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Missing Mike

He definitely broke some china. But McGinn's passion for change, fiscal restraint and regular-guy charisma is making us all nostalgic.
Mike McGinn surrounded by his family.

Mike McGinn surrounded by his family. Allyce Andrew

Fondness for former mayors can kick-in quickly. I remember before the general election in 2009, people were already waxing nostalgic over Greg Nickels, who'd lost in the primary. If folks in the bar look better after a few drinks, Seattle mayors often look better in the rearview mirror.

Despite his defeat, low poll numbers and knack for grating on the city's passive-aggressive psyche, Mike McGinn was not all bad.

I'll miss his unpretentiousness. Joni Balter of the Seattle Times once described the new mayor — bearded and disheveled — as an unmade bed. McGinn figured out that people mayors look better in suits. He dropped some weight and got a new wardrobe. But even in the coat-and-tie phase, he could't resist doing it his way. He once came to visit me when I was the Space Needle's writer-in-residence. He was dressed like a well-made bed that day. When I complimented him, he leaned over to informed me that he'd purchased his sport coat at Goodwill for something like $2. I like a politician who's proud of his thrift-store wardrobe.

I'll miss his fiscal caution. It's easy to peg progressives as big spenders, but McGinn presided over difficult economic times and slashed city budgets. He was left, post-Nickels, with having to make some big cuts to the city budget. Seattle is on the upswing now, budgets and the rainy day fund are growing again, but any mayor would have had a tough time maintaining social services and getting expenses in line with income, especially following a boom. McGinn was a budget realist from the get-go.

I'll miss his outsider status. McGinn's mindset is instinctively activist — good at getting things done at the grassroots level but tough for administering a city where much of the job is making business-as-usual happen. There is an establishment and a consensus, and it needs to be challenged.

I found his outsiderness appealing. It helped that I agreed with him about the tunnel deal being a bad one, and  that he was skeptical about the westside 520 plans. Being an "outsider" wasn't the whole story. McGinn had the support of powerful interests, like Vulcan, at least in the beginning. And he would have welcomed much of the "big business" support that went to Ed Murray if he could have gotten it. Some of his criticisms of Murray seemed like sour grapes on that score. Still, he is a populist at heart — yes, even populists can become unpopular — and I liked his stubborn independence.

I'll miss his passion. As I was trying to decide who to vote for in 2009 (McGinn or Joe Mallahan), one of the deciding factors for me was, would the loser in that contest still be a player in civic affairs afterwards? I decided that even if McGinn lost the mayor's race, he'd still be a factor in Seattle, whether via Great Cities, the Sierra club or community activism. Agree with him or not on specific issues — and most of the city agrees with him on the big stuff, or at least Ed Murray does — McGinn is passionate and will continue to be a player. I like his passion for the job, his dedication to the city.

I'll miss his accessibility. McGinn has been more approachable and accessible than some mayors who come heavily buffered. (I'll miss his press aide Aaron Pickus too, who is a gem.) McGinn is easy to talk to, tells you what he's thinking, makes his case. It can be argued that he is too much a lawyer sometimes, but the upside is that in conversation especially, and in debates, he makes his best case. He's an articulate advocate who, whether via town halls or in interviews, you could engage with. And contrary to the public image of mean McGinn, I found him often funny, personable and, yes, Seattle nice.

I know there was plenty not to like or agree with: his use of wedge issues, the occasional cheap shot, Calling Gov. Chris Gregoire a liar was not a smart move; no wonder she was such an enthusiastic Murray supporter. A me-against-the-world approach is not a sustainable form of executive governance. Still, I think McGinn is a guy who will stick to his ideological guns (he won't melt those down) and will continue to fight for the city he believes in. Unlike some mayors, it will be interesting to see what he makes of his mayoral after-life.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 2:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting that you published this as a followup, after what you published yesterday.

McGinn was actually a competent adminstrator. As you mentioned, he had a very tough job at first, made worse by Nickels deliberately not addressing the known shortfalls, very well. He did what he had to do while not losing focus and minimizing the impact.

He also shook up the people at the city that needed shaking out of their entitled positions. He scared the Senior Advisor class into forming a union over a single issue that turned out to have been absoutely necessary to address. And few if any actually were actually fired as I recall. He wanted to eliminate as many of those positions by attrition that could not be justified under Nickles. He did. And those that justifed their postions did not lose them. And the SA's are not stuck paying union dues for a single issue that was not something they could have prevented anyway.

There are certainly going to be some SA's that see it differently, but the results are exactly the same.

It would not surprise me to see McGinn run for his district council seat, and win it.

Marksp

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 2:50 p.m. Inappropriate

It's also been said and observed that McGinn was a great idea guy, but a lousy implementer, if he could get it off the ground at all. He still shut out and/or paid only lip service to a lot of people too, and that cost him more than who he included gained him in the end.

Marksp

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

I despise the guy and am elated that he got his ass kicked out of office. He's nothing but a cynical jerk. Hope he rode his bike home today in the Seattle sunshine.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

He did more for our fair city than you will do in a lifetime.

I am sure he will enjoy his bike ride home, especially with all the infrastructure he implemented.

McGinn was the best mayor Seattle has seen in a few decades.

jeffro

Posted Sun, Nov 10, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Pathetic commentary on the last few decades in Seattle.

Posted Thu, Nov 7, 5:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Like a fetid corpse releasing gas, McGinn's DPD today released a slew of decisions, slipping in zoning changes and site specific Comprehensive Plan changes, issuing environmental Determinations of Non-significance, and making up more rules to allow even larger micro-housing projects.

Whether Mike is checked out or in, DPD beats its own drum.

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 4:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I'll think of McGinn everytime I look at our zillions of painted bicycles on the streets (oh please, don't waste more of our money repainting them)and I'll miss the really worthwhile things that might have been done with the money -- education, parks, public transit, real public safety or even perhaps a real bike path or two.

Ken Shear

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 5:43 a.m. Inappropriate

"I know there was plenty not to like or agree with: his use of wedge issues, the occasional cheap shot, Calling Gov. Chris Gregoire a liar was not a smart move; no wonder she was such an enthusiastic Murray supporter."

He called Gregoire a Liar? Well at least he had one redeeming quality.

Cameron

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 6:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Your nostalgic postmortem portrait of Mayor McGinn as "a budget realist from the get-go" comes as a surprise to those who remember the Dwight Dively episode. Dively, the city's highly respected budget guru who served multiple mayors, fled City Hall in the early days of the McGinn Administration and was promptly welcomed by King County Executive Dow Constantine as his chief budget adviser. (Dively has now surfaced as half of incoming Mayor Murray's transition team.) Dively's quick exodus was seen by many as an embarrassing thumbs down on the mayor's fiscal smarts. If McGinn, as you write, ultimately governed as a responsible budget hawk, it was an attribute well-hidden from the electorate. Or at the very least, widely misunderstood. Which only reinforces the idea that "failure to communicate" was McGinn's number one problem.

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Mike McGinn is a bully. He will not be missed in our home.

m-t-e

Posted Fri, Nov 8, 11:47 a.m. Inappropriate

"Fiscal Caution"?! Seriously. Best laugh all week.

Catherine

Posted Sat, Nov 9, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I think your observations are pretty much spot on, Knute. I definitely agree with you on Mayor McGinn's passion, accessibiltiy and unpretentiousness.

But I think the McGinn administration never really realized it was in command of 28 departments and 11,000 employees, and it needed to redirect and use those resources to improve City services. See also http://ow.ly/qF7X5.

In terms of fiscal, remember Greg Nickels faced the same sort of recession/budget cutting when he took office in 2003 as McGinn faced in 2009. Those situations are not the previous Mayor's making, but a result of the economy at large - really worldwide now. I can't discern a difference in the way the 2003 and 2009 situations were handled - its always "preserve public safety (cops, firefighters), cut everything else". And that's what other cities do too.

Eugene Carlson's comments on Dwight Dively are right on the mark, and I hope Dwight can return to Seattle in the new administration.

-bill

Posted Sun, Nov 10, 1:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Smoking crack again, eh Knute?

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