Last Friday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said, in a press conference he called to comment on the state's receipt of two bids to dig the deep-bore waterfront tunnel, which he opposes, that "I don't believe we can trust the governor to keep our promises to protect us." He later added, "I don't trust the legislature [in this regard] either." You can watch the full press conference here. The glacial till soon hit the fan.
Had the mayor stepped over the line of acceptable political insults? Gov. Gregoire had earlier in the day had her moment of triumph, celebrating the two bids and delivering a vow to veto any effort to stick Seattle with cost overruns, as state legislation recommends. Courtesy would suggest that the mayor tepidly welcome the governor's pledge, and then wait a few days before raining all over her parade with his litany of alarms about the project and a list of the governor's past failures to honor all pledges on the tunnel. But that's not the combative McGinn's style, so he called a press conference and unloaded on Gregoire and the legislature.
By Monday, the mayor was walking the comment back a bit, the governor's office was said to be "reaching out for further dialogue," and the City Council was deciding not to escalate — "better to not pay attention," in the somewhat condescending words of City Council President Richard Conlin. And so, another skirmish in the cold war over the Viaduct stepped back from the brink.
A lot of people, particularly tunnel supporters, thought the mayor's remarks were "way beyond the pale," as one city councilmember said, off the record. Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) did go on the record, telling Seattlepi.com, "I am disappointed by the mayor's disrespectful language to our governor and legislature. This is a relationship business and the mayor is a more gracious person than to throw an angry punch that questions people's motives and integrity." Carlyle and others were worried that McGinn's words would make it still more impossible for the city to get what it needed from the next legislative session or the governor. Some thought the council should hire its own lobbyist to go to Olympia, as it did for part of the last session, or otherwise punish McGinn.
The episode tells one a lot about the state of simmering hostilities at City Hall, and the steps being taken not to escalate into a shooting war. It reminds me of the observation that the best news story these days is "celebrity in trouble." The celebrity sorta-violates a taboo, and then follows outrage, clarifications, semi-apologies, maybe even a highly publicized trip to the jail or a treatment center. Then it fades, only to be repeated again. McGinn seems to understand full well this aspect of modern media. It serves to keep his dominant issue — saving Seattle taxpayers from possible cost overruns from the tunnel — ever in the news, even as his allies on this issue shrink.
So far, the City Council has a strategy of not taking the bait. To do so, they argue, just reignites the war, disgusts the legislature, and gives the mayor more time in his bully pulpit. It also would drag council members down to the level of this essentially meretricious debate and musses up their chances to run for reelection or mayor some day. "Our job is to try to build good relationships," observed Councilmember Conlin, brushing the episode aside and meanwhile making calls to legislators and the governor to assure them that the council, at least, was the soul of cooperativeness.
Some might find this more evidence of the council's fear of confrontation, of drawing hard lines. The last time it tried this, when Conlin defied the mayor and signed an agreement with the state on the latest EIS document, McGinn had a field day, blasting the council for usurping power and violating numerous laws. So instead the council, which is still 8-1 in favor of the tunnel project, keeps moving things along, working with the governor (by now fiercely in favor of the project), and ignoring (or patronizing) the mayor, while still looking for areas of agreement with him. This being Seattle politics, the council is about 95 percent aligned with McGinn's green and liberal agenda.
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