Polls are not the best way to tell whether an elected official is a leader. In fact, sometimes there is an inverse relationship between leadership and performance on polls. Take the case of the new (grim) polls on Mayor Mike McGinn.
Seattle mayors and city council members mostly do poorly in polls. Greg Nickels, who breezed to a second term, almost always only had about a third of the people asked say he was doing a great job. The city council labors in obscurity, with most councilmembers barely registering on a poll asking about voters’ impressions of their work. Now it's Mayor McGinn's turn, and his favorable rating dropped recently. But does that mean McGinn is in trouble?
The most troubling feature of the poll for the mayor would be the question that asks “Do you have a strongly favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or strongly unfavorable opinion of Mayor Mike McGinn?” The answer isn’t pretty. McGinn's “favorables” seem to be dropping like a stone. That would seem to be a measure that people aren’t happy with the job that he's doing and an indicator that won’t be re-elected.
If democracy is about making and keeping people happy as measured in a poll, I suppose McGinn is in trouble. And there is no doubt he’s angered other state and local officials, who can barely contain their anger and frustration at what appears to be McGinn’s determined obfuscation about the deep-bore waterfront tunnel.
It’s good in politics to play nice with others, an indicator of gravitas. McGinn has also been accused of letting the city run itself, failing to give direction to city departments or fill posts quickly. McGinn’s proposals, critics contend, arrive stillborn at the feet of a city council that has folded its arms and refused to support the initiatives of the errant mayor.
Each of these things, some would argue, translates into the “unfavorable” response by voters in the poll. But let’s apply a different measure.
First, how about the charge that McGinn doesn't play well with others? Consider that McGinn recently collaborated with King County Executive Dow Constantine to solve a sticky criminal justice problem, signing a 20-year agreement with the county to deal with Seattle’s misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial. This is a money saver and a key public safety issue. Rather than shuttling these people around, they will now be held here while they await trial. This makes the idea of another jail, for now, moot. Siting a jail is not something anyone in the city has to figure out — not an easy thing to figure out between two governments, especially if the relationships are poisonous.
Next, the charge that McGinn is neglecting to manage the city departments well. Well, let's take the case of a tough land use issue that recently emerged in the Roosevelt neighborhood. A recalcitrant property owner is in the hunt for big upzones for his property near the new light rail station. Advocates of light rail like density around light rail stations too, but neighbors who are angry with the property owner don’t support upzones on his property. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) developed a plan with the neighborhood that mirrored their justified resentment of the landowner, keeping heights on his property low.
Enter the mayor, telling DPD that tall towers do not appear consistent with expectations for this neighborhood. At the same time, given the investment in light rail, McGinn called for a closer look at heights above the limits of 40 feet, such as 65 and 85 feet. This is a position echoed by Councilmember Tim Burgess. If this collaboration continues, it could fulfill some hopes that we can move beyond the tunnel war and toward some solutions for land use.
This example leads to the question of whether McGinn can work with the council. There is no doubt that the relationship between the mayor and council has been antagonistic. Nothing unusual here: the executive and the legislative branches of every government in the English-speaking world has had this antagonism at least since 1215 when King John was forced to accede to the Magna Carta, the culmination of a civil war.
But consider the approval of the Family and Education Levy for the ballot by the city council. Even Council President Richard Conlin agrees that this is a big deal, and its passage certainly speaks to the council’s willingness to collaborate — but also to the mayor’s. Mayor McGinn pushed for lots more money in the levy, more than $200 million total, and the council concurrred.
Mayor McGinn may fail the ultimate test come November of 2013 with voters. But, in the long run, democracy isn’t simply about winning elections; it is also about leadership. Leadership requires working with others, having a strong hand on the wheel of government, and passing and implementing legislation. By those measures McGinn isn’t fading away.
Further, leadership means taking principled stands and asking tough questions. That kind of leadership can be costly in terms of polls. Sometimes, fortunately, it pays dividends in the long run when people mark their ballots.