Seattle is heading for one of its trademark political train wrecks. Possibly Pauline can be snatched from the tracks of a hurtling locomotive (a lengthy legal battle over police with the Department of Justice) in the next two weeks. But for now, we seem to be emulating Congress with our own brand of high-stakes brinksmanship.
The blame-game got under way in earnest this week when a confidential letter from City Attorney Pete Holmes, skewering Mayor Mike McGinn for his foot-dragging tactics on the issue, made its way to Seattle Times reporters. City Council members quickly jumped in, pinning the tail on the stubborn-donkey mayor.
Well, maybe. Certainly the mayor is playing a lonely game here, stalling on negotiations with the DOJ, stiff-arming other parts of the city family such as the city attorney and the city council. He seems an odd-bedfellow friend of the cops, who also don't like the medicine the DOJ is proposing: years of expensive court-monitored reforms. The mayor's normal allies, minorities and groups like the ACLU, are also angry at being excluded from negotiations and the mayor's seeming preference for the cops' point of view.
Not that McGinn doesn't enjoy being lonely, as he was during his ultimately futile opposition to the deep-bore tunnel. Moreover, he could have some aces up his sleeve. One would be — having sided with the police as long as he has and thereby maybe bringing them along to accept the reforms — he forges a courthouse-steps agreement on the basic changes being advocated for the use of force by police when fighting crime. Another would be that a new attorney general under Obama 2 or Romney 1 would relax the legal pressure and settle out of court in a way more favorable to Seattle's budget and bruised local feelings.
Another complicating factor is that it takes two (or four) to tango in this way, and that McGinn's opponents have also been more eager to fight than to smoke peace pipes. In short, we have a kind of perfect storm of political ambition, ego, stubbornness, and defensiveness over mistakes by many parties, most definitely including the rookie mayor. Also, an absence of people who could resolve the issue.
Let me list the dramatis personae. You can start with the three members of the City Council committee who were supposed to work with the mayor in getting a unified response to the DOJ, which filed its sweepingly critical report eight months ago. Those three, who ultimately broke off cooperating with the uncooperative mayor, are Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Clark — all of whom are pretty openly toying with running against McGinn in 2013. The City Council as a whole enjoys isolating the mayor in this way, creating more of a vacuum for the current regime of government-by-council.
Next is the city attorney, Pete Holmes, also a rookie at the job and a man with visible chips on his shoulder, particularly when it comes to police issues and the mayor. Holmes defied McGinn on tunnel issues, and McGinn, once offended in this way, rarely forgives. He's required by city charter to use the city attorney in "all litigation," but McGinn has pretty much been his own attorney (he is a litigation specialist) and used his staff attorney. (There's another political firecracker that would go off if the DOJ goes ahead and files its lawsuit: Who defends the city?) It's hard to see how McGinn and Holmes can really work together after Holmes wrote his scathing letter, with copies to the abovementioned three councilmembers.
There's more. U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, who is another oft-mentioned mayoral possibility and has years of frustrating wrestling with the Seattle Police Department over reforms, is another forceful and stubborn player on this stage. By some inside accounts, the DOJ report suffers from serious flaws in analysis and naive prescriptions. Durkan and the D.C. feds in the DOJ were urged to find ways to identify the major problems and work with the city on reasonable solutions. This never really happened. A mediator was appointed, but one with little substantive experience in police work: again, no progress. An effort was made to agree on a monitor, who would do early mediation: not found.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!