As Seattle’s mayoral race enters a one-month sprint to the Aug. 6 primary, the contest has centered more on leadership style than on any major policy dispute.
Specifically, the style — and effectiveness — of Mayor Mike McGinn, the bike-riding urbanist who came to office as a political outsider four years ago.
At candidate forums and other appearances, McGinn’s major rivals frequently sound like a “me, too” chorus when they talk up their desire for a progressive city where people can increasingly get around by bus, bike and train.
But the mayor’s challengers argue McGinn has proved too divisive to achieve those shared goals.
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That theme was on display in the first TV ad of the campaign, launched last week by City Councilmember Bruce Harrell. The mostly positive biographical ad starts off with a dark image of McGinn over a cracked city skyline.
“Our current mayor has failed and fractured this city,” the ad says, without specifics. It then shifts to Harrell pledging to be a leader who “brings people together” with a “collaborative” approach.
Similar arguments have been sounded by McGinn’s other challengers, including state Sen. Ed Murray, architect and former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck and businessman Charlie Staadecker.
“It’s hard to feel any sense of galvanizing energy around a common issue,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “It feels more personality-oriented.”
City Councilmember Jean Godden said that isn’t so unusual in a place like Seattle, where nearly all the politicians are liberal Democrats. “In very many cases in this regard when people’s platforms aren’t that far apart they are going to decide on values and likability.”
“Politics of division”
Murray, in particular, has hammered at McGinn for “the politics of division,” citing the mayor’s first-term fights with state officials over the waterfront tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and with the Department of Justice over police reform.
The fate of the candidates in a likely low-turnout midsummer primary is difficult to predict. But there are signs lately of a brewing McGinn versus Murray feud that could be a preview of a November matchup.
Murray has racked up a string of high-profile endorsements in recent weeks, including from former King County Executive Ron Sims, City Councilmember Tim Burgess and City Attorney Pete Holmes.
A political-action committee has been formed by civic insiders, including Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO Maud Daudon, to raise cash in support of Murray’s mayoral bid. As a PAC, the group won’t be bound by the $700-per-donor limit to city candidates and can raise unlimited donations.
In response, McGinn has increasingly targeted Murray with barbs about the failure of the Legislature to come through with transit funding to stave off cuts in Metro Transit bus service.
And last month, McGinn’s political consultant, John Wyble, went after Murray consultant Sandeep Kaushik in a blog post accusing him of dirty campaigning. “Ed, you would be better served to keep your sleazy attack dogs on a leash,” Wyble wrote.
If recent campaign-trail exchanges are any evidence, a Murray-McGinn matchup — perhaps more than any other — would crystallize the debate over the extent to which Seattle’s mayor should be a regionalist or a pure defender of the city’s liberal values.
Murray, the longtime state legislator and Senate Democratic leader, talks frequently of his experience working with politicians of widely divergent views, including writing compromise budgets with conservative Republicans.
McGinn and his supporters say he also has been effective in building coalitions — leading dozens of mayors in opposition to coal trains, for example.
But McGinn also is proud of refusing to compromise on some issues — such as his staunch opposition to massive road-building projects.
“I want to be able to tell my kids we did something about global warming. I don’t want to say to them all the politicians collaborated to build more highways,” McGinn said at a recent candidate forum focused on biking and pedestrian issues.
In an indirect reference to Murray and other legislative leaders, McGinn said the state would have enough money for transit if it stopped “wasting money” on highways.
Murray calls such McGinn attacks absurd.
“Here I am a progressive Democrat who supports transit being attacked by a progressive Democrat who supports transit,” Murray said at another recent candidate forum.
He argued Seattle must maintain good relationships with state and regional leaders who are key to getting more dollars for buses and light rail.
McGinn and his supporters say much of the grousing about his style comes from traditional civic power brokers he has spurned, and that McGinn has listened to people traditionally outside the City Hall power loop.
“He has reached out to communities of color and sought our advice and listened intently,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, who co-chairs McGinn’s re-election committee.
While much of the big-picture focus of the mayoral race has been on McGinn’s leadership, there also has been a growing sense of concern from some neighborhoods about the pace of development.
“We are at an extraordinarily critical juncture in deciding how our city will grow,” said David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council, who argues the city has been flouting neighborhood plans meant to limit where development occurs.
Steinbrueck, more than any of the leading candidates, has played to such concerns, frequently mentioning estimates of 150,000 people who could move to Seattle in the next 15 years.
“I know a few things about ‘dumb growth’ and we’re seeing a lot of it these days,” Steinbrueck said at a recent candidate forum, contending he has the skills to guide growth in a smart way.
Steinbrueck has also carved out a position as an outspoken opponent of the proposed NBA arena deal that McGinn negotiated with investor Chris Hansen.
“To me, he’s the only one who has staked out differences,” said former Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago. “The rest are all about platitudes and anti-McGinn.”
Harrell, meanwhile, has played up his own unique life story — growing up in a poor neighborhood to become a University of Washington football star and successful attorney before entering politics.
He has vowed to be the “social justice” mayor, saying he’d restore police-community relations and establish a college endowment to allow every child to attend community college.
But Harrell may have muddied one of his arguments recently when he said he would have fought the Justice Department over police reforms by suing the government, instead of entering into a voluntary settlement as McGinn did.
Staadecker, who owns a commercial real-estate company, has focused on job creation and concerns by downtown hotels and others over aggressive panhandling and drug dealing.
But he, like others in the race, frequently talks about changing what he sees as a combative tone at City Hall. “We need a mayor who can take diverse groups and create a mosaic,” he said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner