Was there ever a newcomer elected to the Seattle City Council with more promise than Tim Burgess? Last year he won with nearly 65 percent of the vote against incumbent David Della. That's not supposed to happen in status-quo Seattle, where those in office are typically re-elected by landslides, not rejected by them.
You’d have to go back to 1991 to find a City Council incumbent ousted by a better margin (and, even then, only slightly). That year, Sherry Harris beat 24-year veteran Sam Smith by just over 65 percent. But her showing was surely due to the fact that Smith was suffering from late-stage diabetes and spent much of the final month of the election either in the hospital or recuperating at home. Burgess’ opponent was weak, but he wasn’t sick.
After almost a year in office, Tim Burgess is emerging as just the kind of adult that voters expected he’d be. He’s smart, decisive, and already showing a knack for coalition-building — quite a combo. “I love my job,” says the freshman lawmaker. “I’m having a blast.”
“We couldn’t have done the Parks Levy without him,” says Council President Richard Conlin of Burgess’ role in helping convince other lawmakers to send the $145 million Pro Parks renewal to the ballot this fall. That it won so overwhelmingly at the polls makes it hard to appreciate just how skittish many on the council were last July, wary of putting the big tax package out to a vote. Even Mayor Greg Nickels opposed the idea. Burgess, who pushed hard for a renewal during his ’07 election campaign, never wavered. That example helped Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, who led the levy effort, to get other lawmakers on board. The Parks measure was easily the boldest thing the council has done in years. When was the last time City lawmakers pushed $145 million of new taxes and spending down the throat of an unwilling mayor?
Burgess has generally sided with the Mayor in his first year in office, but he isn’t afraid to deviate from Nickels when he sees a reason. “Lead when it’s not happening elsewhere,” he likes to say. During the recent budget deliberations, Burgess led the effort to revamp the Mayor’s proposal for combating youth violence, which, he says, wasn’t fully formed. About his occasional differences with Nickels, Burgess is careful: “It’s not a desire to be confrontational. It’s a desire to get things done.”
“I’m impressed with his ability to make a decision and stick with it,” says Councilmember Jan Drago, reflecting what many of his colleagues and council staffers often say about the new lawmaker. “If he’s with you, he’s with you,” notes Rasmussen.
Burgess seems to have been ready on day one. He had a good understanding of City government, having served for a time as head of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission. He also did his homework. Before he took office Burgess attended a number of council meetings as an observer to get up to speed on the many issues he would face. At those same meetings now that he is in office, Burgess is always informed and often the most incisive questioner both of the proposals brought forward by his colleagues and those being proposed by mayoral staffers. To some, his smarts can seem arrogant and a bit preachy.
Other than more parks, Burgess’ strongest message on the campaign trail last year was improved public safety — a natural issue for someone who had spent seven years as a Seattle cop back in the 1970s. Burgess chairs the council's Public Safety Committee. “He has the trust of the Police Department far, far more than Nick Licata ever had,” says Rasmussen, comparing Burgess’ leadership to that of his predecessor.
Burgess’ most notable proposal from that perch is the “Safer Streets” initiative he unveiled this past summer. It’s a 12-point plan to tackle public safety comprehensively by emphasizing more human services along with more cops. “It’s been years, if not decades, since this kind of clear strategy has been pursued,” Burgess says. In just a few months seven of the 12 elements have been funded or adopted. A handful of those, however, were already in the works and would have happened whether or not Burgess launched an initiative.
Burgess is particularly proud of two pieces of the plan — a program to pair mental health professionals with police officers (to help deal with troubling situations on the street), and a “safe home” for children involved in prostitution (to help them escape their pimps). Both pilot projects cost a total of $1.5 million. Burgess had to persuade members of King County’s Regional Policy Committee, which meant winning over representatives from suburban cities, to go along with the Seattle-centric programs. “Everyone told me it would be impossible, even Ron Sims,” notes Burgess. After working it hard, he got unanimous support. He calls it one of his best achievements since being elected.
This work and other efforts during Burgess’ first year demonstrate his skill at assembling alliances. Council President Conlin, also adept at forging strong coalitions, has clearly taken note of this quality in Burgess, making the two a key power duo. If the council had a vice president, Tim Burgess would likely be it.
Another effect of Burgess’ presence has been to move the council more to the center. The leftist-populist wing, which used to include Peter Steinbrueck, who retired from the council last year, is down to only one, Nick Licata. Burgess has been a solid vote, and often an anchor, for all the mainstream council initiatives this year. That frustrates some progressives. “He not our guy,” declares John Fox, long-time council critic and head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. “Burgess consistently sides with the mayor’s office in the pro-density, pro-development agenda.” While Burgess has supported money for the homeless and human services, Fox says, “the problem is some of the larger issues,” including funding for Mercer Street, the multifamily tax exemption, and incentive zoning. “He’s not with the neighborhoods on those.”
Burgess was a media business leader before switching to politics. He is an active blogger, who loves to expound on issues and interact with constituents on-line. “It’s real easy to get isolated real fast,” he says of becoming an elected official. “People suddenly go formal.” He’s the one councilmember who allows citizens to post comments, concerns, or criticisms about him or the City on his personal website. He is also an avid user of Facebook, with 327 friends and counting.
His high accessibility on-line contrasts with his sometimes low accessibility in person. It can be hard to schedule face-time with Burgess in his office. During the recent budget cycle some citizens and service providers were frustrated at not being able to see him and make their pitch.
Burgess’ fast start on the council has already generated speculation about a run for mayor someday, and some fans are even talking about a run next year, when Mayor Nickels is expected to seek a third term. Burgess insists he’s not interested. But if Nickels wins in 2009 and decides to step down in 2013, Tim Burgess will be on almost everyone’s short list to run. Maybe even his own.
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