If Peter Steinbrueck wins next November, he’ll be the first native-born Seattleite elected mayor in more than 50 years. That says something about this footloose, magnetic, end-of-the-rainbow town, where young people who don’t go to Portland to retire come to make it. But it also says something about Steinbrueck and his political niche as the familiar but perennially fresh-faced kid from down the block.
We habitually use “roots” to describe a person’s connections with his or her community, especially with someone like Steinbrueck whose ties are lifelong. But those connections are more like neurons — multi-directional and intertwined, giving as well as taking, receiving signals and sending them, and, together with thousands of others, making the body politic move.
Steinbrueck’s connections are many and deep. In a youngish city built by self-inventors, a place that preaches the gospel of fresh starts, Steinbrueck is the closest thing we have to an heir to a political dynasty. (Crosscut contributor Jordan Royer, a past city council candidate and future — who knows? — is the next closest. But though his father was a popular three-term mayor who — hard to imagine these days — left on his own rather than losing a primary, “Royer” is not a name to conjure with like “Steinbrueck.”)
In true Seattle frontier fashion, however, the Steinbrueck legacy is populism, iconoclasm and dissident defiance. His father, the artist, architect and UW professor Victor Steinbrueck, was a gadfly who became a civic savior and sage in battles to save the Pike Place Market and, less successfully, other public spaces and urban heirlooms. While still in grade school, Peter became the little drummer boy of the Save the Market campaign. He recalls watching his father paint the first “Friends of the Market” sign on the Arcade floor when was six or seven, and running the Friends' daystall, selling buttons and collecting petition signatures, when he was 13.
That’s one familiar snapshot from Steinbrueck’s unconventional career. Here are a few others that are less familiar but likewise telling:
1985-86: The Seattle School Board votes to demolish and replace Franklin High, the stately neoclassical hill-topper that’s Seattle’s second-oldest high school and Southeast Seattle’s premier landmark. Community outcry and expert criticism eventually force the district to review its questionable cost estimates and discover, lo and behold, that it can renovate the 74-year-old icon for less than it would spend to build new.
At the public hearing, a parade of local architectural eminences — Fred Bassetti, Paul Thiry — urge reusing the old building. But it’s a slight 28-year-old in a bomber jacket — as ever, looking younger than his years — who draws murmurs from the crowd: “Isn’t that Victor Steinbrueck’s kid?” Allied Arts president Margaret Pageler has recruited Peter Steinbrueck to the cause; though he attended elite Lakeside himself, his parents both went to Franklin, and his attachment is sentimental as well as aesthetic and philosophical. He speaks movingly about the school's heritage, and it seems a family heritage has also re-emerged.
1989: A previously silent circle of investors called the Urban Group makes a shocking announcement: They bought the Pike Place Market a decade earlier, and now they want to run it like a business and make the money they're due. That’s half-true: While no one paid attention, the Market’s public development authority effected a paper sale that it believed would transfer only tax credits to the private investors. But changes in the tax code have eliminated those credits, so now the new “owners” come calling for their money.
City and PDA officials and other sectors of the contentious Market community wail, roar, duck their heads and point fingers at each other. Steinbrueck is president of the PPM Historical Commission; his father nominated him to the panel in 1983. He quits it and organizes the opposition to the takeover, under a banner recalling his father’s efforts 20 years earlier: the Citizens Alliance to Keep the Pike Place Market Public. Steinbrueck enlists local attorneys and the Seattle City Attorney’s Office as legal guns; they win an initial court round, and the Urban Group falls back and regroups.
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