A new McGinn: Just call him ‘Barack’

Mayor Mike McGinn Credit: Seattle Channel

The State of the City speech by Mayor Mike McGinn was really more of a State of the Mayor speech, a chance of all of us to see how McGinn is growing into the job few expected him to hold when he announced his campaign in 2009.

The first indication of change was that there was any speech at all: last year, McGinn delivered off-the-cuff remarks rather than a prepared talk that mimics the president’s address to Congress. The City Council was offended, City Hall watchers tut-tutted, and most people conceded (even some McGinn aides, and, rumor has it, the mayor himself) that it was a mistake.

From his first days in City Hall, McGinn was eager to “be himself,” a smart, eco-advocate who was happy to be an outsider throwing elbows and cleaning house. He made plenty of errors, but was defiant in his own cause. He quickly alienated the City Council en masse, the downtown business establishment, replaced city veterans with young McGinnies, and wasn’t afraid to talk tough, even if he didn’t need to. 

He likened his approach to establishing himself in a pick-up basketball game: throw a few elbows so you have some room to play. Others saw a guy unnecessarily burning bridges (and a tunnel), perhaps too arrogant to learn anything from anybody. They worried he suffered from “smartest guy in the room” syndrome.

By the State of the City measure, he has learned a few things. One is, respecting tradition and showing the office some respect. He showed up in a tie with a good speech prepared (and distributed to media) in advance (PDF). Instead of outsider, bomb-thrower McGinn, we got the softer spoken, slimmer (by 40 pounds), and perhaps grayer Mike, a guy who crafted his remarks to emphasize areas of agreement on a vision for the city.

His main inspiration seems to be President Barack Obama, and he cast the McGinn agenda as rising to the challenge put forth in the State of the Union Address. “Mr President, ” he said, “you challenged us to win the future. On behalf of the people of Seattle, we are ready and willing, and we are very able to lead the way.”

For McGinn this means an urban future for Seattle that is high-tech, green, and more socially just. Obama wants high-speed rail connecting cities, so does McGinn, but he also wants rail connecting more city neighborhoods. Obama wants educational accountability, and McGinn is pushing a levy that, he says, will hold family and education programs accountable and will target troubled schools. Obama wants green jobs, and McGinn is pushing energy efficiency grants and pressing businesses to reduce consumption. Obama wants a Sputnik moment, and McGinn is pushing for broadband and to improve high school graduation rates (and math scores). 

If there is anything that normalizes the McGinn agenda, it is a speech that shows how his initiatives parallel and advance the Obama agenda. What self-respecting liberal Seattleite is going to disagree with Obama’s domestic agenda? It’s certainly a good psychological defense: what opponent wants to be, by implication, on the side of those creepy congressional Tea Party Republicans?

For all the arguments over the seawall, the tunnel, parking rates, and whether the new 520 should have rail or not, the McGinn agenda is straight- up Seattle, something very few could disagree with. McGinn’s an outsider? He began his speech by pointing out what he called his “secret” relationship with the council, meaning how much stuff they agree and work together on: Metro funding, budget cuts, rental housing inspections, the Nightlife Initiative, the Families and Education Levy, Chihuly and KEXP at the Center. Lots of common ground.

The only bombs thrown were Tim Eyman’s way. “Mr. Eyman,” the mayor intoned, “you may have talked the rest of the state into destroying what we hold dear. But we are drawing a line around Seattle…” Bashing Eyman and touting Seattle exceptionalism will win you friends every time. Instead of infighting, McGinn seemed to say, it’s us against retro America, fighting to implement the Obama Way.

The outsider McGinn showed himself in a number of rhetorical ways, though toned down. One is the populist thread in McGinn’s arguments. He’s determined to make city workers more efficient (“we’re not going to stand for mediocrity in government”); he’s frugal (though we haven’t seen his light-rail bill yet); he questions the high price of tolls on 520 that won’t have capacity for rail, which, he says, would mean we’d be spending “$4 billion on a bridge for rich people.” The high toll figures ($7 to $8) he cited might be wrong, but his point was that cars are for the elite, especially when the new highway is, for all intents and purposes, a nice driveway for Microsoft commuters.

And then there’s his opposition to the tunnel, reduced here mostly to a plea to put it to a vote. He also talks about changing the way the city does business, citing the need for urban improvements in unglamorous neighborhoods. Talking about a grassroots sidewalk project in Bitter Lake, he said “you shouldn’t have to have power brokers or big campaign donors behind it for it to get done in this city.” The implication is that’s the way things used to be done, but McGinn is changing that.

Throughout the speech, McGinn highlighted people and projects in south Seattle, from troubled schools to police officers working with youth. And McGinn sees this all of a piece with the upcoming levy, but also with the problems facing the Seattle Police Department. “Right now,” McGinn said, “just 18 percent of our police officers live in Seattle, 82 percent don’t. It’s hard to have a good local police force if the police aren’t local.” 

SPD, in short, has an urban values problem, a force that doesn’t reflect the racial and cultural mix of the city it’s policing. McGinn dropped this passage from his oral remarks, but in his written speech he said “We want a police force that looks like Seattle.” Others have pointed out, like the SPD’s Public Accountability Auditor Anne Levinson, that training and cultural context issues  are key to fixing citizen complaints and preventing future “use of force” tragedies. McGinn asked for people’s patience while the police accountability process and cultural transformation of the department take place, but he also promised to hold Chief John Diaz accountable.

An intriguing issue that McGinn found a way to frame well was city broadband. McGinn sees a better-wired city as key to global competitiveness, and lamented the poor quality of Internet access. He talked about a Pioneer Square gaming company, Undead Labs, that has moved here from Bellevue, but said Seattle’s available bandwidth was “barely adequate” and that in a few years the company would have to relocate. “Seattle is one of the Internet capitals of the world. And we’re going to have a company leave because they can’t get fast enough Internet?” asked an incredulous McGinn. (Undead is a tenant in the same building as Crosscut.)

His suggestion is to tap some of the 500 miles of fiber optic cable the city has already laid and paid for, much of which is unused because of a law preventing it from being tapped by private companies. It’s called “dark fiber” and McGinn wants the law changed and to find a way to get the private sector connected (the cable runs just a few blocks from Undead’s offices).

McGinn’s pledge to oversee high-tech city improvements has been general, but individual cases, and proposed solutions, are the kind of specifics people can grasp: Tap existing infrastructure to solve a 21st century snag with public-private cooperation. If McGinn’s tenure has sometimes seemed long on lectures and short on problem-solving, this is the kind of thing that could begin to give more oomph to his agenda, to push it past tunnel opposition into a doable future.

Which brings us to the re-framing of Mayor Outsider. A year on, it seems that he’s learning how to govern in Seattle: high on ideals, appeal to the civic ego, burn fewer bridges, and be pragmatic. Indeed, that approach is also the best for his attacks on the conventional wisdom of City Hall insiders. The tunnel, for example, is not a mistake because it is immoral, but because, in the end, it is less practical. The pro-tunnel forces have so far held the “pragmatic” high ground. That is where arguments are ultimately won, and how people can be won over.

Obama seems to have learned that lesson, and McGinn’s been taking notes.

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