Inarguably, former Mayor Mike McGinn has the most relevant experience for the job. Yet he remains a City Hall outsider, with no endorsements from current or former mayors or City Council members. Will he find that wave of enthusiasm that put him over the top in 2009?
After losing a bid for a second term as Seattle mayor in November 2013, a reflective Mike McGinn admitted in a concession speech he’d sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.
Four years later, McGinn wants voters to give him a second chance.
“I am a little older and wiser, and a little more humble about the role of the mayor,” he said in a recent interview at his spartan campaign headquarters on Aurora Avenue.
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At the same time, McGinn contends he really was not such an abrasive mayor; that’s a yarn, he says, spun by political enemies.
“There is a narrative about me that’s told by the lobbyists and consultants downtown,” he says, but the farther away you get from City Hall “there is another story.”
Bearded, bike-riding and a little rumpled — “Iron your pants!” a woman shouted at him during a candidate forum this month — McGinn occupies a unique space in the Aug. 1 top-two primary.
Before the Aug. 1 primary, The Seattle Times is profiling leading candidates for Seattle mayor, selected based on civic involvement, endorsements, campaign activity and money raised. Learn more about all 21 candidates in our interactive online voter's guide.
Inarguably, he has the most relevant experience for the job.Yet McGinn remains a City Hall outsider, and has failed to land a single endorsement from any current or former City Council member, mayor or state legislator.
All that puts McGinn in some ways back where he started, as an unconventional candidate seeking a political upset.
In 2009, McGinn was a relatively little-known lawyer and Greenwood neighborhood leader, who had led a local Sierra Club chapter and an urbanist nonprofit.
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The mayoral race that year was upended when then-Mayor Greg Nickels was ousted in the primary, leaving McGinn to run against another first-time candidate, businessman Joe Mallahan.
McGinn rode a wave of volunteer enthusiasm to a win. But voters soured on him four years later, electing then-state Sen. Ed Murray, who pledged an end to “the politics of division.”
Like most other top candidates this year, McGinn was not planning to run for mayor. He spent the last few years doing part-time consulting, recording podcasts and volunteering on causes including divestment from fossil-fuel companies. He joined the mayor’s raceafter Murray was politically wounded by allegations of sex-abuse, including the filing of a lawsuit.
On a 21-candidate primary ballot, with six generally considered to be top tier, McGinn starts with a big name-recognition advantage. Even in his 2013 loss, he got 47 percent of the vote.
His supporters, including some social-services advocates, see McGinn, 57, as a genuine champion for the poor and powerless.
“With most politicians, the closer you get to them, the less respect you have for them because you see the deals they make, the principles they sacrifice. My experience with Mike has been the opposite,” said Tony Lee, former advocacy director for Solid Ground, a Seattle anti-poverty nonprofit.
Lee pointed to McGinn’s 2010 veto of an ordinance banning aggressive panhandling despite criticism from business and tourism leaders.
Michael Neguse, who works at a nonprofit that aids East African immigrant communities, said McGinn has always been available to listen to their concerns.
“I have seen a lot of politicians. They come to the community during the election … then they disappear,” Neguse said. “For him, it’s not about getting elected and having a position. He (McGinn) said ‘Any time you need help you can count on me.’”
Tunnel, taxes, arena
But McGinn’s critics say he demonstrated a brawling, go-it-alone style as mayor that didn’t serve anyone well.
“He was never — the only word that comes to mind is ‘collaborative’ — in approach,” said City Council President Bruce Harrell, who has endorsed former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in the mayoral race. “I think he was almost always in combat mode, and when anyone is always in combat mode they lose a great opportunity to listen to diverse perspectives.”
McGinn famously clashed with the council and then-Gov. Chris Gregoire over replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel. McGinn opposed the megaproject during his 2009 campaign and continued to criticize it as mayor, questioning whether the city was protected from cost overruns.
In a rebuke to McGinn, voters in 2011 approved a referendum in support of building the long-debated tunnel. McGinn and his supporters say he had valid points in that debate. He casts himself as an independent who’d be a watchdog for the public instead of going along to get along.
“The danger in a one-party town is you start to get this groupthink about major projects,” he said. “I was prepared to challenge that.”
McGinn says he also had accomplishments that sometimes get overlooked, such as his push to accelerate planning to get Sound Transit light rail to neighborhoods, including Ballard. He is also credited with cutting the city budget during the recession while preserving social services.
In his campaign this year, McGinn has staked out policy positions that could attract voters worried about higher taxes and runaway construction changing neighborhoods.
He pledges to “hold the line” on property and sales taxes. He says he’d scour the city budget, which has grown by more than $250 million since 2013, looking for savings. McGinn favors taxing the wealthy through a city income tax. The City Council passed a high-earners income tax this month, but legal challenges could prevent it from taking effect.
He says he’d also try to revive a “head tax” that would charge an annual per-employee fee to larger businesses. The City Council repealed a similar tax in 2009.
While he says Seattle needs more housing, McGinn says he’d try to give neighborhoods more of a say in how that happens. He says that’s “one place I have mellowed or learned.”
McGinn pointed to Murray’s effort to push vast changes to single-family zoned neighborhoods — a plan that McGinn said came without enough public input.
McGinn also retains the loyalty of many Sonics fans hungry for a new team to replace the franchise that moved to Oklahoma City in 2008. As mayor, McGinn helped broker an agreement for a Sodo basketball arena proposed by entrepreneur Chris Hansen.
He continues to back the since-stalled Sodo proposal over a rival plan to revamp KeyArena.
McGinn also drew criticism as mayor over his public fights with the Justice Department, including then-U. S. Attorney Durkan, as well as City Attorney Pete Holmes, over a consent decree to reform Seattle police use of force.
Despite the discord, McGinn says he deserves credit for pushing for a strong community police commission as part of the eventual consent decree. He says the recent fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police shows the commission’s authority should be strengthened.
Some old allies move on
This week, McGinn went after Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, questioning why she was spending time in Ireland on a commission to improve that nation’s police force.
O’Toole responded with a written eye roll, calling McGinn’s criticisms “political theater at its best,” noting she frequently is asked to participate as an expert in national and international discussions of policing, and was in Ireland “on my own vacation time, at no cost to the city.”
Some former allies appear ready to move on from McGinn in favor of fresh leadership.
City Councilmember Mike O’Brien has endorsed Nikkita Oliver. And UFCW 21, representing thousands of supermarket workers, which strongly backed McGinn four years ago, has endorsed former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell.
Joe Mizrahi, the union’s political director, said that’s not because McGinn did anything wrong. “I think it’s a different race. It’s a different field,” he said.
While there wasn’t a lot of policy difference among candidates, Mizrahi said the union felt Farrell would be effective. “One of the things we have enjoyed about the last four years in the city is we actually have gotten a lot done,” he said.
Another factor was diversity. All Seattle mayors have been white men, with the exception of Norm Rice, who served as Seattle’s first African-American mayor in the 1990s, and Bertha Knight Landes, elected in 1926 as the only woman to serve as the city’s mayor.
“That’s a big issue for us,” Mizrahi said.
If McGinn were to pull off a win, he’d be the first Seattle mayor to get the job back after losing it since John Dore in 1936. Dore didn’t complete his second term; he fell ill and died two years later.
McGinn says he can win and that people have underestimated him before.
“The conventional wisdom again is that I should have lost in 2009, got clobbered in 2013, and what am I even doing in the race this time?” McGinn said.
“But I won in 2009, I barely lost in 2013, and I am leading [in some polls] today. So there is something going on that is not being captured by the conventional wisdom.”