Seattle's tunnel referendum: hot war or cold?

Some tunnel supporters are itching to turn the August vote into a campaign against Mayor McGinn and his alternative plan, even if the City Council has decided to cool it. Here's a rundown on the complex political calculations in play.

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The proposed waterfront tunnel

Some tunnel supporters are itching to turn the August vote into a campaign against Mayor McGinn and his alternative plan, even if the City Council has decided to cool it. Here's a rundown on the complex political calculations in play.

The most interesting local political debate at the moment is whether to turn the August primary referendum on the Seattle waterfront tunnel into a plebescite about the tunnel, a mid-term no-confidence vote on Mayor Mike McGinn — or to downplay the whole thing as a farcical sideshow. What you have are two large political armies maneuvering at the borders, fingering triggers, and trying to decide if the showdown over Mayor McGinn begins now or waits to the 2013 election.

It's not clear what the pro-tunnel forces will decide on. Parts of the business community, fed up with Mayor McGinn's opposition to the tunnel and other causes, are itching for a big fight now. The City Council has decided on de-escalation. It's possible we'll have both, with the councilmembers keeping to the high road during the current City Council races, while some business hawks launch a few cruise missiles. Much depends, meanwhile, on whether the media play the issue as the Big Vote on the Big Tunnel, or just another tiny legalistic skirmish signifying little.

Superior Court Judge Laura Jean Middaugh ruled on Friday that a nit-picky single section of the referendum, the now famous Section 6 (where the council says it will "give notice" to the state this summer that final agreements on the tunnel project will proceed), is the only part of the city's 140-page city agreement with the state that can be referred to voters. Specifically, Section 6 says:

"The City Council is authorized to decide whether to issue the notice referenced in Section 2.3 of each Agreement. The decision shall be made at an open public meeting held after issuance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement."

It was one more comical turn of the 10-year plot, with a solomonic judge wanting to let voters have their say but limiting their say to a meaningless technicality that has nothing to do with the merits of the tunnel. That assures a vote that lets both sides interpret the results in their favor, settling nothing.

The City Council was thrown into a tizzy by the judge's curious ruling. The confusion was made worse by the fact that four of its members were out of town late last week. This is a council unusual in its ability to find a common position, however, and one soon emerged, according to sources. First, they will honor the judge's request and put the measure on the August ballot. Second, they won't appeal the  ruling, as time is running out and the members don't want to push their luck in further defying the voters' desire to express themselves on the $2 billion tunnel.

Third, the council discussed and then rejected a ploy of putting the surface/transit proposal the mayor favors also up to vote. That would probably result in a double-no (as happened in 2007), where voters muddy the waters further by saying no to the tunnel and no to the surface solution — and everybody gets more angry about this cynical maneuver.

Thus the council is following its strategy of the past year. Keep plugging away on the project. Don't take McGinn's bait and escalate the debate. Let the anti-tunnel people keep trying and failing to derail the project and hope that voters get sick of the debate. "Keep calm and carry on," as the British say.

Two immediate factors reinforce this strategy. One is the largely positive reaction to the unveiling of preliminary designs for the waterfront park last week, reminding citizens of the payoff of getting rid of the Viaduct. The other factor is the City Council races this fall. Even members with token opposition want to roll up strong majorities, and angering the perhaps half of the electorate who don't like the tunnel is not the best way to broaden the support.

No such consensus exists, at least yet, within the business community and labor, strong and impatient supporters of the tunnel. Some may end up appealing the Judge Middaugh ruling, though time is running short. Others argue that, since the referendum will be turned by the media into a plebescite on the tunnel anyway, let's not continue turning the other cheek on McGinn but take the battle to him. In short, let the mayor's race of 2013 begin right now, by making McGinn the issue.

The pro-tunnel coalition would obviously have deep pockets for such a campaign. The outlines of such a campaign would include:

•Attacking McGinn's credibility by reminding voters of McGinn's 11th hour campaign pledge/switch not to block the tunnel.

•Putting McGinn's proposal — expanding lanes on I-5, adding transit, and doing without a tunnel or a Viaduct — up for public debate, noting the chances of much more congestion and the long odds of the state agreeing to such a plan. Additionally, focusing on the surface solution splits the anti-tunnel coalition, since half of it favors a new Viaduct and really dislikes the risky surface solution.

•Arguing that the McGinn alternative would jeopardize the waterfront park, since the state would cut back funding for the corridor and reclaim the right of way where the Viaduct now stands.

•Wrapping Tim Eyman, who showed up in support of the referendum, around the mayor's neck.

There are downsides to this hot-war approach. One is that, by making the vote really about the two big alternatives, you risk losing a high-stakes confrontation over whether to build the tunnel. If, on the other hand, the pro-tunnel forces brush off the referendum as meaningless, just a legal tweak of a technical issue, they don't continue to dignify McGinn's crusade against the tunnel. They might also let others do the assault on McGinn, such as the fledgling recall group (a flimsy case, but one sure to bemuse the media), and keep trusting on McGinn to trip himself up.

Another factor: the anti-tunnel forces have rebranded their proposal. No longer is the word "surface" used in describing the alternative, since that idea polls badly and alarms part of the anti-tunnel coalition. Instead, it's now the "I-5/Transit" proposal, which involves getting more capacity on I-5 (mostly by removing some mid-town on and off-ramps), rather than turning some downtown avenues into expressways.

Tunnel foes are good at shifting the grounds of the debate as various of their arguments falter. Even so, they are in an increasingly awkward corner: opposing tolls on the tunnel as unworkable (good environmentalists usually favor tolls); expanding lanes on I-5 (this is supposed to be about getting rid of highways); opposing the tunnel for taking away the Viaduct's mid-town off ramp (while taking away I-5's Seneca ramps); deploring the congestion as cars avoid the tunnel for streets (when that's what weaning people from cars is supposed to favor); and protecting taxpayers from overruns (while pushing for a plan that would probably have far fewer state dollars).

Curiously, Mayor McGinn has gone very quiet about the tunnel referendum, suggesting that he, too, may want to sign a non-aggression pact. Josh Feit of Publicola, noting the surprisingly low profile, speculates that poor polling on the tunnel (plus a new press secretary) might be driving the mayor's retreat to his foxhole. My guess is that McGinn knows that the passionate tunnel-haters will be able to whip up all the public opposition needed to turn the referendum into what the public will perceive as a plebiscite on the tunnel, and the mayor needs to stay in the background lest it become a plebiscite about him.

One business leader calls all this strategizing "a game of three-dimensional chess, with lots of different agendas and scenarios." I suspect that the pro-tunnel people will end up holstering their six-shooters. One reason is not wanting to give McGinn an early opportunity, under assault, to build up his organization. Don Stark, a public affairs consultant close to the business community, recalls how the recall effort against Mayor Wes Uhlman in his first term (1969-73) served to charge up his supporters and enable him to win re-election even with firefighters angry with him. With McGinn likely to draw a swarm of opponents, the candidate with a strong core support may well prevail; so why give the mayor an early chance to firm up his base?

A last reason for not initiating full warfare over the tunnel is the general expectation that the issue will have faded by 2013, with most voters by then shrugging at the rear-guard legalistic attacks and ready for new issues. There's good reason to think that the tunnel forces have basically won the issue (assuming the actual execution of the big dig doesn't come a cropper) and that the way to turn McGinn into a one-term mayor is to rally around a single strong opponent early, likely Tim Burgess, and let that candidate define the issues (putting City Hall back on track, tightening belts wisely, more accountability, police reform).

Which is another way of saying that, shooting war or not, the 2013 mayor's race has just begun.


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