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).
Here, McGinn has both liability and opportunity. For one thing, McGinn is demonstrating that he's "not Greg Nickels." His speeches are not attended by applaud-at-any-cost supporters fearful of former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis' evil eye. There are no multi-point-plans, no nicely pressed and tailored suits. This bugs some, like Seattle Times editorialist Joni Balter who joked on KUOW's "Weekday" press roundtable that the bike-riding McGinn shouldn't show up at public functions with messy hair looking like "an unmade bed."
But that is the genuine McGinn, who takes the "unmade bed" characterization as a compliment. After all, this is Seattle where people wear parkas and hiking boots to the opera. Whereas some saw his speech performance as sloppy, McGinn says he's just trying to be himself. "I really just try and be open about what I am, where I'm going, and what I'm doing," he said last week at a meeting with reporters. He told how during the campaign he was advised to iron his shirts or shave his beard or get more cozy with the city's power brokers. He refused, went his own way, and won.
McGinn is trying to demonstrate through town halls and public outreach that he's listening before he acts, that he's cognizant of the real fiscal challenges the city faces, that he has to play small ball before he can get any of his bigger agenda items (progress on rail, education, city planning, public safety) enacted. Besides, they're long-term anyway. He is what he is, a non-professional politician, a guy who's not playing "Boss" in a mini Chicago on the Salish Sea.
McGinn supporters have their concerns. A chief one is wondering when the mayor will shift from campaign mode to governing mode. McGinn has appointed many top aides from his campaign staff and supporters, yet he has also chased away some city staffers (like Dwight Dively) who were very experienced, respected, and gave the mayor's team some solidity. The young true-believers of the campaign are inexperienced too, raising questions about whether you have a mayor's office where the rookies are leading the rookie. Is everyone in the learner's permit phase? How many know how to drive city government?
Another concern is that McGinn has the added challenge of transitioning from being a bomb-throwing activist to an establishment leader. Some say McGinn is frustrated at switching roles from the outsider critic to the insider who's taking all rotten tomatoes. Before the mayor even gets to convincing people to back and implement his policies, he has to prove that he can make things happen. Can he settle disputes between downtown interests? Can his office solve more problems than it creates? Can he get the city streets plowed when it counts? We know he can run a town hall, but the jury is still out on whether he can run City Hall.
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