Dixy Lee Mayor?

Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn, is off to a rocky start. He can take some solace from the past, but there are warning signs too.
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Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn

Seattle's new mayor, Mike McGinn, is off to a rocky start. He can take some solace from the past, but there are warning signs too.

Mike McGinn has not had an easy transition from activist/candidate to Seattle's City Hall. To be fair, either candidate, McGinn or his opponent Joe Mallahan, would have been in for a rough ride. Both were inexperienced political outsiders who would be picking up the reins in troubled times. The Great Recession continues, revenues are down, vacancy rates are high, the construction cranes are dwindling, and a multi-million dollar budget gap looms.

Then there are what McGinn recently referred to as the "legacy" problems (read messes left over from his predecessors), including a drained rainy day fund, an expensive downtown tunnel project that could produce cost over-runs the locals would be on the hook for, and a stalemate at Montlake over the design of a new 520 bridge.

McGinn has increased his own suffering through a series of self-inflicted goofs and errors in the past six weeks. He pushed the school levy, but then failed to vote (more embarrassing because he made a big issue of Mallahan's poor voting record during the campaign). He appointed a valued political aide (since resigned) to a top city job, a guy who has a background of committing fraud and who had been lying about having a PhD. He annoyed the city council members with a scheme to put a funding measure for the waterfront seawall project on the May ballot without consulting them first, an act that was seen as a Machiavellian device to sabotage the downtown tunnel, a project McGinn opposes and the council favors.

The latter is an issue that has bred mistrust and misunderstanding. The mayor says his I-oppose-the-tunnel-but-will-get-it-built-if-we-don't-have-to-pay-for-overruns position is "nuanced." His chief council rival, Tim Burgess, widely assumed to be positioning himself for a mayoral run, says the mayor's tactics on the tunnel are "disingenuous" and that he's really trying to undermine the project.

Beyond the core debate about whether or not the tunnel is a good idea (or a done deal) lies the issue of trust. McGinn is widely perceived as having "nuanced" himself to the point where people, including those on the council, aren't sure just what he'll do. The charitable, yet unflattering, description is that he's being "lawyerly." Others simply wonder whether he's flipped again or flopped, and how many times. Though his semi-switch from anti- to sorta-pro-tunnel might have made the difference in his successful mayoral campaign, McGinn's transformation to very reluctant tunnel implementer has had the price of raising concerns about whether the mayor is entirely trustworthy. Does he mean what he says, and just what is it he's saying? It is tempting to read between McGinn's lines, perhaps too tempting.

Mistrust has been sown elsewhere too. McGinn moved quickly to act on his campaign promise to cut 200 positions in city government held by what he implied were political appointees from the Nickels years. That should have been a political slam dunk: The budget and staff need to be cut, and keeping a campaign promise is a good thing. Yet here McGinn confirmed the fears of those who worry abut his lack of management experience. By announcing to a whole category of city workers that 200 would be taken out and shot, but not disclosing which ones, he demoralized an entire bureaucracy which has retrenched to oppose his moves, blocking them with technicalities and claims of possible discrimination. Even if McGinn is right on the math, he flunked management 101 and has had to beat a hasty retreat to now consider the cuts in the context of the overall budget, a context he has just made tougher for himself.

More recently, his "State of the City" address to a less-than-filled room, was criticized for being not a speech but off-the-cuff remarks about the challenges ahead, a rambling "bummer." One would think that an activist like McGinn would be able to seize moments with the cameras on and use them to lay out his positive vision. During the campaign he was helped on TV and radio by his ability to out-talk Mallahan, who was verbally gaffe-prone. The symbolism of such addresses is always more important than their substance. If nothing else, McGinn's non-speech seemed to play to an impression that McGinn is not only a non-politician (which can be a good thing), but a non-mayor (which is not).

Here, McGinn has both liability and opportunity. For one thing, McGinn is demonstrating that he's "not Greg Nickels." His speeches are not attended by applaud-at-any-cost supporters fearful of former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis' evil eye. There are no multi-point-plans, no nicely pressed and tailored suits. This bugs some, like Seattle Times editorialist Joni Balter who joked on KUOW's "Weekday" press roundtable that the bike-riding McGinn shouldn't show up at public functions with messy hair looking like "an unmade bed."

But that is the genuine McGinn, who takes the "unmade bed" characterization as a compliment. After all, this is Seattle where people wear parkas and hiking boots to the opera. Whereas some saw his speech performance as sloppy, McGinn says he's just trying to be himself. "I really just try and be open about what I am, where I'm going, and what I'm doing," he said last week at a meeting with reporters. He told how during the campaign he was advised to iron his shirts or shave his beard or get more cozy with the city's power brokers. He refused, went his own way, and won.

McGinn is trying to demonstrate through town halls and public outreach that he's listening before he acts, that he's cognizant of the real fiscal challenges the city faces, that he has to play small ball before he can get any of his bigger agenda items (progress on rail, education, city planning, public safety) enacted. Besides, they're long-term anyway. He is what he is, a non-professional politician, a guy who's not playing "Boss" in a mini Chicago on the Salish Sea.

McGinn supporters have their concerns. A chief one is wondering when the mayor will shift from campaign mode to governing mode. McGinn has appointed many top aides from his campaign staff and supporters, yet he has also chased away some city staffers (like Dwight Dively) who were very experienced, respected, and gave the mayor's team some solidity. The young true-believers of the campaign are inexperienced too, raising questions about whether you have a mayor's office where the rookies are leading the rookie. Is everyone in the learner's permit phase? How many know how to drive city government?

Another concern is that McGinn has the added challenge of transitioning from being a bomb-throwing activist to an establishment leader. Some say McGinn is frustrated at switching roles from the outsider critic to the insider who's taking all rotten tomatoes. Before the mayor even gets to convincing people to back and implement his policies, he has to prove that he can make things happen. Can he settle disputes between downtown interests? Can his office solve more problems than it creates? Can he get the city streets plowed when it counts? We know he can run a town hall, but the jury is still out on whether he can run City Hall.

One secret of McGinn's success at the Sierra Club, Great Cities, and his campaign was that he tracked public opinion very closely and could then head to where he could demonstrate public support. Yet the public is often of two or three minds about a subject, fickle too, and busy. The Stranger's Dominic Holden recently asked McGinn if Seattle wasn't suffering from town hall fatigue, citing dwindling attendance at public meetings to discuss what people want in a new police chief. And many more meetings and caucuses — literally scores of them — are in the offing. Town halls will only take you so far; so too reading poll results. At some point, people want a mayor who makes decisions. The right ones.

Another bad mayoral moment in recent days highlighted the dangers, reminiscent of the annoying nanny forays of the Nickels era. (Remember the proposed ban on park bonfires?) The mayor approved park superintendent Timothy Gallagher's ban on smoking announced last week, which seemed like a no-brainer in a city that has tossed smokers from restaurants and bars. Yet when the reviews came in overnight on what proved to be an unpopular decision, the mayor quickly backed (ordered?) an immediate reversal of the policy, a reversal with the silly, face-saving stipulation that we all must carry tape measures in city parks now to ensure smokers maintain a 25-foot rule.

The result is that a policy that should have never been put into place has irritated the people, with the compounded damage of making the city look wishy-washy by flip-flopping. Stupid stuff like this is not the tone the new administration wants to be setting. When asked at last week's press gathering whether he had a "vision for downtown," McGinn mentioned plans to do a walking tour of Pioneer Square and making it easier for business to do business (by eliminating irritating rules and regs), but admitted no overarching vision for the retail core. Really? The mayor's got no vision for downtown but does have time to consult on the park smoking ban? Yikes.

If McGinn's outsiderness is part of his strength as an unconventional mayor who is a man of principle on the environment willing to raise the tough questions about the city's future (how many more highways are we going to build? How are we really going to get the schools fixed?), it is also a weakness. The problem with elected activists is that they get little credit for pragmatism because they anger their true-believers (why is Mike allowing parking lots next to light rail stations!), yet the pragmatists rarely trust them (witness the skepticism over McGinn's seawall gambit). McGinn has to keep his green Kool-Aid drinkers happy (talk about bikes!), yet at the same time cultivate the mainstream, which means problem solving. Being mayor, after all, is a mainstream job representing all the folks who didn't vote for you too, often people for whom time is money. It's not an exercise in guerrilla politics.

A big question is, what is Mike McGinn learning from his first couple of months in the mayor's office? I put the question to him last week, and his answer was telling. First, he cited a Seattle Times column by the late Walt Crowley which was linked on Myurbanist.com. The mayor has been encouraging everyone to give it a read. In the 2002 op/ed piece, Crowley outlined previous mayoral tough transitions, especially focussing on Wes Uhlman's in the 1960s. It's a tribute to Walt that he's still making civic points from the grave. The mayor cites the story as a way to say, hey, I'm no different than other mayors, my struggles are business as usual. But the clipping highlights a problem for McGinn: When your sympathetic reviews are coming from an eight-year-old-column by a dead historian about an administration that came to power 40 years ago, that's saying something about the challenges you face with public perception and the media.

McGinn went on to say that in the past, when's he's moved to a new community, he's sought out a place to play pick-up basketball. The new guy on the court gets tested, has some hard elbows thrown at him while driving to the hoop, and you have to throw them back. Pretty soon, everything is cool. In other words, McGinn is establishing his place in the city pecking order so if the council throws an elbow, he gives as good as he gets. Sometimes in the mayor you see the flashing blue eyes of a competitor, the bomb thrower, the feisty maverick, the Irish-American guy from Long Island who can hold his own in a pick-up game.

But there are some cautionary examples from the past as well. Think of another cagey, feisty outsider political figure, a competitor who overthrew an established order and wound up in the big chair, a pol who was elected because of opposing business-as-usual, someone of great intelligence, and yes charm, whose personal style was often criticized, yet who stuck to her principles and was loath to ever admit a mistake. Someone who didn't learn lessons so much as throw elbows. The name is whispered by some McGinn supporters who worry about the mayor's first weeks: Dixy Lee Ray.

Dixy Lee Ray wasn't a mayor, she was Washington's first female governor. She had an academic background and a knack for infuriating and disappointing people, including her friends. She was a political outsider who went her own way and eventually fought the establishment of both political parties. She served only one term, was ousted by future Congressman Jim McDermott in the 1980 primary in her bid for re-election. Today, she is more remembered for her troubles, including her inability to transition to leadership, than for her service. She wanted to be a change agent, but sabotaged herself.

Much of it came down to temperament. Ray, like McGinn, was smart; and she was also used to doing battle in sharp-knifed academic environments like the Atomic Energy Commission. She could be inspiring and charming when she was being herself. In the ealy '70s, before Ray was governor, I attended a lecture by the anthropologist Margaret Mead where Ray introduced her. They entered the Opera House and walked together down the main aisle, both short, gray-haired, powerful women of accomplishment. The Seattle audience applauded wildly for the dynamic duo. In small gatherings, Ray often impressed with her brains and wit. And she was unapologetic for her eccentricities and style. She wore knee sox and men's shirts. I remember running into her on the ferry to Friday Harbor, she in her sports car convertible filled with unruly dogs.

But she was also arrogant, often acted as if she was the smartest person in the room (not difficult in Olympia) with nothing to learn from others. She had political liabilities too that stemmed from her personality. She wasn't prone to cultivating political allies and winning over enemies. Instead, she picked fights and named her Fox Island pigs after members of the contentious Olympia press corps. In terms of learning how to be an effective political leader, she threw elbows, but failed real world political science.

And that's a question for McGinn. Bright as he is, what is his learning curve like? Can he avoid the pitfalls of stubborn Dixyism? Some signs are good. His top media aide, Mark Matassa (a former Crosscut editor) is well-liked by the working press and so far, no one's heard of McGinn keeping pigs named Erica, Josh, Joni, and Joel. Amiable Mark Matassa is no grumpy Lou Guzzo, Dixy's press aide and chief counselor, and generally the mayor seems to enjoy engaging with reporters. McGinn himself says he takes heart that most of his problems so far are not in what he's doing, but in how he's doing it, suggesting that he can and will make adjustments.

One thing will be to see what allies he makes, what kind of support he accumulates in office. That's ultimately more telling than who you bring in the door in the early days. Is the mayor going to grow his support among solid, influential people, many of whom reluctantly leaned toward Mallahan? Or will he operate an insurgency? A Dixy appointee once highlighted for me the fatal flaw in her political make-up: She never remembered her friends, nor forgot her enemies. In other words, she held grudges, and would not or could not cultivate new support and keep it. She had a "take-me-as-I-am" quality which is understandable in people who don't fit into traditional molds, but it can be a political liability too.

Mayor McGinn asks lots of questions, a good sign if he actually listens to answers. His opponent, Mallahan, was striking for having a flat learning curve during the campaign. So, what is McGinn's learning curve as mayor? Unclear so far. For now, he says it's about establishing yourself on the basketball court. But after that, you have to play the game, drive to the hoop, and stick the ball in the hole. We're still waiting to see if McGinn has game.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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