Among the dubious innovations brought to city hall by Mayor Mike McGinn is a modern version of challenging an opponent to a duel. McGinn, a litigator, doesn't say "See you in court," but instead proclaims, "See you at a town hall." He first tried this ploy when publicly offering to debate Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer before Microsoft employees over the question the highway 520 bridge. This week, McGinn responded to City Council President Richard Conlin's disagreement over the waterfront tunnel by issuing another town hall ploy. Like Ballmer, Conlin declined the honor.
It's easy to see why they slip the trap. The event would be packed with McGinners and other partisans, so hardly a rational forum. And since McGinn is trying to spread doubt and delay about the tunnel, giving him a media opportunity to dramatize disarray doesn't make sense. Besides, McGinn is a polished presenter to the jury. And isn't the election campaign over?
Another wily aspect of the ruse is that it enables McGinn to avoid more substantive debate. He makes a point or two and then issues the challenge for a full debate, knowing full well that he won't get one. Meanwhile, the media go off chasing the non-story of whether there will be a debate. (The Stranger had already lined up a date at Town Hall and was gleefully goading Conlin to enter the ring.) Conlin was "finally" flushed out of his European vacation to decline the challenge with the sensible observation: "We do not need more debate at this stage of implementation; rather, we need to work collaboratively with our partners to solve outstanding and complex problems."
McGinn is still playing from a weak hand on this issue, since the council has endorsed the tunnel solution 9-0. (Even McGinn sorta-endorsed it during the campaign, though that lasted about three weeks.) His only hope is to stay in the campaign mode, stirring up his base supporters by these macho challenges, quickie poll results, and hammering away at his one good (though meretricious) point, the cost overruns issue. He may be waving his arms to get attention for another reason — picking fights to remind the public that he's still "relevant." Most voters probably wish he would sit down and work things out with the council, rather than dramatizing differences.
The truly nervous-making event for tunnel supporters this past week was all the talk about Gov. Chris Gregoire possibly being appointed U.S. solicitor general. Were she to leave town, the one remaining big champion of the tunnel would be gone. Mayor Greg Nickels, a reluctant convert to the idea, was defeated; former King County Executive Ron Sims is far away in D.C. True, new executive Dow Constantine was a crucial behind-the-scenes tunnel-maker, but he's got a world of other problems to tend to, and the county part of the waterfront deal (more tax revenue for Metro Transit) never made it through Olympia. Subtract Gregoire and the one strong tunnel backer would be that duel-averse Seattle city council.