McGinn stirs the embers with his 'trust' insult to Gregoire

The other side declines to take the bait, and so the sides edge back from the brink. What does this say about politics in this region?

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn

The other side declines to take the bait, and so the sides edge back from the brink. What does this say about politics in this region?

Last Friday, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said, in a press conference he called to comment on the state's receipt of two bids to dig the deep-bore waterfront tunnel, which he opposes, that "I don't believe we can trust the governor to keep our promises to protect us." He later added, "I don't trust the legislature [in this regard] either." You can watch the full press conference here. The glacial till soon hit the fan.

Had the mayor stepped over the line of acceptable political insults? Gov. Gregoire had earlier in the day had her moment of triumph, celebrating the two bids and delivering a vow to veto any effort to stick Seattle with cost overruns, as state legislation recommends. Courtesy would suggest that the mayor tepidly welcome the governor's pledge, and then wait a few days before raining all over her parade with his litany of alarms about the project and a list of the governor's past failures to honor all pledges on the tunnel. But that's not the combative McGinn's style, so he called a press conference and unloaded on Gregoire and the legislature.

By Monday, the mayor was walking the comment back a bit, the governor's office was said to be "reaching out for further dialogue," and the City Council was deciding not to escalate — "better to not pay attention," in the somewhat condescending words of City Council President Richard Conlin. And so, another skirmish in the cold war over the Viaduct stepped back from the brink.

A lot of people, particularly tunnel supporters, thought the mayor's remarks were "way beyond the pale," as one city councilmember said, off the record. Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) did go on the record, telling, "I am disappointed by the mayor's disrespectful language to our governor and legislature. This is a relationship business and the mayor is a more gracious person than to throw an angry punch that questions people's motives and integrity." Carlyle and others were worried that McGinn's words would make it still more impossible for the city to get what it needed from the next legislative session or the governor. Some thought the council should hire its own lobbyist to go to Olympia, as it did for part of the last session, or otherwise punish McGinn.

The episode tells one a lot about the state of simmering hostilities at City Hall, and the steps being taken not to escalate into a shooting war. It reminds me of the observation that the best news story these days is "celebrity in trouble." The celebrity sorta-violates a taboo, and then follows outrage, clarifications, semi-apologies, maybe even a highly publicized trip to the jail or a treatment center. Then it fades, only to be repeated again. McGinn seems to understand full well this aspect of modern media. It serves to keep his dominant issue — saving Seattle taxpayers from possible cost overruns from the tunnel — ever in the news, even as his allies on this issue shrink.

So far, the City Council has a strategy of not taking the bait. To do so, they argue, just reignites the war, disgusts the legislature, and gives the mayor more time in his bully pulpit. It also would drag council members down to the level of this essentially meretricious debate and musses up their chances to run for reelection or mayor some day. "Our job is to try to build good relationships," observed Councilmember Conlin, brushing the episode aside and meanwhile making calls to legislators and the governor to assure them that the council, at least, was the soul of cooperativeness.

Some might find this more evidence of the council's fear of confrontation, of drawing hard lines. The last time it tried this, when Conlin defied the mayor and signed an agreement with the state on the latest EIS document, McGinn had a field day, blasting the council for usurping power and violating numerous laws. So instead the council, which is still 8-1 in favor of the tunnel project, keeps moving things along, working with the governor (by now fiercely in favor of the project), and ignoring (or patronizing) the mayor, while still looking for areas of agreement with him. This being Seattle politics, the council is about 95 percent aligned with McGinn's green and liberal agenda.

That approach seems to be working, which may explain the cornered-animal behavior of the mayor last week, who loaded up his press conference with demeaning remarks about "shell games" and the like. Moreover, the council has a year-old program called "Seattle for Washington," that involves councilmembers divvying up the state and going to other districts to befriend legislators and look for common interests. Conlin has drawn Spokane, for instance, while Tom Rasmussen is assigned the Yakima area and Sally Clark is ambassador to Vancouver and Grays Harbor. While McGinn growls in his castle, these cheery ambassadors go looking for allies.

Similarly, the council is now drawing up its legislative agenda for the 2011 session of the legislature, which it will present to McGinn and hope (or pretend to hope) for concurrence. Top of the agenda so far is stable funding for Metro Transit, which presumably the mayor will like. McGinn told me that he wants to put removal of the famous clause assigning cost overruns to "taxpayers in the Seattle area" on that agenda, probably knowing full well that the council will not concur; nor would the legislature oblige, particularly as it gets more and more furious with the mayor. (McGinn must also know that Gov. Gregoire will continue to decline the honor.) Before long, we might find ourselves with competing wish lists for Olympia and maybe rival lobbyists.

At any rate, we are now at the "I didn't really mean that" phase of the celebrity-in-trouble news cycle. I asked the mayor if he meant his remarks about distrust to be applied broadly to the governor and the legislature, or just on the matter of cost overruns on the tunnel. It was "limited to the issue of cost overruns," he said. I then asked if he thought the governor's pledge to veto any bill that assigned cost overruns to Seattle was "a positive step." He wouldn't concede it, saying he needed "more than an expression." And was he willing to talk with Gregoire and her staff about making sure this wasn't seen as a personal rupture? "We'll have an opportunity for that conversation."

Speaking of the governor's veto offer, two reasonable questions arise: Why didn't she say this years ago, and isn't it likely that when the cost overruns arise and this issue comes to a head (if ever), Gregoire is not likely to be the governor? McGinn now quite justifiably raises the second objection.

Gregoire herself has not commented on the tiff, both concerning the dueling press conferences last Friday and their apparently heated conversation at a face-to-face meeting the previous Tuesday. One city hall source, not at the meeting, says there were "very hard words" over Gregoire's (entirely predictable) refusal to accede to McGinn's request that she introduce a bill removing the overrun clause. Corey Curtis of the governor's office said the Tuesday meeting resulted in "no danger to their personal relations," a sentiment McGinn echoed, adding only that the discussion last Tuesday was "not productive" on that score.

What to make of all this? First, it's worth remembering that McGinn's predecessor, Greg Nickels, was also a persona non grata in Olympia, certainly in the legislature and for years with the governor. Secondly, as regards the tunnel and several other large economic development and transportation issues, there is a broad coalition of labor, business, regional leaders, the city council, the county, and a good many green groups pushing for it and not really needing (or probably wanting) McGinn as a partner. The major other issues: getting Boeing's tanker contract, funding education reform, funding Metro Transit, infrastructure and highway money, freight mobility, and funding for the University of Washington and other colleges. Indeed, McGinn's opposition provides a foil that helps to keep this coalition together. As in the Cold War, the two sides rather need each other for their own political purposes.

It's also clear that McGinn is not about to back off on the waterfront tunnel, even if it isolates him, limits his chances of reelection, and jeopardizes his other issues. It's puzzling, in a way. He rode into office by both opposing and sorta-supporting the tunnel, and he has paid his dues to his core constituency on this issue. There are lots of other ways he could push for transit and bikes and density, if he wanted to try being a team player — though it may now be too late. Aside from Speaker Frank Chopp (who would not be speaker if the Democrats lose the House), McGinn has hardly any important political allies in his anti-tunnel camp. Blocking a huge public works job in a recession is political suicide for labor unions. So how many times can he put his hand into the buzz saw and still be, in the Clinton term, "relevant"?

No question, it's a high-risk political strategy. Which is not to say it might not prove out, particularly if the tunnel runs into big problems. Like Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver, where McGinn learned his first politics, there can be enduring political popularity from being a principled maverick, Oregon-style. He's also toying with a kind of "Tea Party of the Left" combination of deep-green, climate-change-focused convictions and tough fiscal stinginess. That stance that might be a growth political stock if the recession sticks around.

Whatever the strategy, it pays to remember that McGinn is one stubborn Irishman. He's also an experienced environmental litigator who knows the value of stirring up doubt and chaos, rebuffing offers to settle, and ultimately driving the opponents nuts.


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