10 big challenges await Mayor Murray

The new mayor may find less to smile about once he takes the reins at City Hall. Credit: Allyce Andrew

Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn’s way to be gracious to Mayor-elect Ed Murray was to say that his successor would enjoy holding the post, because there was “no better job in the world.” Not so fast. More likely, the new mayor is going to be swarmed by chickens coming home to roost after four years of drift.

Many serious and deferred problems await Mayor Murray. So he is wise to be deploying real professionals, former city councilwoman Martha Choe and former city budget director Dwight Dively, as co-chairs of his transition committee. Murray’s first round of decisions on retaining and dismissing top department heads also showed a sensible restraint in not fighting on too many fronts at once.

Those personnel decisions show that Murray will be focusing on areas of his strength: transportation and dealing with Olympia. He played those cards by saying, first, that he wanted a new head of the Seattle Department of Transportation, where a more balanced and strategic approach to cars/transit/bikes/greenways/potholes is needed. And out went the lobbying office which, as Murray must know, has long been a clumsy presence amid all those Seattle-scoffers in Olympia. Other emphases: housing and human services.

Good start. He’ll need it, considering the mess at City Hall — some of it McGinn’s faults of omission and commission — that Murray must face. Below is my list of challenges for the new mayor. It’s no time for thanksgiving!

1. Central Waterfront Park
This massive project has limped along in the past four years while McGinn has scorned it as too expensive and too downtown-focused. The hugely ambitious undertaking faces three serious problems. The city has not made a good case that it can create, design and defend public spaces, so passing levies will be difficult. Down near the ferry terminal too many traffic lanes are accumulating (for ferry queuing, transit, freight, cars, bikes), compromising the open space. And the project has way too many cooks in its kitchen, badly needing a strong leader at city hall.

2. Economic jitters
Boeing is departing, either quickly or by drip-drip-drip, casting a large economic cloud over the region. Microsoft is in a dangerous and delayed transition. The Port of Seattle faces a crisis over container shipping, freight mobility, closer coordination with Tacoma and West Coast and Gulf Coast competition and finding a new CEO. The region’s big tech-driver, the University of Washington, is struggling to find a new model of financial sustainability, lest it be forced to retreat from excellence.

3. Talent exodus at City Hall
Many, like Dively, left during the McGinn years. The mayor’s office was stocked with campaign idealists and many departments failed to interest McGinn very much. Further, the wave of boomer/Kennedy idealists who entered public service in the 1960s and 70s is now about to enter retirement.

4. Stalemate at Seattle Public Schools
The school board is likely to remain fairly dysfunctional for Murray’s whole term, split between three disheartened “reformers” on the one side and the backlash faction of four members representing union concerns over testing issues and parents who want more direct control. This irresolution is a formula for weak leadership by the superintendent and small appetite for structural changes. The stopgap will be to push for free (to the needy) universal pre-school for 4-year-olds, but I wonder how popular that will be when the tax bill is presented.

5. Police
This is the biggie. While pressure for modernization from the Department of Justice and Murray’s chance to name a new chief will help, it is important to remember that police reform (both better treatment of minorities and the mentally ill and more effective crime-stopping) has eluded Seattle mayors for 40 years. The Police Guild is too strong and the assistant chiefs have been there too long and feud too much to make real solutions likely.

6. The rise of the McGinn Party
This oppositional coalition reflects the changing demographics of Seattle: young, new to town, impatient, more diverse, tech-based, distrusting government and compromise, radicalized. You could see this new voter effect vividly in the election of socialist Kshama Sawant and her anti-corporate, Occupy Seattle message. (McGinn lost, but his troops and issues elected Sawant to the council.)

The problem for Murray is that he has little standing with this group, despite his campaign ploy of agreeing with all McGinn’s issues. Thus we have a new mayor elected at variance with the demographic and political trends of the city. The fault line for this tension will be the $15 minimum-wage issue, where Murray’s smothering, consensus-seeking tactics will anger the activists. Meanwhile, the clash between the hard left and the soft left will be the media narrative for years, putting Murray on the defensive.

7. A districted/distracted city council
Murray could have expected to work with an unusually competent and unified city council, which has pretty much served as surrogate mayor during the McGinn detour. But the surprise passage of the district elections initiative will refocus councilmembers on the 2015 election and parochial pressures in the districts. A council of policy wonks will morph into pothole-counters. One effect, already noticed, will be diminished (or delayed) council support for the waterfront park as “too downtown.”

8. Second thoughts about the density dogma
The emotionalized push for greater population density — with its associated issues of walkability, transit, streetlife, suburbs-bashing and reach-for-the-sky developers — was bound to produce backlash. (District elections are evidence of this push-back.) Poorly planned density can equate to gentrification, pushing out middle class families and jobs, and congestion. Already a backlash is developing in San Francisco, where arrogant tech-wealth is becoming the new villain, the new driver of income inequality.

A remarkable coalition of greens, bikers, developers, techies, media scolds, climate-activists and transit-huggers has developed in Seattle under McGinn’s encouragement. As modifications to density-worship appear, the politics will get bitter. One key factor: Will the anti-corporatist Sawant voters peel away from the density coalition, skewering developers and their high rents?

9. Struggling fine arts
In Seattle as in many other cities (here’s a good survey of the Phildelphia “stress cracks” in the arts), the great age of building new performance spaces has given way to an age of debt, mergers, scale-backs, commercialization and bankruptcies. Corporate funding has declined (not just from Boeing), the new economy is not stepping up and public funding is shrinking. Many of Seattle’s pressed major arts organizations are hoping that urgent campaigns, just getting started, will solve their upkeep problems. One big hope, which Murray has endorsed, is the Cultural Access Fund, which would earmark new regional taxes for arts groups. The legislature must authorize such a local vote, and the 2014 session is do-or-die time for this idea. Will Murray burn some political capital on this issue?

10. Big promises, small purse
If the real estate market cools in Seattle, as is likely, that source of transaction taxes will diminish. The legislature, with Republicans controlling the Senate, seems an unlikely source of funds, except in transportation. The sequester is drying up federal funding. As mayor, Murray is unlikely to find many efficiencies at city hall, beholden as he is to public-employee unions. His please-em-all campaign made many promises (finish 520, waterfront park, pre-schools, $15 minimum wage, more housing to ease high prices, basketball, freight mobility) with no ready source of funds.

Welcome to a tough job, Mayor Murray! Rather than dwell on how wonderful the job is, it might be better to hang that famous LBJ quip on your new office wall: “”Things could be worse. I could be mayor!”

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