Mike McGinn: Don't call him Mayor Moonbeam

But Seattle's mayor shares some of the same ideas as former (and perhaps future) California Gov. Jerry Brown: he's green, progressive, and believes government has to be realistic in an era of limits.
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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn meets with the media following a shooting involving a metro bus driver on Aug. 12.

But Seattle's mayor shares some of the same ideas as former (and perhaps future) California Gov. Jerry Brown: he's green, progressive, and believes government has to be realistic in an era of limits.

Not long ago I reported that some Mike McGinn supporters were worried their man had the temperament of former Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, known for her smarts, arrogance, and unwillingness to suffer fools (and the media). If that's a potential McGinn downside, is there a political role model that suggests a McGinn upside?

The name I've been pondering for some weeks is another former governor, in fact, one who is again running for governor of California: Jerry Brown. And I'm particularly thinking of the Jerry Brown who ran the state in the 1970s. There were several ideological characteristics that set Brown apart. He was an unconventional, small-government liberal who followed the Ronald Reagan years by cutting spending. Indeed, by many accounts, Jerry Brown was more small government than Gov. Reagan ever was.

Brown combined his fiscal thriftiness with visionary ideas and green politics to push high-tech innovations (satellites) and alternative energy (solar power). Brown declared that the recession-plagued, oil-starved '70s and '80s were a time when big government needed to be re-thought by progressives (this was more than a decade before president Bill Clinton declared big government to be over). Brown said: "The country is rich, but not so rich as we have been led to believe. The choice to do one thing may preclude another. In short, we are entering an era of limits."

Those words are even more relevant today, when the Great Recession lingers and the bubble of confidence in endless growth and corporate expansion was burst by Wall Street. As anyone who owns real estate, has watched their 401K shrink, or lost a job knows, we're indeed "not so rich as we have been led to believe." Even in Washington state's most liberal bastions, there are calls for doing with less: Gov. Christine Gregoire contemplates enormous cuts in state spending and is looking at reducing government to its "core" services, King County Executive Dow Constantine is doing the same, and so is Seattle Mayor McGinn. The city's daily newspaper is urging a "reset" of priorities.

The Brown model offers a positive way forward, and an alternative to the wish that some kind of New Dealism will save us. Traditional liberals tend to flail in the new environment, wanting to re-prioritize spending and raise taxes while preserving jobs and union turf. But the money just isn't there, or won't likely be. With so much job loss, taxpayers are unlikely to support tax increases and borrowing power is limited. Even major projects that are underway (like Sound Transit) have to be cut back due to decreasing revenues.

Which is why a Brown-style approach of streamlining government, even radically, while making it technologically smarter and focusing on green investments that will improve quality of life and make things more affordable and sustainable in the long run makes sense: It offers a fiscally conservative yet positive vision.

Last week on KUOW, Weekday host Steve Scher had an interesting philosophical discussion with McGinn on this very topic. Scher raised the name of Jerry Brown and asked the mayor if the new budget realities were simply belt-tightening or a more enduring fact of life. The mayor replied, "(T)here is something more fundamental going on than tightening our belts through a downturn. ... We have less wealth than we had before or it wasn't real wealth." If Seattle's boom years were based on a bubble, the new normal calls for a different way of doing business. We must, said McGinn, be both "thrifty" and "thoughtful." "(I)nstitutions aren't trusted right now ... people are very distrustful of government as well. ... What's our capacity to make choices?"

For McGinn, the choices are only partly driven by current budget realities, they are also driven by the fact that state government is still operating according to the old rules, especially when it comes to projects like the 520 highway expansion, the downtown deep-bore tunnel, and a host of new highway spending being contemplated in Olympia. Investing in more roads is not only expensive, but it will make life more expensive in the future. Investing in transit and lower-cost light rail is smarter because it creates an infrastructure that helps people save money (it's cheaper to ride a bus than own, maintain, and gas a car) and protects the planet. He sees the spending on transit and infrastructure upkeep as smart, while plowing money into more highways is continuing a model that doesn't work, and certainly won't work in an era of limits.

McGinn and Brown share certain similarities. Brown traded a chauffeured limo for a Plymouth he drove himself, and scorned the governor's mansion for an apartment. McGinn trimmed his staff from Nickels era excess, rides his moped, and looks, as one critic said, like an "unmade bed." Both are hard greens; while Brown was fiscally conservative, he was also ahead of the curve on environmental issues, and in more recent years has been a key behind urban redevelopment in Oakland, the kinds of projects McGinn's Great City initiative would love.

Brown was unfairly tagged as "governor Moonbeam" for proposing that California have its own satellite. But even the guy who gave him the Gov. Moonbeam moniker, Chicago columnist Mike Royko later recanted and the state did get its own emergency satellite (as many other states have done).

McGinn is no mayor Moonbeam, but he has been unfairly tagged as an obstructionist, a guy who likes to say no. He's clearly selective and ideological in his preferences.

McGinn has a vision that is still out of the mainstream (even among Democrats), yet ultimately is probably more pragmatic than those civic boosters claiming the mantle of pragmatism, one based on an economic model of growth that isn't working anymore. The business-as-usual types see McGinn as obstructionist; supporters see someone with vision who wants to prevent things from going down the old, unaffordable, unsustainable path.

Government has to make smarter choices, target its investments, do less more efficiently, and improve its technological capacity. That's the old, and for that matter the new, Jerry Brown. It is also the voice of the man in the mayor's office.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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