Seattle’s police-reform efforts were interrupted last week for a public feud between Mayor Mike McGinn and City Attorney Pete Holmes over, basically, who’s in charge.
The fight played out in a war of public statements at a time when both men, but particularly McGinn, are politically vulnerable. McGinn faces a tough re-election fight made tougher by a popular narrative that the mayor who promised to bring people together has often been divisive and difficult to work with.
On Friday, McGinn agreed to accept a police-reform plan by the city’s court-appointed monitor, but the underlying disagreement remains, as well as public accusations of misconduct each man has made about the other.
McGinn said it’s “truly unfortunate” the fight played out in the headlines. But it didn’t happen by accident. After repeatedly disagreeing with Holmes behind closed doors about his role in the reform process, McGinn decided to take his fight public.
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“I made a decision. I did make a decision,” he said. “Politically, it may hurt me. Certainly, my opponents will paint me as obstructionist.”
Indeed, some of McGinn’s challengers in the 2013 race for mayor — and their political allies — said the dispute undermines the image McGinn has cultivated since his losing battle over the Highway 99 tunnel: that of a more collaborative, less combative politician.
“The squabbling, headstrong Mike McGinn that they’d tried to bury has resurfaced,” said Christian Sinderman, a political consultant who has a role on the mayoral campaign of State Sen. Ed Murray and has previously worked for two of McGinn’s current rivals, Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell.
Harrell, who chairs the public-safety committee, was one of three council members who tried unsuccessfully to press McGinn on an early resolution of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on police reform.
“This is more obstructionist behavior,” Harrell said. “Every action he’s taken has been contrary to accountability and reform.”
Burgess called the fighting between McGinn and Holmes part of the mayor’s pattern of choosing “conflict over collaboration.”
At issue in the dispute was whether Holmes, the elected city attorney, must act at the mayor’s direction as he moves ahead with a DOJ settlement agreement or whether he can do what he thinks is best for the city.
The fight blew up into a public spectacle that threatened to delay progress on the settlement agreement. On Tuesday, McGinn’s office sent Holmes a scathing six-page letter. On Wednesday, the mayor changed course in a radio interview, saying he regretted the fighting and wanted to sit down with Holmes. Holmes shot back that he wanted the accusations in the letter withdrawn.
On Friday, the mayor said he would endorse the city monitor’s police-reform plan, which Holmes supports. The mayor said he also will meet with the city attorney “to better align the work of the city and the monitor on reform.”
His acquiescence ends the immediate feud, but the two men still differ on who has the last word, meaning the dispute is sure to surface again.
McGinn and Holmes were both new to politics in 2009, when each filed to run against an incumbent. Both were lawyers and liberal Democrats, known for activism. McGinn was an environmental activist; Holmes, an activist for police reform.
At campaign forums, McGinn said he remembers hearing Holmes say that, if elected, he would not represent the mayor but, instead, the best interests of the city.
“I remember being somewhat troubled by it,” McGinn said. “The question I had then, and I’ve now seen it play out, is how do you know what the city’s best interests are?”
The two may have been presumed political allies when they were elected, but they clashed soon enough, often about Holmes’ authority and whether he could object to the mayor’s plans.
“Mike has raised this issue repeatedly,” Holmes said. “Before he even finds out if we have a disagreement, he wants to know, if we have a disagreement, who’s deciding?”
Holmes said he repeatedly has asked the mayor to meet him for a beer, or schedule dinner with their wives to patch up the relationship. McGinn has turned him down, he said.
“My relationship with Mike is my biggest disappointment about this job,” Holmes said.
Anticipating more disagreements during an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into police use of force, McGinn said he sat down with Holmes early on to ask if he would like to recuse himself, given his history as a police-reform activist.
“He can get in some pretty ticklish spots,” McGinn said. He said he told Holmes: “ ‘Look, Pete, I know you’re really passionate about reform. Would you feel more comfortable assigning us an attorney?’ ”
Holmes said he agreed, though he said he told the mayor: “You need to work on your trust issues.”
However, the city attorney decided to get more involved after the Justice Department announced it would mandate reform. Holmes said his experience on reform makes him better able to represent the city.
“The point is, I’m the city’s legal officer. I am the counsel of record,” Holmes said.
McGinn said Holmes restricted the mayor’s access to federal officials and refused to consider his and the police chief’s concerns. He thinks Holmes leaked confidential documents and information to reporters.
“Pete is and has been for a long time very, very passionate about the issue of reform,” the mayor said. “He’s so involved in getting a certain outcome that he’s really working hard to steer the policy position of the city in ways that go beyond the scope of his role, in ways that don’t respect my charter role.”
Civic leaders worry the public feuding could distract from the cause of police reform.
“There’s widespread concern in Seattle that the police department issues need to be addressed,” said J. Patrick Dobel, a professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. “The police department culture will not change unless there is sustained and consistent leadership from all the main actors.”
The head of the state American Civil Liberties Union, Kathleen Taylor, accused the mayor and police department of wasting time fighting the monitoring plan instead of moving forward on reform. The ACLU was one of 34 community organizations that called for the Department of Justice intervention after a police officer fatally shot First Nation wood carver John T. Williams.
“Two and a half years later, what meaningful change has taken place?” Taylor asked.
Former Mayor Wes Uhlman recalled a similar dispute when he was mayor in the 1970s that prompted him to hire his own attorney. He thinks McGinn is right but said standing up to Holmes will come at a price.
“There are times, in politics in particular, when you can be right as rain on the issue, and it hurts you badly on the political part,” he said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter