March 13 at the crowded
no-no election night party at the Edgewater hotel, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels appeared before the cameras proffering some grand words about the voters' will, the city's soul, and preserving the waterfront, trying to redefine the clear defeat of his tunnel preference into some kind of shared victory, before exiting. But the man of the hour was City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, the elected official most associated with the voters' sentiment that night. People greeted Steinbrueck with "congratulations, Peter!" as if he had orchestrated the election outcome, which, as you might recall, was "no" on replacing the crumbling, earthquake-challenged Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel and "no" on replacing the 54-year-old structure with another elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Steinbrueck didn't, of course, lead the nay-sayers to victory, though he was certainly happy with the outcome. As possibly the most prominent elected official in favor of neither advisory ballot proposal, of finding a middle path, of exploring the notion of tearing down the viaduct and creating a surface boulevard and an aggressive mass-transit initiative in the viaduct's place, Steinbrueck was the de facto elected leader of the moment. It was ironic. Two weeks earlier, he had announced he would not seek a fourth term this fall, ostensibly to focus all his attention on bringing down the viaduct. After 10 years in office and a likely easy re-election, giving up this influence as a senior City Council member was unexpected. Did it even make sense if he wanted to help shape the waterfront?
Fast-forward to today. Steinbrueck has something he can take credit for, and he's using his City Council position to push it. While Nickels, Gov. Chris Gregoire, and King County Executive Ron Sims have quietly walked away from the viaduct issue for the time being
, perhaps until after some future election is safely past, Steinbrueck is putting it back on the public agenda with legislation that would direct the Seattle Department of Transportation to create a central-waterfront mobility plan
. The plan would make the movement of people and goods – not cars – the priority. That would emphatically make the favored option a boulevard-like surface replacement of the viaduct, combined with mass transit and different use of the downtown street grid. The council was to discuss Steinbrueck's bill today at 2:30 p.m. (Update: Seattle City Council allocates $8.1 million for waterfront study
So while Steinbrueck might genuinely think he can be most effective tearing down the viaduct while out of office, without the baggage of other council issues, he's obviously not done working the issue from inside City Hall. And, of course, he could always run again, maybe even for mayor.
The night of the election
in March, we cross Alaskan Way and pass under the viaduct itself, through its shadows, discussing the Seattle process – endless debate on issues that takes in every conceivable point of view. When I tell him I read online that he is credited for creating it, he seems surprised but laughs. "What's the difference," I ask, "between 'the Seattle process' and stasis?" This launches Steinbrueck into a discussion of consensus, the value of allowing input from the public, but knowing when to turn off the spigot and make a decision. We wander across Belltown to victory party two at the Spitfire bar, discussing the spirit of Seattle – liberal or libertarian? Indecisive or overly inclusive and cautious? Pro- or anti-public transit? I come from a town where politics has clear divides, two sides, and more often than not a bitter battle to the end. Seattle is more civil, says Steinbrueck, but that leads to the process, which gets us to a viaduct vote that earns the city more headlines reinforcing a reputation for wishy-washiness. And no resolution.
A week later, in the calm of his City Hall office, Steinbrueck explains the timing and rationale of his decision not to run again and mulled his future. "I didn't want it to appear, if I waited till after the election [to announce], that I was leaving disgruntled." Instead, he thought, "Why not maybe use strategically the announcement a little bit to influence the election, focus attention on the surface-transit multimodal solution?"
He had his fingers crossed that the vote would support his position. "I felt pretty strongly that the tunnel was going down big time, and it did," he said, but he was uncertain about the rebuild vote. "That was my biggest worry, that if we didn't get under 50 percent, we'd be stuck with it. The state would just go forward. I'd heard from good sources in Olympia that if it didn't come in below 50 percent, that's probably what would happen, so I felt there was a lot at stake there with that election." Which explains why Steinbrueck was all smiles that night when the results came in. He wryly remarked on how fast Nickels, a frequent adversary and antagonist, escaped to the elevator at the Edgewater.
This year Steinbrueck
turns 50, and it marks the centenary of Pike Place Market, the city's beloved, at-times-beleaguered landmark, which the Steinbrueck family is credited with saving – twice. Many know that Steinbrueck's father, architect and activist Victor Steinbrueck, led the charge in the late 1960s to save the then-dilapidated market neighborhood from developer dreams and that now there's a small park across the street from the market bearing his name. Fewer know, perhaps, of Victor's youngest son's effort to save it again in the late 1980s, when New York investors took possession of it as a tax shelter. "Peter was the one who was Paul Revere and called me up, and I was the first to write about it," says City Council member Jean Godden, who then was a newspaper columnist. Peter Steinbrueck led the challenge in court with a team of pro bono lawyers and easily won. "You might say of the Steinbruecks, the city is indebted to them," says Godden.
So it might be said of Steinbrueck that he can be pretty effective outside City Hall. "Lots of things have been done by civic activists outside of electoral politics," says Steinbrueck. "It's a time-honored, valued approach to moving the political agenda.
"My decision to not to seek reelection was based on a number of factors," he says. Resolving the viaduct issue is a key one. "Looking at the future of Seattle, what mattered most to me at this time was to get the issue resolved, in the right direction this year, and not have it dragged out endlessly.
"I feel like I've nearly exhausted efforts here in my work on the viaduct at City hall, having worked on this issue for the past six or seven years with increasing intensity. I don't know what more we can do here."
Last year, as people began inquiring about his re-election campaign, Steinbrueck began to wonder, "Will I grow old in this job, and tired and become part of the institutional woodwork? I kind of felt I had reached a peak here in the last year in terms of political successes and accomplishments." His announcement took his colleagues by surprise. Even longtime ally and fellow progressive Nick Licata, the City Council president, was "shocked. And awed. Because he's very engaged in urban, civic issues."
Licata, who supported
a viaduct rebuild, doesn't doubt Steinbrueck will be successful bringing attention to his cause, even as a mere citizen. "Inevitably, the press gravitates toward him because he's articulate, [because of] his family stature, he is a natural." Says Godden: "He said he'd give up his career rather than see the viaduct rebuilt – probably about a month or two before he did just that. â€¦ He's inclined to give very impassioned speeches. At the time we all felt it was a bit rhetorical, but obviously he meant it."
So here's an inevitable question, and it's been posed before: Will Peter Steinbrueck run for mayor in 2009? "I am asked that at least once a day," he replies with an amicable tone of slight exhaustion, "and I have for years. It tells me that people, well, first of all have confidence in me – I think. Some just assume that's my motivation and I can say it's not. I've been very happy working here on the legislative level. I actually want a break!
"I'm not ruling it out, [but] it's not the first thing I want to do, to start campaigning for another office. And I'm not even sure the job of mayor is the one I'd pursue." He expresses interest in statewide and even national politics. He says he'd consider running for Congress but wouldn't challenge his friend, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, for his seat.
Like McDermott, whose outspokenness as a liberal D.C. lawmaker is legendary, Steinbrueck sees himself staying true to his values: "Ambition-driven versus mission-driven is how I describe all politicians – those who are in office and are determined to make progressive change, and those who love being in office and want to seek higher office. I can leave behind all of that and am mostly motivated by a desire for progressive change and improvement in the human condition."