When people ask me to speculate on who will win the 2013 Seattle mayor’s race, my answer is “Mayor McGinn, though not necessarily Mike McGinn.”
What follows are my reasons for thinking that this is a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) election, resulting in a McGinn-like mayor, maybe even McGinn himself, being elected next November (and beyond). It's a contest of the Mike-Alikes.
This race is not about contesting McGinn's progressive, business-oriented agenda, since it fits so well with contemporary Seattle politics. The policies are stipulated, so the race will be about style and effectiveness (especially with McGinn's setback in trying to get the Sacramento Kings), with a few quibbles about some details.
One reason for this consensus is that Seattle politics is now brightly “red-lined,” in the sense that no politician can challenge the consensus on major issues enough to disturb the McGinn status quo. Well-organized interest groups such as bicycle clubs, nightlife businesses, developers, environmentalists, gay-advocacy groups, low-income-housing developers, city employee unions and social-service-delivery organizations enforce these red lines so forcefully that all mayoral candidates (to be serious) are now essentially look-alikes, agreed on all the major issues.
Cross those red lines (for instance by complaining about too many bike lanes), and you are subject to a drone attack. Of the serious contenders, only Peter Steinbrueck, a long-shot candidate struggling to raise money, is pushing the envelope of consensus.
Had Maud Daudon, the current president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, decided to run for mayor on a pull-everyone-together platform, she might have crossed a few red lines (notably on public safety and rolling back mandatory sick leave). It would not have been pretty. She instead will remain a key inside player in the shadow government that is a main orchestrator of the current consensus.
Seattle politics is now a classic illustration of “urban regime” politics. Urban regime theory, which has dominated recent academic discussion of urban affairs, argues that certain cities have their agendas firmly controlled by a “regime,” consisting of dominant power coalitions — business interests, major civic leaders (not always the mayor), unions, developers and law firms — who agree on and enforce priorities and invite in (or co-opt) others who agree to abide by the regime agenda and bring some real resources to the effort.
The agenda is never made public. The media are not privy to it. Voters don't get to express their opinions on the master agenda or vote for its shadowy leaders. Even so, all who want to join the club know exactly what the agenda is, and how they must behave in order to be invited in.
Seattle has long been a company town, successively dominated by timber, Boeing and now Technopolis. It has lacked an Establishment of old line families or powerful corporations to call the shots, but has instead fashioned broad power coalitions to set the agenda. Lawyer and dealmaker Jim Ellis was a master in orchestrating the shadow government, building up the Boeing-led city and region in the years after the World's Fair. Another illustration is what I call the "Great Consensus" on state politics, built around the Cold War economy, quarterbacked by such leaders as former Congressman Norm Dicks.
Mayor Greg Nickels followed the formula of finding common ground among big labor, big government and big business. The South Lake Union boom Nickels initiated is an excellent example of the new consensus: technology, in-city living, a singles lifestyle, transit, density, University of Washington research. He may have been bounced from office by an insurgent Mike McGinn, pushing a deep-green agenda, but it only took about two years for McGinn to join the club.
In robust regime cities, there is no two-party system. Those outside the regime consensus are marginalized. Other agencies who show signs of heresy are tamed and incorporated into the consensus. Public-private partnerships dominate.
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