Mr. Lincoln in City Hall

Seattle's new mayor will have to learn some "team of rivals" lessons.
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Abe Lincoln, the McGinn of his day?

Seattle's new mayor will have to learn some "team of rivals" lessons.

Washington State Republican party chair Luke Esser recently commented on the democratic stronghold of Pugetopolis: "Inside the city of Seattle I could probably bring Abraham Lincoln back from the dead and he wouldn't win." Scholars have speculated that Abe Lincoln was a religious doubter and possibly gay, so it's doubtful that a revived Zombie Lincoln would even get state GOP backing.

The irony is, Lincoln did get elected mayor of Seattle. Well, kind of. However the vote turns out, Seattle's chief exec will be an inexperienced outsider who the political establishment hopes to control, manipulate, or out-maneuver.

Anyone who has read about Lincoln's nomination and election understands that his win was a fluke, and that most people were stunned that his more experienced rivals were not tapped to lead the new party at the polls. Lincoln beat out politicians of power, influence, and stature for the nomination, and they expected to act as regent for the hapless newcomer. Political fixers, like the wonderfully named political operator Thurlow Weed, expected to wield enormous influence in the new administration, to pull the puppet strings.

Because Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan are outsiders without city council or any government management experience, and because the city council, like Lincoln's own cabinet, is stocked with wanna-be mayors, both are seen as vulnerable to the wiles of conniving rivals. Not only is the council full of bright, ambitious folks, but virtually all of them have more experience than the mayor. They can make life easy for Mayor Newbie in City Hall, or they can try to make mincemeat of him.

The city council has incentive to exercise its muscle: It was immediately marginalized by the Greg Nickels/Tim Ceis machine which operated on the George W. Bush assumption that a narrow win is as good as a mandate. They fired council favorites in city government, clamped down on the flow of information, and practiced a Dick Cheney-style governance that exalted the executive. Nickels set about re-shaping the council to elect supporters of his agenda, and scared-off and marginalized potential rivals.

So effective and feared was Nickels, that no one on the council, except the retiring Jan Drago, stepped up to challenge Nickels for re-election this time around. Nickels was able to keep threats like Tim Burgess, Richard Conlin, Sally Clark, and earlier Peter Steinbrueck, at bay. This election allows a resurgent, strong, more mature council to reassert itself. There is talk of increasing council staff and cutting back the mayor's bureaucratic base. If Nickels made a power-grab, the council is now poised to grab it back.

Mallahan was already viewed by some as a weak tool of the Nickels consortium of business and labor interests (or last best hope of the same) and would have had a steep on-the-job learning curve. The city council, generally centrist and in sync with Nickels policies if not his style, would not have butted heads with Mallahan on big issues (they agree on the tunnel, for example). But they could have run circles around the rookie and set the agenda from the legislative side, all with an eye on positioning to run for mayor in four years. The stage is set for some to shine.

The mostly likely winner, McGinn, closing in on victory as the ballots are counted, is more experienced, less in-step with the council mainstream on the tunnel, stylistically more contentious (like Lincoln, he's a lawyer who can argue). He's seen as a deal-maker, but also someone who might be more of a challenge to control, even if he pretended to take the council's 9-0 vote on the tunnel to be a kind of mandate. Was that an exception, or a statement? McGinn has promised to be more inclusive in decision-making, but then, so did Nickels.

Some council members are downright (though quietly) hostile to McGinn, turned off by previous dealings with him. That tension creates opportunity for mischief-making, for co-opting the insurgent, or moving him to the margins. McGinn is an experienced guerrilla fighter, however, a good skill to have. Yet he also has the challenge of rising above his activist constituency and lead the wider city. The council can help him, or make the job a lot tougher.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin has documented in her history on Lincoln's cabinet, Team of Rivals, the 16th president decided to keep his enemies close by putting many of them in his cabinet. Obama did the same with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Having a council as your "team of rivals" is trickier, but smart counter-manipulation can be an effective way to work with, disarm, or win over potential challengers. William Seward, who expected to be the real, behind-the-scenes president, was thwarted by Lincoln's surprising leadership strength, and eventually charmed by his political skill, humor, and humanity. So too was Edward Bates, whom Lincoln appointed Attorney General. Salmon P. Chase, the secretary of Treasury, was kicked up to the Supreme Court when he became troublesome. Lincoln wanted to keep his enemies close, but also tap their skills.

The new mayor isn't likely to be a Lincoln, but there are lessons to be learned from the challenge he faced: cultivate public opinion, don't be afraid to work with people who are smarter and more experienced than you are, use your brain and your charm, divide and conquer when necessary, make sure your allies are inside the tent pissing out more often than the other way around, don't write-off anyone who can help you move the ball forward. Be flexible and sincere. Don't focus on beating your rivals, but converting them. Toss out the enemies list.

"Seattle nice" is a myth, but keeping up appearances is important. Nickels erred in comparing himself to Chicago boss Richard Daley. He picked the wrong Illinois pol as a role model.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.