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Seattle mayoral hunger games: The issues that will make a difference

What's the city's transit future? Can we promote neighborhoods and downtown development at the same time? The next mayor better have answers.

By Jordan Royer

December 12, 2012.

As candidates for Seattle mayor step forward, it is worthwhile to think about some of the issues that will dominate the debate in 2013. The way these issues break often provides the direction and opportunities for candidates. In a one-party town, it is often the only way for candidates to differentiate themselves from the pack.

This was obvious in 2009, the last time we elected a mayor.

Then, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel overshadowed all other issues. But there was also the potential of a new jail being built in Seattle, and what to do about Seattle’s schools. There was the “living wage ordinance” ordinance, supported by the King County Labor Council, hiring more cops, those darned strategic advisors in City Hall, and of course, the incumbent two-term Mayor Greg Nickels.

But the issue that resonated most was the one that Mike McGinn and a city council candidate, Mike O’Brien, expertly used to differentiate themselves from the crowd and eventually gain office — the tunnel. Candidate McGinn sent endless barrages of robo-calls to Seattleites in a push-poll format attacking the project. Once through the primary, however, he famously recanted his opposition to the project and said he would not stand in the way (sort of like Reagan convincing a nervous electorate that he wouldn’t blow up the world after making it through the primary in 1980).

We all know the tunnel history since then. 

But now we have a new set of issues that will align interests in confounding ways. Because Seattle is a Democratic town, individual issues and relationships frequently provide the distinctions between candidates, making for a multi-polar kind of affair. This one will be no different.

And that is why issues are so important.

Consider the debate about the NBA Arena in SODO, or the zoning changes contemplated in South Lake Union. How about our police department and the nearly million dollars a year it will cost taxpayers for the U.S. Department of Justice's overseers? Will the streetcar financing be a lightning rod for people who believe buses are more efficient and move more people? How about property taxes? Are Seattleites reaching a breaking point with the parade of levies we see every year? Remember, the school district will have levies of close to a billion dollars in 2013.

So far, the declared (and semi-declared) candidates are, in no particular order, Councilman Tim Burgess, State Sen. Ed Murray, former Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, real estate developer Charlie Staadecker, small business owner Albert Shen, and incumbent Mayor Mike McGinn. Former King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant are also "maybes." My best guess is that there will be a few more candidates who will jump in before January is over.

It is also inevitable that candidates will look to be the champion of the neighborhoods versus the establishment and the developers.

Yes, sports fans, we are in for another round of the classic neighborhoods versus downtown affair. But don’t look so surprised. Seattle and probably every city on earth, has the same dynamic.

Downtown is the economic engine of the city, political and economic power flows there with the force of sheer gravity. Once in power, politicians know they must focus on making sure the engine runs smoothly so they can use revenues to fund services throughout the city.

Outside the downtown core, out in the neighborhoods, people see their government officials spending too much time with moneyed interests, while inaccessible and distant to their needs and aspirations. How common it is to hear people say: “He was really supportive of the neighborhoods until he got elected. Now, he just cares about the developers and Paul Allen.”

This is how the relationship between the mayor, Seattle City Council, and Paul Allen’s development group, Vulcan, is seen today. Mayor Nickels was tagged similarly — all mayors are.

But here’s the problem for McGinn, and to a lesser degree, Tim Burgess: The focus on the downtown and South Lake Union may be the right thing to do, and the support for those efforts may bring money and endorsements in 2013. But they do not bring votes.

The money is downtown but the votes are in the neighborhoods; particularly north of the Ship Canal. This is why understanding how the issues play there is so important. Last time, McGinn’s robocall polls revealed a deep rift between downtown and the neighborhoods on the tunnel proposal. He used it. Now he is promoting the South Lake Union rezone and the new NBA arena. How times change.

Because of this neighborhood-downtown dialectic, it is very difficult for mayors to win many terms and harder still for council members to become mayors. Norm Rice did it after two tries, but nobody else has.

In 2013, watch for a candidate to try and thread the needle, bring together a vision of the neighborhoods and downtown and describe how we as a city can grow and prosper while not losing our soul. It’s a worthwhile question to ask, and a candidate who wants to be mayor had better have an answer.

Disclosure: The author plans to support Ed Murray for mayor.

Jordan Royer currently works for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents marine terminal operators and container vessels that serve the West Coast. He previously worked on public safety issues in the Paul Schell and Greg Nickels mayoral administrations. He was a candidate for Seattle City Council in 2009 and is a boardmember of the Manufacturing Industrial Council. He also served on Mayor Ed Murray’s Transition Team and works with the Mayor’s office on maritime and manufacturing industrial policy. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.

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Printed on August 01, 2014