You sure you want to be Seattle mayor?
by Knute Berger
Tim Burgess campaign headquarters Credit: Photo credit: Tim Burgess for Mayor
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).
In order to feel good, they grasp at some national issue to save their self esteem. Paul Schell innocently welcomed the World Trade Organization, Greg Nickels became the Vanity Fair poster child of Kyoto. Invite the world, go national — Seattle loves the publicity. But such hobbies rarely win mayors points at home, where potholes are eternal, the bickering ceaseless, the credit hogs eager to steal your thunder and there is no political machine to watch your back.
Another thing: Seattleites tend to regard politics as a bit beneath them. It's not a spectator sport as it is in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco. The most fun you can look forward to is getting a drink at The Stranger's editorial endorsement meeting. That's so you won't feel so bad when they make you look like a fool afterwards.
Doorbell ringing politicos might be rewarded at the ballot box, but they're regarded a bit like door-to-door salespeople — intrusive, engaged in a lowly profession. They spend endless hours pushed by consultants to dial for dollars and pester their friends. If Woody Allen wouldn't belong to a club that would have him as a member, Seattle voters don't really respect a mayor who invades their privacy and asks for votes and money. So the voters are notoriously fickle when it comes to their mayors.
Being elected mayor is a bit like being Seattle's wicker man — a few days of fun around the maypole and then … the bonfire.
Mayoral candidates, it's not too late to turn back, to drop out, to seek other meaningful employment! It's not too late to have a summer, have a life and avoid four years of cutting ribbons and crowning beauty queens.
If you want to make a smart career move, talk to Tim Burgess.
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