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You sure you want to be Seattle mayor?

Why Tim Burgess just might be the smartest 2013 mayoral candidate.
Dorm Braman, honorary Scotsman

Dorm Braman, honorary Scotsman Photo: Seattle Times

In early August, all but two of this year's vast mayoral field will realize they wasted their summer, but will be able to console themselves that at least they haven't wasted the rest of their careers. As these unseasonably warm and dry July days remind us of pleasures beyond politics, more and more city councilmember Tim Burgess is looking like the smartest guy to run for mayor this year: He dropped out and I bet he's working on his tan.

We all love Seattle, but the mayor's office doesn't love its occupants. For one thing, (and as noted previously) it really is a political dead-end; a job that notoriously never leads to an electoral promotion — at least not in over 70 years. Not that mayors haven't tried. Former mayors Wes Uhlman, Charles Royer, Norm Rice and Greg Nickels — to name a few — have been disappointed to find that the political step ladder stopped at City Hall.

How many mayors does it take to cut a ribbon? Charles Royer with his successor Norm Rice (l to r).

One man who contributed more to the city than nearly any other was George Cotterill. Credited with setting up the Cedar River water system, Cotterill worked tirelessly to improve the city with new roads, bike paths, bridges, landfills and regrades as engineer R.H. Thomson's assistant. He even served as a state senator with a strong progressive bent. He was elected mayor once, in 1912, but served only a single stormy two-year term. But he wasn't done with public service. Or so he thought.

He ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, he ran for governor and lost, he ran for at least five offices and lost. The best he could do was a seat on the Port Commission. Oh, the humility.

If the mayor's office is unkind to former mayors, what of the challengers? I have made no study of that, but Joe Mallahan, David Stern, Al Runte and Charlie Chong would make good fodder for trivia night at the local pub.

Then there is the job itself; the endless press releases, photo ops and smiley-face civic must-dos. David Stern, by the way, a former ad man who claimed to have invented the Smiley Face, might have been qualified for that resume factoid alone (though it turned out not to be true). But for any thinking person, the office seems like a series of mind-numbing chores.

The Highland games? Put on a tam and blow the bag pipes. Seafood Week? Pose with pirates. Want to fill potholes? Like Michael Dukakis in a tank, ride with the "Pothole Rangers." It seems to work. Incumbents in re-election mode turn on the PR machine and make themselves dangerous by wielding scissors looking for any ribbons to cut. Scanning through old press photos, it often seems like we're electing Mayor of Munchkin town. Big ideas? Forget it, and go for big hats.

Arrrrr! It's Seafood Week for Mayor Gordon Clinton (pictured center).

Then there's the fact that Seattle is ungovernable. The mayor has no control over the schools, no command over the police, cannot run roughshod over the unions, can't even control transit. The mayor must do much of the bidding of downtown business interests and tout the sluggish advantages of process-clogged efforts at inclusion, sustainability and making all the stakeholders happy. Idea men get pounded into hamburger (Paul Schell); activists get hammered for being, well, active (Mike McGinn); nice guys get lambasted for being too nice (Norm Rice) and strong men for being too strong (Greg Nickels).

Mayors learn they will be blamed for what they can't control (schools, police, snow storms, earthquakes, the economy) and rarely credited for what they can (budget discipline, good appointments to boards, collaborating with the city council).


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 6:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattlites are like a herd of goats, they will follow the leader with the loudest bell even to their own slaughter and they will eat almost anything.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The reality that Seattle has a full time and at large council with significant institutional power makes the executives job difficult. The council attracts talented people who have the time and staff to be deeply involved in all issues and have the ability to initiate actions. They are organized by committee allowing them to become more knowledgable in issues than a mayor who deals with everything. We called it the 10 mayor system. It is more difficult for a mayor to deal with than a district system. The other change in the last few decades is the growing sophistication of interest groups and lobby techniques including social media. The mayor's position in Seattle compared to many other cities is a challenge. Your review of history tells the story.

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Woody Allen? You mean Groucho Marx, don't you?

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Jeez, Skip, it's not that bad. I think if tyou asked people who used to be mayor, you'd find that it was the most rewarding time of their life. You wake up every morning on a mission. You never know what's going to challenge you that day. You're surrounded by people who care deeply about the city and who want to make a difference. Again, you're on a mission. That brings everyone closer together and friendships forged there last a lifetime. Yes, sometimes it is frustrating and cruel. But what would life be if it wasn't strenuous?

Jordan

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

So on the one hand you say the mayor has no control over schools but that he/she gets blamed for them? Nah, most everyone knows the mayor has zero direct control over schools. That's the School Board's fault, not the mayor's. (Of course, Burgess was the only one who said he liked the idea of mayoral control of the schools and possibly the school board so his exit ends that nonsense.)

Of course, if the Legislature would fund the top three school districts to pay a somewhat decent wage to school board directors, we might get better people or, at least, those who may understand budgeting and accountability better.

westello

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 11:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Plus they may have to endure the indignity of being "roasted and toasted" at the Washington News Council's annual Gridiron West Dinner, as we did in 2010. You can watch it at http://www.tvw.org/index.php?option=com_tvwplayer&eventID;=2010110043 Bill Stafford and Joni Balter (as Minnie Mouse) roasting Charley Royer is just one of the highlights. Paul Schell didn't come, so we roasted his cardboard effigy, which now sits on a chair in my office with a "WTO Official" badge on his lapel.

(This year we will "roast and toast" David Horsey and Patti Payne, on Nov. 8 at The Westin Seattle. Go to wanewscouncil.org to reserve your tickets or a table of 10. This will sell out, so don't procrastinate!)

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 1:57 p.m. Inappropriate

This is exactly why I have wondered WHY Ed Murray did not move a bit south and take on Adam Smith for Congress. Now THAT I would have loved. Murray in this particular race just seems like a leadup (calling in all favors) to a promotion leading to permanent retirement. Of course, for most people who live in the real world, 'out' is more common than 'up'.

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Ed had no need to relocate. He could have run against a dead-weight incumbent Congressman and continue to fight for equality in an arena where he could make a difference. Instead he becomes the establishment wealth-and-power choice for Mayor. Such a disappointment.

simorgh

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 5:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if there might be any circumstances that would prompt Burgess to get BACK IN the race? I mean, as looks more and more likely, if the post-primary competition is between McGinn and Steinbrueck, thereby depriving the 'Seattle establishment' of any favorites to back, could that trigger serious thoughts about finding a write-in candidate? Would Burgess, under this scenario, be willing to take on such a task (and--more importantly--would there be enough Seattle voters willing to write him in)?

Posted Thu, Jul 11, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Rudy Giuliani; Richard Daley; Marion Berry; Robert Wagner; Richard Daley II; Mike Bloomberg and Fiorello LaGuardia are a few mayors who pop into mind as I read this sweet piece. Rather than being a function of Seattle's system, the mayor's office of many big cities are dead ends when it comes to higher office. Mayors in America focus on important issues with huge impacts on daily life such as snow plows, garbage trucks, pot holes and late night drinking. Even charmers like Charlie Royer, Greg Nickels or Norm Rice have a hard time demonstrating at the city level the talents for state or national office. Then again, they all served in Seattle which is a horrible handicap in statewide elections.

MJH

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