The Seattle Council sends a signal of weakness

Who can fight a mayoral veto? That sounds a lot like the city council that Mayor Nickels repeatedly rolled over.
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Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell.

Who can fight a mayoral veto? That sounds a lot like the city council that Mayor Nickels repeatedly rolled over.

Updated Tuesday morning. Oddly, to me at least, the Seattle City Council majority is not fighting back against Mayor Mike McGinn's veto of the panhandling ordinance that passed 5-4 last week, after months of careful legislative craftsmanship. This stirs not-good memories of previous council behavior, though there is also a more benign explanation for the council's seeming meekness.

The five-point program (which also hires more officers and helps homeless programs, in addition to the controversial section about a new way of curbing aggressive solicitation on sidewalks) started out with eight of nine councilmembers in favor of it. Nick Licata was always the dissident, and he ended up masterfully stirring up the opposition. Chief advocate for the bill Tim Burgess says he was most surprised that Bruce Harrell defected. Indeed, Harrell may have felt he could safely defect and score political points because the measure, up until the vote last Monday, had veto-proof 6-3 support. The surprise was Mike O'Brien's 11th hour switch, traceable to lobbying by the mayor and many others in the O'Brien support groups.

You would think that either Harrell or Tom Rasmussen could be wooed back to the majority side, particularly if they were threatened with some political reprisals and if given some face-saving modifications of the bill. Both are getting a lot of heat from downtown retailers and others in the Burgess coalition. But apparently not from council leadership, such as President Richard Conlin, or Burgess. Time to move on, they say, adopting an understanding tone. Time to salvage and implement the four less controversial points. Let's retain council amity.

There are some good reasons for the move-on approach. The controversial legal aspects of the bill against aggressive solicitation had not fully been worked through with the City Attorney's office, key to enforcement of these minor violations. Some were worried that the measure would not survive court scrutiny of its vague language. And it might make more sense, as the council girds for a lot of show-down fights with the mayor over budget cuts, to keep the good communications flowing among the members, rather than drawing some hard lines in the sand. Such, at least, was the mood of the majority.

Still, giving in to the mayor without a fight seems an odd signal to send. Not only did this action hand the mayor an odd victory; it may have driven the social-justice crowd, not natural McGinn supporters, into his coalition. Josh Feit of Publicola makes this point, saying that McGinn now has the eco-greens as well as the lesser-Seattle and social-justice liberals from the Nick Licata camp. The council action also alarms moderates who expect it to be able to stand up against hot-button liberal campaigns, as well as Mayor Mike.

Instead, the city council very audibly sounded the retreat. "Well, we tried," is the response.

The not-good memory this stirs for me is the way the city council during the Greg Nickels years (2001-09) would put up a small fight and then cave, saying to supporters that "we tried," but what can you do when you have a bully as mayor? Blame him. Here we go again with the updated version: How can you possibly override a veto? Blame the other guy.

Nickels treated the council with contempt, cutting them out of his consultations. The mayor's staff figured that the council couldn't really hold a majority for a controversial position, didn't really know its own mind, and so why bother? They will end up passing the Nickels' proposal anyway, with a few adjustments around the edges, whining about how it's bad but there's nothing a council can do.

Under Conlin's leadership, and with a coherent centrist coalition of Conlin, Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, and Sally Clark, the new council is decidedly better. They stood up to McGinn on 520 (though there's 10 years of building consensus behind that) and on the waterfront tunnel (also about three years of consensus). They aren't going along, at least yet, with McGinn's plans for an early fix of the seawall.

But still, push came to shove. The politics got heated, with McGinn and Licata merrily pushing emotional hot buttons. The council couldn't hold its majority, or really take a punch. One can certainly make a case for regrouping and fighting for a better issue, holding council relationships together. There are much bigger stakes ahead: the new police chief, policy-rich budget cuts, how to use the city levy to force change on the school district. Will this new pragmatic center in Seattle politics stand and fight?


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