Memo to the new staffers for Mayor Mike McGinn: As you walk into the mayor’s office early in the week when the mayor is to be sworn in, you will find it eerily clean and quiet, though it will soon be filled with "bumblebees," as Sen. Warren Magnuson called them — the staff who will make or break the new mayor. On these mornings, the first days you truly belong, there is none of the frenetic buzzing and excited movement that will become a normal state of affairs for the next four years, just quiet anticipation and a little fear. That's certainly what we felt when we joined the Charles Royer administration on Jan. 3, 1978.
The setting is a terrific metaphor of what you are supposed to do. Help your guy fill this place with life, accomplishment, meaning. Here is some advice that we hope is useful to you.
Don’t badmouth the city council. It’s amazing what gets back to them. Council members can feel your contempt; if you have it, it sticks on your clothing, like cigarette smoke. You have moved into a big job. There is little tactical advantage to being small.
Work hard to keep your boss in touch with the council. The separation of powers is noteworthy, but not required. The dynamics of city hall tend to pull people apart. Sincerely seek advice from them and take it if possible. The council may not always be your friend, but it is not your enemy.
Strive to be candid. Be especially candid to your boss. Louis Howe, who staffed Franklin Roosevelt for much of his life, would respond to the president’s question “What have you got?” with “Do you want the bark on or off?” You will never be judged harshly by your failures, just the ones you don’t acknowledge. Your boss will sometimes resist, saying, as ours did once, “Look, I am Mayor Royer, not Mayor Culpa.” Keep in mind that you are here, in part, because the last mayor couldn’t give himself the D-minus he deserved for snow removal.
Enjoy your luck and don’t confuse it with skill. A man at the Pike Market hands over a piece of paper containing the street address of his mother, who lives on a dark street where the streetlight is out. Although the recipient forgets the exchange and loses the paper, two weeks later the man races across the street and excitedly says: “They turned on the light the next day,” he marvels. “Piece of cake,” is the relieved reply.
As an outsider for the past year, you need to adjust your thinking about the nameless bureaucrats you now find yourself standing next to in the elevator. The heartless automatons you ran against are now your automatons, and you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of them know a hell of a lot more than you do. To a large degree, your success depends on their success.
Don’t throw out all the ideas, systems, or personnel associated with the Nickels brand. We arrived in city hall as outsiders, too, certain that we could do most everything better than the previous administration. A chaotic year later, we wished we had copied a number of things. Make a conscious effort to truly evaluate what’s worth keeping, not just who is worth keeping. One sure tip: Use the correspondence system they have perfected over eight years. In the same vein, reach out to supporters of “the other guy.” It will annoy some of your supporters, but it is essential for building the capability to make things happen at city hall.
Avoid owning success. The boss owns success. Citizens own success. Your supporters own success. The fact your hand is on the tiller and the ship is heading in the right direction is your private pleasure alone.
Create a focused, limited agenda of things you want to get done. So much of the job is reacting to the crisis of the day, week, or month. Stay focused on a few objectives that you can regularly drive through the mayhem. Who knew that a freighter would collide with the old West Seattle Bridge and consume every ounce of our staff time for months? But we never forgot that promise to end storm flooding in the Delridge Valley — and we delivered.
Realize that you will deeply disappoint people who really liked and trusted your boss and who gave time and money during the campaign. Some will look at you with contempt for years. Your obligation is to help the mayor move on. While this is a reflective business, it is not a looking-back business.
Don’t whine about criticism from the media. It only enables your boss to join in.
This time will tether you to the city for the rest of your life. You will look at curb cuts, pot holes, parks, wires, utility poles, and homeless people differently forever. Your possibilities on this first day are impressive. You are staffing the guy running one of the coolest cities in the world and one that will get better because of your own efforts to help him succeed.
Good luck and do well.
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