Up the learning curve with Mayor McGinn

The rookie mayor says he's "working hard" at doing his job better. Is he?

Mayor Mike McGinn

Mayor Mike McGinn Chuck Wolfe

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn seems to be finding his media groove, stressing his rookie status and his candor about having a lot to learn. This is McGinn 2.0, with the first version being one of picking fights and operating as a lonely truth teller unwelcome at the party. It seems to be winning folks over.

Here's the mayor from Wednesday night's lopsided forum on the problems with the proposed waterfront tunnel, apologizing for his quick-trigger remarks about being unable to "trust" Gov. Gregoire on the tunnel: "I'm not the best politician and I'll admit that. And I'm not just trying to be 'aw-shucks' here. I'm learning a new job. I've got to figure out how to say the right thing and ... I'll work harder at doing it better."

Likewise, the mayor was quick to say that the city was "overwhelmed" in dealing with last week's snowstorm, and that a candid review of policies was already under way. This earned a rare column of praise from chief mayoral critic, Joni Balter of The Seattle Times. She writes: "This [snowstorm] outing didn't work so well but, giving credit where it is due, McGinn got the tone of leadership and self-deprecation just right."

If Balter praising McGinn is odd, so is a column by Publicola's Josh Feit telling the mayor to get over his rhetorical escalations with the City Council, which McGinn sometimes hypes into "constitutional crises," as when City Council President Richard Conlin signed an agreement with the state over the waterfront tunnel's EIS. There's little sign that the mayor is "figuring out how to say the right thing with the council" (and vice versa). Complains Feit, normally sympathetic with McGinn's politics: "Mayor 'Constitutional Crisis' McGinn’s cries of 'Wolf!' are getting less and less credible."

McGinn does an engaging "Aw shucks" with the public, suggestive of his skills at addressing juries in his legal career. His normal pose is that of a baffled citizen just asking a few basic questions and scratching his head at the official response. (His rumpled wardrobe and running-late schedule underscores the image.) The problem with this Diogenes approach is that McGinn himself is quite tricky, rather than an honest seeker after truth. He's the nemesis of the waterfront tunnel but denies he's against it. He wants honest public debate, but keeps lobbing in last-minute bombshells that disrupt normal debate. And he's the foe of wasteful spending who has a whole bag full of expensive proposals that he coyly puts on the table.

This confusion, which President Obama also shares, is an occupational hazard of inexperienced politicians in high office. But it's also built into the Democratic Party, which is an assemblage of competing special interests that can be served well in flush times, when there's money for all, but get very cranky in lean times. Leaders of such coalitions have to feint in many directions or, like Bill Clinton, get all lawyerly about the fine print. Still, McGinn's right: he's learning.

Next step: getting a senior staff around him that is more experienced politically, more organized, and more willing to stand up to Mayor Mike.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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