Mayor Mike McGinn
came into office as a self-described change agent who wanted to address global warming and widen the city’s sphere of prosperity.
The former Sierra Club activist and lawyer has accelerated planning for light-rail lines to the city’s neighborhoods. He’s brokered an agreement for court-ordered police reform. And recently he’s intervened on behalf of hotel and grocery workers to start a conversation about living-wage jobs.
After former Mayor Greg Nickels’ tight control over city government, community leaders and some elected officials have welcomed McGinn’s openness. And they point to his quick grasp of city issues and his success managing basics, such as snowstorms, as signs that he’s a competent manager of the city’s business.
If he gets another term, he says, he intends to continue the initiatives he’s begun, such as expanding early-childhood learning and planning for light rail into more neighborhoods.
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But over the past four years, McGinn also has alienated city and state leaders who opposed his stance against the deep-bore Highway 99 tunnel and again during prolonged negotiations over police reform. He has alarmed neighborhood advocates who say he’s given away too much to developers, and he’s left environmentalists, arguably his strongest constituency, divided over his effectiveness.
With less than two weeks until the primary election, McGinn faces eight challengers in a fight for his job. He still enjoys strong support from younger voters and those who see him as a visionary leader trying to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. But a recent poll shows him in a statistical dead heat with state Sen. Ed Murray as the race leaders, with Councilmember Bruce Harrell and former Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck
not far behind.
McGinn remains unapologetic about the contentiousness of his first term, saying he wanted to “break up the cement” that surrounded the city’s usual way of doing business and open City Hall to people who hadn’t had access.
“Some of the attacks I’ve received for being divisive are because I’ve brought new people into the discussion. Those who were used to calling the shots didn’t have the same amount of influence as they did before,” McGinn said.
Councilmember Richard Conlin, who clashed with the mayor over the tunnel, said that unlike Nickels, McGinn hasn’t demanded that all council business go through the mayor’s office.
“The fact that he’s willing to let the council work directly with city staff has made it possible to make progress on a lot of things,” Conlin said.
Council President Sally Clark is more skeptical, saying the dynamic McGinn has created at City Hall is one where he calls for big changes and leaves to the council the questions about cost and how to achieve the outcomes.
“Mike’s great strength is being a warrior, but that’s a very different profile from being a CEO,” Clark said.
McGinn’s attempts to rewrite the narrative of his first two years in office by portraying himself as a collaborative leader trying to win state funding for transportation and stopping coal trains have been undermined by his public fight with City Attorney Pete Holmes and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) over the breadth and pace of the court-ordered police reforms.
On the campaign trail, McGinn has received the strongest criticism over his leadership of the police department, under a federal consent decree for use of excessive force, often against minorities.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of ACLU Washington, who joined with 34 minority community groups in calling for the federal investigation, said McGinn dragged out negotiations at every step.
“He rejected the conclusions of the Department of Justice, he resisted the calls for a court-appointed monitor and when it was clear that a monitor would be required, he very vigorously resisted naming Merrick Bobb,” said Shaw, referring to the police-reform expert favored by the DOJ, the City Council and Holmes.
Clark was one of three council members who tried to work with McGinn to craft a settlement agreement. After three months with sharply divergent opinions about how to go forward, the council members withdrew.
“We lost time that could have been spent on reform. Fragile relationships were made even more brittle. And where I was hoping for collaboration and a unified city approach, he said, ‘I’ll take your input.’ ”
But some of the community leaders who initially joined in the call for a federal investigation remained strong supporters of McGinn, including Estela Ortega, the director of El Centro de la Raza; Harriett Walden, co-founder of Mothers for Police Accountability; and the late state Rep. Kip Tokuda.
In a letter endorsing the mayor for a second term, they wrote that after decades of lobbying city leaders for reform and seeing no action, “McGinn has been different. He has taken our concerns seriously and worked hard to produce effective, lasting changes to the Seattle Police Department.”
Slowing climate change was very much on the mind of candidate McGinn in 2009. His central campaign rallying cry was defeat of the proposed deep-bore tunnel, which he saw as delaying the city’s transition to less-polluting alternatives such as buses and light rail.
Shortly before the election, McGinn famously said he would uphold and execute the agreements already in place between the city and state to build the tunnel. Then he spent the next 18 months challenging the project. He accused the people who supported it, including labor unions, some environmentalists and most of the city’s elected leaders, of negotiating a backroom deal to replace the Highway 99 viaduct.
He also memorably called a news conference to say Seattle couldn’t trust then-Gov. Chris Gregoire’s assurances that the city wouldn’t be on the hook for cost overruns on the state project.
Gregoire said that she and Nickels had once-a-month meetings to discuss the issues on which they needed each others’ help, including education, transportation and social services. Even after McGinn’s comments about her regarding the tunnel, she said, her office reached out to the mayor’s staff to restart a relationship that she said had served both the city and state well. McGinn didn’t respond.
“He wrote off the governor’s office,” she said.
Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, says McGinn shares many of labor’s progressive values and a willingness to act on them, including support for a paid-sick-leave ordinance that went into effect last year. He said that McGinn had a slow transition from advocacy to governance, but that the mayor has recognized his weaknesses and worked to address them.
Still, Freiboth, as one of the supporters of the tunnel project, said that when he and McGinn met to bury the hatchet after city voters overwhelmingly decided to go forward with the tunnel, he felt compelled to remind the mayor about how he characterized tunnel supporters.
“McGinn said something about how the fight had gotten really nasty. I said, ‘Yeah, you called me the downtown power elite.’ He said, ‘No, no, I didn’t mean you.’ ”
Working with labor
Other labor leaders also noted McGinn’s growth in the job. Joe McGee, executive director of Local 17, the Professional and Technical Employees union that represents about 2,500 city workers, said McGinn came into office “like a bull in a china shop” who wanted to cut 200 strategic advisers based on their job classification alone. The employees quickly formed a bargaining unit and McGinn dropped the plan, saying he had gotten bad advice.
Since then, McGee said, McGinn has become a better manager, one who guided the city through a major recession with minimal layoffs and upheaval, and who is more forthright with the unions than Nickels was.
“McGinn is much more truly engaged. There’s more give and take. I’ve appreciated that about him.” And he added, “Anybody who has managed through rocky times deserves a lot of credit.”
Some of McGinn’s strongest supporters are the transit advocates and environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, that helped elect him and are again providing ground troops for the campaign. Martin Duke, editor-in-chief of the Seattle Transit Blog, said McGinn has consistently been the most pro-transit and pro-density voice in city government.
The mayor has urged Sound Transit to speed up planning for light rail to Ballard and pressed the City Council for new lines along Eastlake and through downtown.
But his advocacy for rail has run into criticism from people who want the city to address the crowded buses, crummy streets and a strategy for bicycling that puts cyclists on busy streets with cars rather than in dedicated lanes or on quiet side streets.
“We are now on a 5,000-year replacement schedule for residential streets,” said Doug MacDonald, former state transportation director. “The problem in this election is to get anybody focused on the transportation needs of ordinary people — sidewalks, crosswalks, not just potholes, but miles of crumbling concrete.”
Some in the environmental community, too, question McGinn’s leadership. Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, one of the state’s biggest environmental advocacy groups, said his group endorsed Murray in the primary after asking, “Who’s the right person to get things done?”
Still, J. Patrick Dobel, professor at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, said McGinn’s delivery of a deal to build a new sports arena in Sodo — on hold as investors look to buy an NBA team — shows the mayor’s growing ability to build a coalition and negotiate a complex deal.
“He fought hard, kept his word and showed development as a leader.”
But Dobel, who teaches leadership and strategy, shares the concern that McGinn has alienated so many, including a lot of the people who live here, during the tunnel fight and the fight over police reform, that he may have lost the chance to be truly effective.
“If re-elected, would he be able to get anything done because so many of his relationships are broken?”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes