After Seattle voters rejected Mayor Mike McGinn's attacks on the planned Highway 99 tunnel, plenty of people are wondering whether he can once again inspire anyone other than the environmental and transit activists who helped elect him, or build support among the labor and business communities he had shunned.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn looked relaxed, and maybe even relieved, as he sat down in his seventh-floor City Hall offices Wednesday to a series of interviews with local television and newspaper reporters.
His shirt collar was open. His sleeves were rolled up. And he was on message.
He had promised to ask the hard questions about the deep-bore tunnel, and he asked them. He wanted the public to weigh in on the project, and it did. His administration is focusing on what have been its priorities all along — jobs, education and transit.
“If we’re going to grow and thrive as a city and compete in the world economy, what do we invest in? I think educating our kids is critical and taking care of infrastructure and expanding transit. We need to get people in and out of downtown. We need to move away from fossil fuels. We need to make it easier for people to get around town,” McGinn said.
Most Read Local Stories
- As Microsoft is showing, workers may never come back to the office
- New data shows how many people in Seattle area, state could have long COVID
- Supreme Court sides with Bremerton coach who prayed on 50-yard line
- Eight people shot outside music event in Tacoma
- Gov. Jay Inslee says WA State Patrol won't cooperate with other states' abortion investigations
But on the first day of the rest of his political career, plenty of people were skeptical about whether McGinn could once again inspire anyone outside the environmental and transit activists who helped elect him, or build support among the labor and business communities he had shunned.
McGinn suffered his biggest political defeat this week when 59 percent of voters rejected his attacks on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project and opted to go forward after 10 years of debate.
The summer’s anti-tunnel campaign repeated McGinn’s 2009 election themes of defying the city’s business and political establishment. An anti-tunnel campaign brochure repeated his assertion that they had hatched a “backroom deal” to advance the tunnel over other alternatives, although the list of pro-tunnel supporters was broad enough to include Bill Gates Sr., the Seattle Mariners and the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.
Over the past few months, as his poll numbers sank and he withdrew from actively campaigning against the tunnel, McGinn began to reach out. He called state Sen. Ed Murray to offer his support for gay marriage. He contacted labor leader David Freiboth to thank him for his support of a $60 vehicle-license fee on the November ballot. He’s working with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to pass a Families and Education Levy that’s nearly double in cost from the previous one.
Is it enough to push through his agenda and lay the groundwork for a second term?
Blair Butterworth, a Seattle political consultant who helped run then-Mayor Paul Schell’s doomed 2001 re-election bid, doesn’t think McGinn can recover politically. He called the mayor “a dead man walking.”
While politicians can survive defeats on issues, Butterworth called McGinn’s anti-tunnel campaign “totally self-inflicted, totally unnecessary, totally duplicitous and totally stupid.”
“I see no path to recovery,” he said.
The mayor also alienated much of the political establishment during the tunnel fight. At a news conference last fall, he said he didn’t trust the governor. He suggested in another news conference this spring that the City Council was working with City Attorney Pete Holmes to keep the tunnel referendum off the ballot. His tone suggested to some that he thought of himself as the only environmentally friendly and socially just politician in the state.
“There was a holier-than-thou tone to his opposition to the tunnel,” said political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, who analyzed the anti-tunnel defeat in an article for the local political news site PubliCola. “Nobody likes a self-proclaimed saint.”
McGinn’s silence during the last weeks of the campaign coincided with focus groups that seemed to show his continual criticism of the tunnel was hurting the cause and his political future.
But it’s probably too late for him to be defined in the public mind as anything but an anti-tunnel crusader, said political consultant Christian Sinderman, who worked on the pro-tunnel campaign. “You can’t stop talking about your signature issue for three months and hope no one remembers it was your signature issue,” he said.
Going forward, Sinderman said, the best the mayor can do is “find a substantive issue that brings people together and creates a positive dialogue. It’s a tough row to hoe, but a lot can happen in two years.”
McGinn said in the interview Wednesday that the issues he and the anti-tunnel campaign raised still need to be addressed. He said transit improvements must be made to deal with additional traffic created by tolling on the tunnel. And some of the toll money should go to pay for transit, he said.
The mayor pulled out a map with a grid of blue, red and yellow lines showing potential streetcar routes. His passion for a transit-oriented, more-connected city seems undiminished by the political setback.
“We need to figure out how to deal with the diversion of traffic. We have to fulfill the promise to add transit along with the tunnel. If we’re going to toll, we need to put some of that money into transit so people who can’t afford the tolls can get around. It’s a social-equity issue,” McGinn said.
He praised the City Council for placing the $60 car-tab fee on the ballot and said he’ll speak out about the need to approve it.
On the tunnel, he was warning about the potential cost to the city from overruns. Now he’s encouraging the voters to approve a 10-year fee in November to improve transit and roads.
At the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, another big backer of the pro-tunnel campaign, officials said they are already working with the mayor on the Families and Education Levy and on a jobs initiative the city plans to announce next week. They’re watching to see how the partnership will evolve after months of attacks.
“It’s in the mayor’s court now,” said Charles Knutson, senior vice president of operations and policy development. “How he’s going to spend the next couple of years, how he’s going to reach out.”
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com