The deep-bore wisdom of Tim Ceis

A master strategist and former deputy mayor talks about the tunnel, redistricting, and Seattle politics. Ceis is pushing pragmatism, but how pragmatic is a risky tunnel?

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Tim Ceis visits Crosscut

A master strategist and former deputy mayor talks about the tunnel, redistricting, and Seattle politics. Ceis is pushing pragmatism, but how pragmatic is a risky tunnel?

Some people still lament the fact that Seattle isn't run out of the Rainier Club any more, or 7 am breakfast meetings of business leaders at The Olympic Hotel. 

The old Olympic breakfasts, which drove the Seattle world's fair from impossibility to international hit, were so effective that one of the men who hatched the idea, local power lawyer Harold Shefelman, sought to continue them after the fair as the means of running Seattle Center. Once the city had an effective back-channel for making things happen, why let the end of the fair shut it down?

Some Seattle city council members, notably David Levine, balked at the idea. Why, he asked, couldn't the city's business be done during normal office hours? That way, er, the public could be included. The early breakfast idea won the day (the vote was 6 to 4 and a preferred spot was the Washington Athletic Club). Normal procedures and office hours are famously non-productive in Seattle. It's one reason referendums and initiatives wind up on the ballot, and it's also why doing things in the back room still has appeal. "I remember when Seattle was run out of the Rainier Club," a club member told me a few years ago. "It was a better city then!"

Seattle might be unruly, but it is not ungoverned. We eschew politics consistently. Look at the last mayoral election: Greg Nickels, a professional politician, was defeated because people got tired of his experience and Chicago boss-ness, and we wound up having to pick between two guys (Mike McGinn and Joe Mallawhatever) who had no experience between them. We seem to hate political celebrity, but we love process, which tends to produce murky, slow-moving, incremental results. We tend to punish the outspoken, like McGinn, and tire of "idea men," like Paul Schell, and think better of a leader who keeps his mouth shut or who doesn't go off script.

Mouthy pols are often rewarded in other cities where politics is a spectator sport (Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco). Here we tend to reward those who walk in quiet lockstep, even if it's toward a cliff. Seattle's current city council gets points for maturity, but none for being in the least bit entertaining, Tim Burgess' rapping aside.

Former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, however, is an interesting figure, and I find him much more sympathetic out of government than in. He is now a paid political consultant, and it's clear that his skills as a negotiator are valued. He's working on behalf of the downtown tunnel, advising Microsoft on Eastside transportation, and he's one of two key Democrats hashing out statewide redistricting. He's worked for the state, county, and city as top aide for a governor, a county exec, and a mayor. 

He hates his old nickname, "The Shark," and seems anything but in person. He's smart, funny, and frank in a way too few are in politics. He comes off as a practical, blue-collar kind of Democrat, not caught up in bike lanes and plastic-bag wars but more focused on the meatier aspects of policy, like moving people and goods around. He seems much more of the Scoop and Maggie school: a believer in government, labor, and big companies. He's made impatient by precious nonsense.

I can see why politicians hire Ceis to get stuff done. He's not in airy-fairy land. At a recent Crosscut pizza lunch, he was asked if he was going to help create more swing districts as part of his redistricting tasks. Ceis looked stunned. "Why would I do that?" he asked. He clarified that his role was to negotiate for the Democrats, not create some kind of centrist idyll for John Anderson nostalgists. That said, he also allowed that there would likely be a few more swing legislative districts in the end because of population growth in "red" suburban and ex-urban areas, meaning some Democratic legislators in Pugetopolis might see blue districts fade to purple even as some formerly red Eastside districts have turned bluer, thanks in part to the Microsoft worker invasion. Still, Democrats should feel secure knowing that a guy like Ceis is in there bargain with Slade Gorton over the election map. (Slade the Blade meets Tim the Shark in "ultimate fighting.") Too bad Ceis couldn't help with the debt ceiling.

On the tunnel (Seattle Referendum 1), Ceis has his script. It's time to move forward; 10 years of dithering and study is enough. The tunnel's been vetted ad nauseum, it's the most workable option, so it's time for Seattle to move its ass. He tells an interesting story too. After the 2007 Viaduct advisory vote that killed the Nickels cut-and-cover version of the tunnel, he says, Nickel gravitated to the surface option. The head of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Grace Crunican, whom Ceis calls the finest transportation official he's ever worked with (one snowstorm aside), embraced it and really wanted it to work too. It didn't pencil out, for reasons explored in another Crosscut article. The deep-bore tunnel looked like the only thing that wouldn't curtail vehicle capacity and it would free the waterfront for redevelopment without killing lots of businesses in the process. 

Ceis says he's polled on the tunnel, and though he wouldn't share results he insists the "yes" votes will win in the end. He breaks the campaign down to progress vs. scare tactics on tolling. He frames it so that it would be virtually impossible for the "no's" to win. If the referendum wins, the tunnel argument is over; if it loses narrowly, it simply means the city council has to go back to the drawing board and tweak its process. Only a big, overwhelming "no" might shift momentum and unmuzzle McGinn, and the more anti-tunnel he talks, the more it hurts his standing with voters who want him to talk about anything else, even sex crimes.

Ceis then looked into the dark void of Seattle process. If the referendum loses big, he joked, he'd ponder a move to Vancouver. He says any other Viaduct alternative solution will "get the crap beat out of it." There's never going to be consensus on a solution. When there's no consensus, the tough, like Ceis, get going.

When asked about the tunnel's impact on Pioneer Square, Ceis say's it'll be "Utopia," a neighborhood reconnected, the Washington Boat Landing restored, the increase in street and bus traffic good for the place. "Carmageddon? I don't think so."

He also came up, inadvertently, with a great argument for the tunnel for voters in Montlake and Madison Park. Kill the tunnel, and the state might redirect the money to the grossly under-funded 520 expansion project. It's a classic dilemma of unintended consequences: so many megaprojects, so difficult to monkey-wrench them all. Unless, of course, you're Tim Eyman.

One thing that strikes me about guys like Ceis is that they frequently wrap themselves in the cloak of pragmatism while promoting projects that are often highly problematic. It's a little like today's Tea Party radicals claiming to be conservatives. 

Pragmatic to me is affordable; pragmatic to me seems is doing least harm to the environment and cultural fabric of the city; pragmatic to me is seeing the folly of pushing ahead with major public projects that a brutish, risky, of questionable long-term value, based on out-dated assumptions about the depth of our pocket-books and the future of highways. I don't think one should concede to the tunnel proponents pragmatism or realism. The tunnel leap is expensive, speculative, and risky.

If it goes ahead and succeeds, well, fantastic. But let's not forget that the well-documented optimism bias is at work here, and the purported benefits of the tunnel proponents' own analysis cast doubt on its wisdom.

As a tunnel proponent, Ceis is smart to spin realism as belonging to his side. But the deep-bore tunnel only seems like that on the surface.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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