Mike McGinn era: saying less, polling more, spending less

A brown-bag lunch with the media gives a peek into some challenges that face the new mayor and the city, and how he plans on conducting himself.
Crosscut archive image.

Mayor-elect Mike McGinn on Election Night

A brown-bag lunch with the media gives a peek into some challenges that face the new mayor and the city, and how he plans on conducting himself.

Some Seattle journalists have complained that new mayor Mike McGinn has been less accessible since taking office. McGinn was famously available during his campaign taking cell phone calls and meeting with reporters, but lately he has been avoiding one-on-ones. He turned down Seattle Times editorial board member, influential columnist, and frequent fellow KUOW "Weekday" panelist Joni Balter, for example. Mark Matassa, McGinn's spokesman, says it was nothing personal, she was just the first to ask, so the new policy became known when the mayor told her "no."

Matassa (a former Times, P-I and Crosscut editor) says the mayor will talk with reporters about specific stories if he's got something to say, but he isn't interested in wide-ranging general interviews right now. This is a shift from campaign mode. Indeed, McGinn's media friendliness worked to his advantage by allowing him to contrast himself with opponent Joe Mallahan who was notoriously uncomfortable with the press and sheltered by his staff from scrutiny.

Instead, McGinn has now initiated brown-bag lunches with reporters, the first on Tuesday, Jan. 26. He says he'd like to do them once a month. The first get-together was a little too formal. Reporters asked questions and some taped or filmed answers while seated around a rectangular arrangement of conference tables in a room on the 7th floor of City Hall. McGinn's staff passed out materials on the seawall and he had Bob Chandler from the city's Department of Transportation by his side with charts and samples of the rotten, worm-eaten seawall structure, bits of which unnervingly resembled old driftwood. Clearly, they were prepared for a show-and-tell on the seawall as a follow-up to the briefing they gave the city council.

Questions, though, were more wide-ranging, from expanding broad band access (nothing to announce yet) to whether to name a city park after Perugia (McGinn agreed with tabling that idea, though he's sent a make-nice letter to he counterpart in our Italian sister city). Wisely, McGinn refused to say more about the Amanda Knox case which rouses more passions than the combined debates over school closures, Viaduct options, and whether to use rock salt on city streets.

More substantively, he indicated that he has not backed off on his insistence that the issue of whether or not the city is on the hook for downtown tunnel over-runs be resolved in the city's favor, and it seems that it likely won't taken care of this legislative session. McGinn says the project has yet to reach its point of "no return," but is not exactly sure when that point will be reached.

McGinn was also queried about the options for highway 520 replacement, and indicated he was talking to people about that ("doing our due diligence," is how he describes it), including talking with unhappy West-side neighbors of the project. "A lot of people in the community...feel passionately about the design of that bridge," he says, which means a lot of people in or near Montlake hate what's being proposed. But he reiterated what he said during his campaign, that he favors a scaled down version that is more about transit capacity than cars.

The 520 project, which has been sold, like the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, as driven by seismic concerns, is also likely to face philosophical opposition without major modifications of the current options, though McGinn might not want fight battles state highway battles on two fronts at once. The fact remains, however, that a big, car-centric 520 would violate some of the core environmental principles that McGinn stands for.

One interesting tidbit from the lunch is that McGinn is neither shy nor embarrassed about using polling to push his policy agenda — the seawall being a case in point. McGinn paid for a seawall poll out of his own pocket, and the result showed strong support for moving ahead, useful ammo in convincing the city council to go along. That strengthened the case he's made to put the measure on the ballot in May. McGinn says the values of polling and his ability to take the city's pulse and respond are proven in his successful campaign for mayor (polls that helped him craft a victory with his tunnel flip-flop, for example), and developing strategies for passing the Parks levy, and the Roads & Transit measure, which McGinn lists as among his notable civic accomplishments as a Sierra Club activist. Some politicians are publicly shy about polls and pollsters, but McGinn has put one on his staff as a top, $110,000-a-year adviser.

McGinn said the polling on the seawall cost only about $800, but that he paid for it himself because he wasn't sure it was right to have the city pay for it (especially during painful budget cuts) or ethical to use campaign funds or some other source. He plans to find a way to do more polling, and suggested he even might start a polling Political Action Committee or some other non-profit, non-city entity to continue the practice with private donations. (A standard operating procedure for mayors.) This should be unsurprising given McGinn's record of ballot measure success, or his political closeness with House Speaker Frank Chopp, who is another Seattle Democrat prone to running things like taxes increases by the public first. Liberals, not just Tim Eyman, can be successful poll populists too.

Still, a polling-PAC for the mayor seems like a pretty bold idea, one that can be criticized for being deeply cynical, or praised for being refreshingly transparent. Still, McGinn doesn't want to make a habit of dipping into his own wallet when he needs to measure public opinion or has questions about city ethics rules.

On the seawall, I tried to get an idea of why McGinn had moved this to the front burner. The safety information that has alarmed McGinn has been known for some time, based on studies and inspections over the last 10 years. In short, McGinn knows what Nickels knew, so what's amped-up the urgency? Are there new facts in terms of safety, or was his sense of concern simply a difference of judgment between himself and Greg Nickels? (This is assuming it was something other than a divide-and-conquer strategy for deep-sixing the deep bore tunnel.) McGinn said it was due to a realization that it no longer made sense to delay the project in the hope of finding other funding for it. McGinn, just back from a recent trip to Washington, DC where he met with Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Norm Dicks, Ron Sims, and Gary Locke, among others, said he received "no encouragement at the federal level" that any funds would be forthcoming for the seawall.

That helps frame the different realities the city confronts in new, harder economic times. While some stimulus funds might be available (for education spending, even broadband), the city's and nation's infrastructure deficit is beyond the government's capacity to fund all the need. We're entering a period where harder choices need to be made. While the seawall's timbers show signs of significant rot, it's symptomatic of a wider problem. With federal and state funds drying up, we need to be more self-reliant, and perhaps dream bigger by dreaming more modestly.

A new seawall might be less glamorous than a new tunnel. A scaled-down, four-lane 520 might not carry as many cars as the six-lane version with a tunnel and expansive new interchanges. But for the city and state to work, we have to live within our means. That means finding ways to do more with less. Until economic times change, that's the reality McGinn will continue to face — and the political reality he may be grasping sooner than most local Democrats.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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