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Dixy Lee Mayor?

Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn, is off to a rocky start. He can take some solace from the past, but there are warning signs too.
McGinn lays down some markers before the City Council

McGinn lays down some markers before the City Council Seattle Channel

Mike McGinn has not had an easy transition from activist/candidate to Seattle's City Hall. To be fair, either candidate, McGinn or his opponent Joe Mallahan, would have been in for a rough ride. Both were inexperienced political outsiders who would be picking up the reins in troubled times. The Great Recession continues, revenues are down, vacancy rates are high, the construction cranes are dwindling, and a multi-million dollar budget gap looms.

Then there are what McGinn recently referred to as the "legacy" problems (read messes left over from his predecessors), including a drained rainy day fund, an expensive downtown tunnel project that could produce cost over-runs the locals would be on the hook for, and a stalemate at Montlake over the design of a new 520 bridge.

McGinn has increased his own suffering through a series of self-inflicted goofs and errors in the past six weeks. He pushed the school levy, but then failed to vote (more embarrassing because he made a big issue of Mallahan's poor voting record during the campaign). He appointed a valued political aide (since resigned) to a top city job, a guy who has a background of committing fraud and who had been lying about having a PhD. He annoyed the city council members with a scheme to put a funding measure for the waterfront seawall project on the May ballot without consulting them first, an act that was seen as a Machiavellian device to sabotage the downtown tunnel, a project McGinn opposes and the council favors.

The latter is an issue that has bred mistrust and misunderstanding. The mayor says his I-oppose-the-tunnel-but-will-get-it-built-if-we-don't-have-to-pay-for-overruns position is "nuanced." His chief council rival, Tim Burgess, widely assumed to be positioning himself for a mayoral run, says the mayor's tactics on the tunnel are "disingenuous" and that he's really trying to undermine the project.

Beyond the core debate about whether or not the tunnel is a good idea (or a done deal) lies the issue of trust. McGinn is widely perceived as having "nuanced" himself to the point where people, including those on the council, aren't sure just what he'll do. The charitable, yet unflattering, description is that he's being "lawyerly." Others simply wonder whether he's flipped again or flopped, and how many times. Though his semi-switch from anti- to sorta-pro-tunnel might have made the difference in his successful mayoral campaign, McGinn's transformation to very reluctant tunnel implementer has had the price of raising concerns about whether the mayor is entirely trustworthy. Does he mean what he says, and just what is it he's saying? It is tempting to read between McGinn's lines, perhaps too tempting.

Mistrust has been sown elsewhere too. McGinn moved quickly to act on his campaign promise to cut 200 positions in city government held by what he implied were political appointees from the Nickels years. That should have been a political slam dunk: The budget and staff need to be cut, and keeping a campaign promise is a good thing. Yet here McGinn confirmed the fears of those who worry abut his lack of management experience. By announcing to a whole category of city workers that 200 would be taken out and shot, but not disclosing which ones, he demoralized an entire bureaucracy which has retrenched to oppose his moves, blocking them with technicalities and claims of possible discrimination. Even if McGinn is right on the math, he flunked management 101 and has had to beat a hasty retreat to now consider the cuts in the context of the overall budget, a context he has just made tougher for himself.

More recently, his "State of the City" address to a less-than-filled room, was criticized for being not a speech but off-the-cuff remarks about the challenges ahead, a rambling "bummer." One would think that an activist like McGinn would be able to seize moments with the cameras on and use them to lay out his positive vision. During the campaign he was helped on TV and radio by his ability to out-talk Mallahan, who was verbally gaffe-prone. The symbolism of such addresses is always more important than their substance. If nothing else, McGinn's non-speech seemed to play to an impression that McGinn is not only a non-politician (which can be a good thing), but a non-mayor (which is not).


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 22, 3:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Fair points about style as admistrators between Mike & Dixi, but not mentioning her politics undercuts your point somewhat. She ran & won as a Democrat but was decidedly a non-liberal, being unfriendly to labor, a stuanch supporter of nukes, unfriendly to enviros, friendly to her pal Ron Reagan and to business- essentially a Republican without Christianity; leaving her without a party organisation to lean on or to organize support among the voters. McGinn is still a liberal in a liberal friendly berg and knows something about connecting with his base and finding popular support. I'd say it's a good bet the Times will not be in his corner at all, but he stands a chance of not pissing off the rest of the city journalists. He ought to find a way to get some of the city workforce on his side, I'm hearing him referred to as McGoo, which indicates a lack of either fear or respect. Which also reminds one of Dixi Lee.

NickBob

Posted Mon, Feb 22, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Hems are sewn. Mistrust is sown.

luigia

Posted Mon, Feb 22, 12:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Mayor Mike is right to get started on the seawall NOW, not later. Why are seawall reconstruction studies unfinished? Its expedited replacement is critical and begun first in rebuilding Alaskan Way. WSDOT and SDOT have no excuse for the years wasted studying a multitude of AWV SR99 replacement concepts while the seawall is poised to collapse of its own decay.

The best tunnel option is still a Cut-n-cover because it creates the 'strongest' seawall and 'most stable' Alaskan Way. Better emergency exit, ventilation, lighting, lower maintenance and operating costs. It could cost less and will create more construction jobs. A 6-lane 'stacked' cut/cover would retain existing AWV capacity and be built while leaving the AWV in place. The portal work in SoDo is applicable to a Cut/cover. The forest of pilings beneath Alaskan Way may have to be removed anyway, for soil stabilization, utilities etc, so there may be no avoiding a reconstruction mess.

Many Thanks, Mike, for putting the brakes on the deep-bore fiasco. Don't allow Mercer Place & Street from Elliott through Lower Queen Anne to become a freight corridor to access the deep-bore portal on Aurora. Perhaps you'll find some way for clueless Seattlers to save face. I suggest formally and honestly reconsidering Tunnelite.

Wells

Posted Mon, Feb 22, 9:16 p.m. Inappropriate

A nicely nuanced analysis and a well-structured piece; helpful in putting McGinn into the historical context. I am reminded of the deep populist strain in Northwest politics (down to the dress code), which is where I see McGinn--and not as a "liberal" in any traditional sense of that word. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion, the populist strain produces mostly emotion and memorable characters but not much meaningful progress for working people and the struggling middle class. Instead of just being opposed to the "legacy" policies of the past, McGinn might ask what policy tools are at his and the city's disposal to create living-wage jobs and equitable distribution of public goods like housing, education, transportation, resources, and services. And then, as Berger suggests, make some real decisions.

bkochis

Posted Tue, Feb 23, 6:15 a.m. Inappropriate

One big difference: Dixy carried a comb in her back pocket and used it routinely.

Jan

Posted Wed, Mar 3, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Wells, you don't seem to understand that (as McGinn himself said), the Seattle Mayor has no power to stop the tunnel. He didn't "put the brakes on" it. He also can't start the seawall now, or at any time, without the Council's partnership, unless he's going to raise the money personally. Nor can he tell WSDOT what to do or what not to do. As far as saving face, he should look to saving his own. Several very good high-level City administrators have gone to King County, he's made a number of very public gaffes, and no one--in Seattle or in the state--is impressed. And it's only March of his first year in office. Vapid praise does not change the picture.

sarah

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