Mike McGinn and Ed Murray face off (yawn) at Cornish Playhouse. Credit: Allyce Andrew
One thing about Mike McGinn: You know where he stands. He hates coal trains and global warming, wants a SoDo basketball arena, will fight for hotel maids, likes bikes and trains. McGinn is Mayor Wedge, willing to raise all kinds of moral outrage over sex trafficking, gay rights in Russia or the alleged impurities of thought in his opponents.
One thing about challenger Ed Murray: His leadership style is more about process. He'll study, he'll discuss, he'll hesitate and think before taking stands. A $15-hour wage for Seattle workers? Implement it incrementally. He's running as a uniter, not a divider, someone who blunts the edges of the wedge and will listen and deal — even compromise — with people he disagrees with. He turns the revolutionary (same-sex marriage) into the evolutionary.
This mayoral campaign is less about actual issues than the style of leadership, and it reflects Seattle's split personality.
On the one hand we process, we dither, we second-guess. We vote for a freeway, then defund it (R. H. Thomson). We vote for a Monorail, then shut it down. The Mercer Mess? It took 50 years to fix. Out of that sometimes glacially slow political theater, we do get results, but at "alki" speed — alki being Chinook jargon for "by and by."
The other side Seattle is fast-paced, in a hurry (SoDo Arena), impatient (build streetcar lines), morally righteous and indignant (WTO, bike anarchists). As a boom town still, we're always looking for the new idea, the next big score, fearful that if we stop moving forward we'll fail. Amazon's Jeff Bezos captured that spirit when he spoke to the staff of his new toy, the Washington Post. "All businesses need to be young forever," he said. "If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s." The same could be said of cities. The Emerald City does not want to be Woolworth's. The Seattle Star once described the proper civic attitude of the young and restless of 1905 as "get there-ism." We are going places, therefore we are.
Murray's campaign seems designed to offend no one. He is orthodox on all Seattle issues, has a solid resume and the style of old Seattle; that is, little flash and no showiness. In Thursday's much-anticipated "vision" speech, he used the words "together" or "togetherness" 26 times. He is running less as Sen. Ed Murray than as Mr. Not McGinn. He trusts, and the polls seem to support him on this, that that is enough of a message. Many in the town are weary of wedges and elbows.
But there is a downside in daring to be dull.
If we embrace process — like we might embrace a good marriage — we still want to feel some frisson of passion. There's a mid-20th century adage explaining the difference between Cascadia's premier American cities: San Francisco is the mistress, Seattle is the wife. In terms of civic culture, that is still true. San Francisco has spectator-sport politics with colorful, legendary characters who can grab your heart (Harvey Milk). Seattle's best pols aren't people you fall in love with, but who serve earnestly and loyally (Norm Rice).
McGinn generates enthusiasm for what he is, Murray for what he is not. McGinn doesn't seek to make us comfortable. Murray wants to tone things down. McGinn is well established as a man who is congenitally predisposed to be an outsider even when he's inside City Hall. Murray is a politician who, as a gay man in the legislature, has been an outsider, yet is comfortable having worked his way to insider status. McGinn speaks the language of progressive vision, Murray raises more money and rolls out waves of endorsements. Each wears his fundamental, personal approach as a credential. They are who they are.
They point to the weaknesses in one another. McGinn's strategy is to poke at Murray and his record in hopes of making him blow his cool, revealing Murray as less than advertised as a healer, a leader, a calm head. Murray hopes in turn that McGinn's provocations will offer-up new examples of the mayor's slashing, un-Seattle style, the divisive mayor who put himself into an electoral hole.
What you see in the campaign are avatars of the two Seattles locked in the struggle over which aspect of our civic nature will prevail.