Mike McGinn comes out of the tunnel

An engaging candidate for mayor, McGinn is also a conviction politician. What does that mean for folks who are not on the moral high road with him?
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Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn

An engaging candidate for mayor, McGinn is also a conviction politician. What does that mean for folks who are not on the moral high road with him?

The one thing most Seattleites know about Mike McGinn, one of the two mayoral candidates to emerge from summer'ꀙs sleepy but surprising primary, is that he'ꀙs against the tunnel. That would be the 'ꀜdeep bore'ꀝ tunnel to replace the Alaska Viaduct. If you'ꀙve really been paying attention, you may also know that McGinn took the lead, as a Sierra Club member, in saying 'ꀜno'ꀝ to the Roads and Transit Levy in 2007.

So is McGinn the 'ꀜJust Say No'ꀝ candidate of 2009? Maybe not. As McGinn clears the primary hurdle and moves toward November'ꀙs general election, he'ꀙs still against the tunnel, but he is also starting to tell us what he'ꀙs for.

Among the things that McGinn is for is citizens having a say, maybe the say. Claiming that the voters have said 'ꀜNo'ꀝ to a different waterfront tunnel and are now puzzled to find a tunnel boring down upon them, McGinn would like to see the voters get another shot. He thinks voters should have a chance to vote on the financing plan for a tunnel, primarily referring to the city's portion of associated costs such as a new seawall — a financing plan that McGinn views as smoke and mirrors.

McGinn is also for extending light rail. 'ꀜPeople like transit,'ꀝ says McGinn, who indicates that, if elected, he would have a proposal ready for voter approval within two years to extend Seattle'ꀙs new Link Light Rail system to the city'ꀙs western neighborhoods.

McGinn also likes parks and wants more of them. 'ꀜAs the city increases in density, we will need more parks in Seattle.'ꀝ The son of New York City educators, McGinn, who has three kids in Seattle'ꀙs public schools, is also for public education. He has dropped hints of interest in a city government take-over of the school district if there'ꀙs not significant progress on that front. But short of a take-over McGinn would like to see more partnership between city government and the Seattle Schools. He imagines leveraging school facilities and playgrounds for community use. Meanwhile, the McGinn campaign is busily generating position statements and policy papers on a host of issues, ranging from culture and the arts, to internet infrastructure, to immigrants and refugees, all posted on his website.

Even if there is more to Mike McGinn than opposition to Seattle'ꀙs very own Big Dig, the tunnel remains a potent symbol for McGinn'ꀙs campaign and a window onto the candidate. McGinn sees Seattle at a fork in the road. Down the road often taken it'ꀙs more of the same: more cars, more pollution, and more congestion. Turning back the tunnel option in favor of extending light rail, increasing bus services, and some adjustments to I-5 and downtown streets to handle the increases is, so far, the road not taken but in McGinn'ꀙs view the true path to the future.

Mike McGinn is a thoughtful and engaging guy who is working hard to get up to speed on the host of complex issues the Seattle Mayor will face. He has opened a new office in a Greg Nickel'ꀙs stronghold, southeast Seattle, and is making frequent forays into areas such as Columbia City, Othello Station, and busy intersections like Rainier and Genessee. He is working hard to take his campaign beyond his opposition to the tunnel.

Can McGinn make the jump to City Hall successfully? Among the many factors to consider in answering that question, let me note two.

McGinn is a 'ꀜconviction politician.'ꀝ He'ꀙs not making his pitch as only a more efficient manager ('ꀜI will get the snow removed'ꀝ) nor as a 'ꀜCan'ꀙt we all just get along'ꀝ conciliator. While McGinn sees politics as the arena where conflicts get hammered out, he will occasionally give you a look that seems to say, 'ꀜThere'ꀙs a moral high road here and I'ꀙm on it.'ꀝ Inevitably one'ꀙs virtues and vices are related. Can McGinn'ꀙs sense of a righteous cause avoid slipping into self-righteousness as he bumps into and against folks who see things quite differently? Is he a good listener? (Some who have dealt with him have doubts about his ears.)

The other matter to ponder is the distance between Sierra Club and Greenwood neighborhood activism and City Hall. It'ꀙs a big jump. McGinn himself says, 'ꀜThe Mayor'ꀙs job is a really big job.'ꀝ Not just big, but a job that requires a different style and skill than organizing around one issue at a time and working among true believers in your cause. Mayors have to keep a lot of balls in the air at the same time, recruit and utilize staff, wear many different hats and build coalitions among groups and people that may not be natural partners.

True, there is recent compelling precedent for at least one well-known politician making the jump from community organizer to a much larger stage in Washington, D. C. Perhaps McGinn'ꀙs stars are coming into alignment for a similar, if somewhat smaller, ascent? Still, it'ꀙs a big move from saying 'ꀜNo'ꀝ to the tunnel to running a city.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.