Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is gearing up for the 2013 mayoral election. As he does, he is finding some of the individuals and groups solidly behind him for his first term are more lukewarm or plan to go elsewhere this time.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says he promised himself when he took office that he wouldn’t worry too much if people dislike the way he runs the city.
It’s a promise he seems to have kept.
In three years in office, McGinn has not won over Seattle’s traditional power-brokers, and he has alienated some key leaders in the odd coalition that elected him in 2009: human-service providers, social-justice advocates, environmental activists, younger voters and minority community leaders.
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Even some supporters in the bicycling and environmental communities are tepid this time around, in contrast to their grass-roots zeal during his first run for elected office. His vulnerability — perceived or otherwise — is attracting an unusually large field of high-profile challengers and potential challengers. A City Council member. A state Senate leader. A former King County executive.
With a big number of candidates dividing the vote, McGinn gains a numerically better chance of surviving the primary. But that also provides fewer places to go to find supporters who might otherwise line up behind him.
The Sierra Club was the mayor’s political engine in 2009, but it suffered after the unsuccessful fight to stop the Highway 99 tunnel, said Seattle group chairman Dan Schwartz. Key leaders in the club have moved on, many volunteers stopped showing up, and the club lost its political organizer. The group may not be equipped to help McGinn as much this time.
His re-election effort also will bump up against people who say the promise of McGinn turned out to be greater than the reality.
“McGinn was somebody who was trying to bring everyone together. It was surprising to not see that happen, either in his appointments or in his interactions with the council,” said Dorsol Plants, 28, an advocate for homeless issues and former City Council candidate who worked on McGinn’s campaign in 2009. He has already endorsed McGinn’s opponent, City Councilmember Tim Burgess.
Burgess, real-estate developer Charlie Staadecker and state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, have all said they intend to challenge the mayor. Others, including City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, former King County Executive Ron Sims and consultant Albert Shen, are considering the race.
The Stranger put McGinn’s face on an August 2009 cover. More recently, the paper joked about that support on its blog. They offered the cover as the answer to the question: “When have we ever steered you wrong?” in a post about this year’s election endorsements.
Yusef Cabdi formed an African immigrant PAC to raise money for McGinn in 2009, but he said he will not support the mayor in 2013.
“I think he has abandoned people who really helped him because we thought he would be someone who would help the working-class people,” he said.
McGinn is optimistic. In a recent interview, he said he understands some people think his re-election is a longshot. He believes he can meet the challenge by relying on a new, broad circle of relationships.
“We’ve done a lot of good things, and I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done,” he said. “It’s true I will lose people, but I’m picking up a lot of people, too.”
For example, McGinn touts his time spent with neighborhood groups. He held hundreds of public meetings on education, public safety and human services.
“I made a promise to myself when I took office that I was going to do my best to listen to people and make the right choices, and let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I was making a bet, too, that the public would appreciate that.”
McGinn points to his work on the city budget, where he preserved human services and, through a recent levy, restored library hours.
His administration negotiated a deal to build an NBA basketball arena, doubled the size of the Families and Education Levy, and fought The Seattle Weekly regarding online ads that perpetuated child prostitution.
The mayor is replaying some of the same populist lines he used in his 2009 campaign. He says the people — not interest groups — choose the mayor.
Still, as he heads into the crowded primary, McGinn may wonder: Can he be the underdog twice?
“In the conversations that I have with folks, I’m just not hearing a ton of support, and you know, I hear that he’s pissed off a lot of people,” said Tim Harris, who leads the Real Change homeless newspaper and was once an outspoken McGinn supporter. Now, he says another candidate, Steinbrueck, has the same values but could be more effective and have a better chance of winning.
Some McGinn supporters admire the mayor’s refusal to focus on impressing interest groups.
“I think that Mike is managing the city,” said Chris Martin, who owns CleanScapes and supported McGinn in 2009. “I really appreciate that. I think it’s the first time in awhile we’ve had a mayor who is not that focused on getting re-elected.”
When a First Nations woodcarver was killed by a Seattle police officer in 2010, McGinn’s heartfelt response earned him support in the civil-rights community. But his response to a U.S. Department of Justice report on police use of force has alienated some of those same people who say he defended bad police behavior.
That doesn’t mean the mayor has no support. With the help of a professional fundraiser, he’s raised $95,000 before officially launching his campaign. Now, a mayor who vowed not to worry about courting voters may need to do just that
The mayor’s most solid supporters are the pro-transit, pro-density, urban environmentalists who share his vision. They still back him, but question his effectiveness, and their support, in some cases, is lukewarm.
Local writer and environmentalist Roger Valdez said that while urbanists and transit advocates are likely to vote for McGinn, their enthusiasm is not guaranteed, especially at the end of a term in which some feel sustainability and density did not always win enough of the mayor’s attention.
“If he’s going to be elected for the second term, he’s got to stop being a cloud of dust, and he’s got to have an agenda,” Valdez said. “If we’re going to spend all our time fooling around with the Sonics, I can’t find a lot of enthusiasm for that. That’s not going to motivate me to go out and be uber-supportive.”
The Cascade Bicycle Club helped elect one of its own when it campaigned for McGinn three years ago. McGinn, who often commutes by bike, spent much of the 2009 campaign in a helmet, passing out “Mike bikes” campaign stickers. Chuck Ayers, the club’s executive director, said the mayor fulfilled the city’s bike master plan, but did nothing extra.
“I think we had high hopes that more would be done in terms of providing safe places for bikes and pedestrians,” he said. The mayor’s fight against the Highway 99 tunnel reduced his effectiveness on other issues, Ayers said, and McGinn had to learn that his grass-roots style didn’t work well at City Hall.
Ayers contributed to McGinn’s 2013 campaign, but is meeting with other candidates before he decides whom to endorse.
Stuck to principles
The mayor’s supporters say that, despite missteps, he stuck to his principles in his first term.
“I think a lot of people feel that the issues of racial, of social justice … for him are very visceral,” said Tony Lee, advocacy director at the nonprofit Solid Ground. “It speaks to his core values.”
The mayor offered a new kind of leadership, said Maria Batayola, a leader in the Filipino community. McGinn was hands-on, meeting directly with people in the community. His work might not be as showy, she said, but he was dogged and sincere.
Martin, of CleanScapes, agreed, though he wondered if his lack of concern about electability might cost McGinn his job.
“I don’t know if Mike will win again because I just don’t think he’s really a politician,” he said. “He just does what he thinks is right regardless of what the impact’s going to be on the electorate. I kind of admire that.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.