Mayor McGinn's kinder, gentler new look

He's gone from combative to clubbable, greatly toning down his confrontive, argumentative style. But this may not mean much of the substance has changed.

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Mayor Mike McGinn

He's gone from combative to clubbable, greatly toning down his confrontive, argumentative style. But this may not mean much of the substance has changed.

Just as we are getting a "new narrative" with President Obama, post-shellacking, are we also going to have a new Mayor Mike McGinn? People in the mayor's office tell me that the threadbare old story line for McGinn — clumsy management style, making too many enemies, narrow agenda ("tunnel vision") — is, if once true, now badly out of date. The rookie is learning to bat and field better.

We reporters always need to keep in mind that politicians usually do mature and get better at their jobs, particularly if, like McGinn, they start out with very little experience. Mayor Charles Royer, a rookie in 1977, had a very rocky start and then got quite good at the job, and at national jobs afterward. Mayor Greg Nickels, snow-plowing aside, got much better at being a broad-gauge mayor who could pull off major deals; and now he too is a national figure of importance. 

A normal sign of settling in is when a new mayor shakes up his senior staff, discarding campaign loyalists and turning to pros and people who can make the bureaucracy produce results. No signs of this yet in the McGinn shop, where he still relies on a circle of relatively inexperienced advisers who largely share his views — a not surprising carryover of his previous job running mission-focused nonprofits like the Sierra Club and Great Cities. He is, however, making changes at the top of some departments, the latest being the Department of Neighborhoods, badly in need of rejuvenation.

These changes are subtle. What is notable is a shift in McGinn's public style. He's gone from combative to clubbable. "I'm deep, deep in collaboration right now," he said at a recent press conference, when asked if he was critical of the Seattle Public Schools administration. Collaboration!

During the campaign, McGinn had said that if schools did not improve markedly in two years, he'd explore a city takeover. Reminded of this warning, in the context of the mayor's unveiling a fairly conventional (and expensive) renewal of the Families & Education Levy, McGinn waved off that threat. "I'm working on listening now," he explained, saying he was mostly interested in helping the superintendent to meet the challenges. Listening!

He saluted the broad coalition deployed to fashion the levy proposal. You almost expected him to start hugging people. (I also expect the council to pare down the sticker shock of the levy, to make it more palatable and to show they are listening to the people in these hard times.) The levy, by the way, has a strong social-justice component, tilted toward helping schools with poverty populations and to help the district improve schools in the southeast, now that the assignment plan prevents students from moving to better schools in the north. This very much meshes with an important component of the McGinn coalition.

After about 30 minutes of this kind of anodyne fare, the reporters tried to stir McGinn into some controversy, some quotable pokes at other politicians. "Can we ask about the tunnel now?" one said, plaintively, and was told to wait. For whatever reason (weary of playing this game with reporters? bored? determined to show his statesmanlike side?), McGinn wouldn't bite, except of course for the tunnel, where the gloves suddenly came off.

Looking for some reformist fire, I asked McGinn, What about Mayor Bloomberg's defiance of firing teachers by seniority? "I'm not going to enter that discussion now." Any differences with the City Council on the schools levy? "Complete agreement." Might he try to influence the next council elections, backing some candidates more to his liking? He'd leave that entirely up to the voters. Delay signing street permits that are needed to move along the tunnel and waterfront park until after voters have had a chance to express their views in an anti-tunnel initiative next fall? "Haven't thought about that." (Uh-huh.)

All this is delivered in McGinn's honeyed tenor voice, rather like a rumpled civics teacher addressing a fairly slow class. He slipped punches, he passed around compliments, he elided differences. So this is the new mayor (at least for now) — a public tone of sweet reasonableness and consensus-seeking. No more insulting Gov. Gregoire as untrustworthy; or cheekily challenging Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to a debate over 520.

And it appears to be more than just a public shift of tone. McGinn has made overtures to work with one of his formerly cold-shouldered councilmembers, Sally Bagshaw, starting with finding rapport on the Seattle Center battle over the Chihuly museum. The mayor was also at pains to strike conciliatory notes with the Downtown Seattle Association in a speech this week, where he was reported as saying that he loves working with the group on "issue after issue."

Congeniality is a chronic temptation in Seattle politics. But just as McGinn's agenda of raising taxes, defying business, and building transit is not exactly fitted to the local economy, so his go-along style is at variance with a public increasingly impatient with government as usual. Gov. Gregoire has definitely caught this new approach, becoming very crisp just as McGinn has become very mellow.

Take the issue of cost-cutting. When talking about the waterfront tunnel and its infamous cost-overrun provision, McGinn positions himself as the taxpayer's friend. But that's about as far as he takes that issue. His first budget was full of cuts, of course, and it sailed through the council, thanks to the last-minute infusion of dollars the council got from a loan from the Museum of History and Industry. McGinn's budget, to his credit, took some steps toward permanent fixes: not hiring more cops, for instance. He also showed a lot of flexibility with some departments (notably Parks and the Library), scoring points with the rank and file by softening the blows of permanent job cuts.

Then there is his blessing of a proposal to double the amount of the city levy for schools, which amounts to a seven-year hit of $124 a year for the median household. Too much? McGinn praised Seattle taxpayers for their traditions of being generous. He was asked if, given this increase, he might be postponing some of his other projected levies — no dice. (The one he's working on, creating a Seattle  transportation benefit district to bring light rail to West Seattle, would be hugely expensive, since rail transit is almost always spread over a regional tax base. The planning group seems more designed for political and ideological benefits than to actually produce a workable transit line.)

In touting his new effort to fill more potholes, McGinn waved off suggestions that he improve the productivity of the pothole-fillers, including contracting out some of the work to save money and apply pressure on the city employees, as happens in many other cities. (This approach of a sharp focus on productivity is winning King County Executive Dow Constantine lots of good press.) Instead, McGinn said he was spending more per pothole, in order to have them stay fixed longer. On spending, McGinn seems to be a typical Seattle liberal statist, tone-deaf to calls for shedding programs and lowering costs.

There are three ways of looking at this emergence of a less combative McGinn. One is that he really does want to find common ground in many areas, broadening his agenda and finding friends as a way of getting lots more done. Another view is that he's not deeply interested in these other areas, and so is just going along with consensus solutions that others forge while privately bearing down on his core issues of transportation, climate change, and more justice for the poor and ethnic minorities. A third view is that he's become gunshy after all the negative press from his gleeful potshots at other politicians and the old order, and has just decided to button his lip at these press events.

So the key question remains unanswered about this new mayor: Will he grow enough to accomplish more than a few of his environmentalist issues? And if not, is he going to be able to get reelected? His core agenda of forcing people to think differently about cars is not exactly what a recession-anxious, government-suspicious electorate is excited about. McGinn's base — bicycle clubs, nightlife businesses, young urbanists at war with suburban culture, the social-service sector — is noisy and has reliable advocates in the lefty media, but it is also small and not made up of reliable voters.

In the last election, where he was blessed with a very weak opponent in Joe Mallahan, McGinn expanded his environmentalist base by picking up the Mayor Nickels supporters in the South End and in ethnic communities (and dissembling about his opposition to the waterfront tunnel). Having angered such blocs as labor and business and developers with his anti-tunnel stand, where can he expand his base further? West Seattle, by promising transit and fighting the tunnel? Neighborhood groups, which he used to know well? The creative/entrepreneurial economy that he appeals to stylistically in his bad-boy mode?

But assembling interest blocs in this fashion, Greg Nickels' specialty, may be a pre-Facebook way of thinking about Seattle politics. What is likely to happen is a crowded field of challengers, with City Councilmember Tim Burgess as the centrist frontrunner, that may produce a surprise challenger in the final for McGinn: a newcomer with little experience and an even smaller base than McGinn's. Add to this my favorite two axioms about Seattle mayors' races are: you can't win if you're a sitting city councilmember, and the more liberal finalist always wins.


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