Mosqueda and Burgess’s former challenger, an ex–Tenants Union leader, Jon Grant. The two fit the dynamic of the past—progressive versus more progressive, a skeptic versus a risk taker.
Though Burgess stayed neutral for the primary, he is supporting Mosqueda, who he said “would be an excellent council member.” And the qualities he values in her don’t seem too far off from the qualities that defined his career. “She’s very pragmatic,” he says. “She’s very thoughtful, she has a very calm voice and demeanor, she’s a great listener. She understands public policy, having worked at the city-state level for a long, long time.”
But at a Seattle Weekly candidate forum in June, asked which council member she least identified with, Mosqueda named Burgess: She’s not a man and not over 60, she pointed out, and she wants to be “the next generation of the electives of city council.”
With Burgess gone, maybe the biggest gap on the city council isn’t institutional knowledge, the fiscal questions, or the debates with groups who aren’t friendly to the council’s agenda. Maybe, arguably, it’s the ability to mediate among city offices.
In the words of council member Sally Bagshaw, “We all have to step up.”
When Burgess is retired, he has one life goal left in mind—finally get that political science degree from the University of Washington.
His dad didn’t finish high school until his early 20s. His own educators never expected him to go to college, and when he went he wasn’t prepared. He understands what it’s like to be neglected in the public school system. That’s why he boasts the most about his 2014 initiative to use property tax to fund free or subsidized preschool education for low-income families. Voters chose his $58 million program for 2,000 children in 100 classrooms over a competing union-sponsored initiative.
“Sending kids, three- and four-year-olds, to high-quality preschool will change their lives,” he says. “I just wish we could go faster on implementation. But it’s expensive and we need classrooms, and so we’re phasing it in.”
The levy is up for renewal next year. We can expect Burgess at those council public hearings, as a citizen, making a case. Lately he’s been warning council members about what they should be doing—you know, once he’s no longer there to remind them.
“Next year, a year from now when you’re asked to renew this onetime funding and make it permanent, you should remember this discussion,” Burgess advised his colleagues in an August council meeting. He strongly opposed using the families-and-education levy for a proposed new bus-and-bell schedule this year. “I would just encourage us next year, when I’m not here,” he said, “that the city government is not in the business of funding the school district for items that are in the definition of basic education.”
“And council member Burgess, we invite you to public comment session during that period,” Bruce Harrell said, with laughs from the council.
“Yes. I’ll come down and get my two minutes, but I’ll be brief,” Burgess joked. He muttered to his colleagues, quietly in his mic, “I have your private phone numbers.”