Once again an insurgent mayor conquers city hall

It's happened twice before Mike McGinn's victory. Both Mayors Charles Royer and Wes Uhlman learned from early mistakes, regrouped, and mastered the challenging job.
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Mayor-elect Mike McGinn on Election Night

It's happened twice before Mike McGinn's victory. Both Mayors Charles Royer and Wes Uhlman learned from early mistakes, regrouped, and mastered the challenging job.

Mike McGinn'ꀙs thin victory over Joe Mallahan puts the question on many lips: 'ꀜWhat kind of mayor will he be?'ꀝ Well we don'ꀙt know. And likely neither does our mayor-elect. We don'ꀙt know because the recent campaign brought out little from the candidates about what they would do, or how, once they figured out the who.

Part of that failure was the shallow coverage our several print and broadcast agencies purveyed to us: the convenient, familiar, but uninformative theme of the insider/businessman versus the outsider/neighborhood activist. Another reason we don'ꀙt know much about McGinn is because he does not tell us much. And it is difficult to assess him through close advisers because it is not clear he has any. One McGinn campaign worker, disclaiming any inside knowledge, suggested that our mayor-elect keeps his own counsel. Well, there'ꀙs a certain poker aspect to politics but the prospect of a Nixonian Mayor McGinn is unsettling.

So far, we're only getting bromides. McGinn told The Seattle Times: 'ꀜWe need people who understand how government really works. We need people who understand how Seattle works.'ꀝ At least that'ꀙs a start. It'ꀙs better to know that you don'ꀙt know, than to believe you know when you don'ꀙt.

It may come as news to the 'ꀜjobless school-kidz'ꀝ who helped pedal McGinn'ꀙs campaign, but Seattle'ꀙs been here before. In 1977, Charles Royer led an insurgency campaign, mobilizing the out groups and making a virtue of his inexperience. But the history lesson I most want to recall was in 1969, when young state Sen. Wes Uhlman upset the Seattle establishment'ꀙs political cart by winning the mayoral election, a game-changing event. Uhlman, running as an identifiable Democrat, beat Republican Mort Frayn, a capable business leader (Frayn Printing), former state legislator, and the candidate hand-picked by the Chamber of Commerce and the Central Association, now the Downtown Seattle Association, the powerful downtown business owners' group.

Uhlman'ꀙs victory cemented into place the shift in political power from the downtown powers to a more broadly based constituency. That ended the top-down politics that had characterized Seattle affairs for decades.

Like McGinn, Uhlman come to office as an attorney (U.W. Law School), plenty smart, but with no significant executive experience. As McGinn said he would do in his statement to the Times, Uhlman sought out some seasoned administrators: Ed Devine, who had served former mayor Dorm Braman and was a protege of Pat Moynihan; and the estimable Dick Page, a protégé of then U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson who had come to Seattle to work with Jim Ellis on the hugely successful Forward Thrust capital-improvements program.

Also like McGinn, Uhlman took office with some major problems confronting the city: the aftermath of the police payoff scandal; a bitter fight over the I-90 crossing from Mercer Island to Seattle; the ugly employment scene caused largely by Boeing'ꀙs decision to cancel the once-promising Supersonic Transport project (a severe Boeing Bust was to come shortly after Uhlman's election).

Has McGinn'ꀙs election caused a similar shift in Seattle'ꀙs political power arrangement? That's not clear. McGinn'ꀙs 5,000-plus vote margin of victory gives him no mandate. Nor does the election of two new council members — centrist Sally Bagshaw and out-in-left-field Mike O'ꀙBrien, who will counter-balance each other — shed any light on the city'ꀙs political course. Still, McGinn beat the more readily identifiable centers of power: business groups, labor, and some of the Democratic constituencies.

In his first term, Mayor Uhlman experienced some turbulence: staff changes, blundering into support for the plan to tear down the Pike Place Market as part of an urban renewal project, a litany of communications gaffs that ended when his press secretary was arrested late one night by Seattle police for having taken the mayor'ꀙs sports car for a joy ride, without the mayor'ꀙs permission.

The second round of new staffers made a huge difference and launched the years that made Wes Uhlman one of the city'ꀙs very best mayors: Bob Gogerty, his new deputy mayor whose political savvy and people-friendly manner drew in more talent to Uhlman'ꀙs team; Ed Wood, a brilliant staff attorney whose sense of humor was contagious; and David Marriott, hired from KIRO TV News, whose smarts and integrity set a high water mark for mayoral communications. (Disclosure moment: I served under mayors Uhlman and Royer as director of the Seattle Energy Office, and later worked with Gogerty and Marriott at at their communications consulting firm.)

Once the votes came in on the campaign to save the Pike Place Market, Mayor Uhlman instantly understood the new lay of Seattle'ꀙs political land. He became the advocate for saving the Market and then went one step further by protecting Pioneer Square as a historic preservation district. He fought to get the surplused Fort Lawton and Sand Point Naval Air Station as as major city parks, Discovery and Magnuson Parks respectively. He battled to integrate the Fire Department and to bring women into the police force.

McGinn too will experience some turbulence as he learns the job of being Seattle'ꀙs mayor and first citizen.

For openers, he will learn that mayors and their families can be subject to threats from loonies, and that riding a bike to work is a frivolity no serious executive can manage. McGinn talks a lot about consulting people and working as a team. How he manages to do that will prove a massive new challenge. He'll also find that easily 50 percent of his time will be devoted to official ceremonial duties and appearances, plus a hurricane of invitations from community groups to attend their events, lunches and dinners that will cause fits for the scheduling and will rearrange his home life.

People in politics face innumerable challenges. The test is what they do to successfully manage them. It's a particularly tough test when the person is so new to politics, and is suddenly managing 11,000 employees, many of whom know a lot more about city hall than the new mayor does.

It'ꀙs one thing if Boeing is behind on the 787. McGinn can'ꀙt delay the delivery of such services as clean water, responses to fires, restoring electric power after a bad storm, or garbage collection. He'ꀙll need to rely on others to get the job done right. Hard to say how McGinn will handle this. But the the Uhlman and Royer sagas suggest that it can be done.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Sam R. Sperry

Sam R. Sperry

Sam Sperry is the former Associate Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page, and a lifelong resident of Seattle.