by Knute Berger
Mike McGinn surrounded by his family. Credit: 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.