Halfway through his term, can McGinn still make the grade?

Seattle's first-term mayor is getting down to last chances to create a new image of himself as someone fighting for the people on issues where agreement is possible.

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After getting an image as someone committed to blocking the tunnel, Mayor Mike McGinn has seemed to focus on more activities like promoting economic strength.

Seattle's first-term mayor is getting down to last chances to create a new image of himself as someone fighting for the people on issues where agreement is possible.

Mayor Mike McGinn came into office two years ago from the start of next month, eager to play up his ties with the public that had just elected him. The activities around his Jan. 4, 2010 oath as mayor included an open house at City Hall the following Saturday and an evening music festival.

When assessing Mayor Mike McGinn’s performance halfway through his four year term of office, it’s important to understand how he got here, and how, in the time since his distinctive start, he has positioned himself for re-election.

Successful politicians build coalitions and achieve big objectives because people agree with what needs to be done and because they believe the person leading the charge is going to be around for a while. Problems arise when the city bureaucracy sees weakness in the long term and people who should be coalition partners sit on their hands waiting for the next leader to come along.

Unfortunately for McGinn, and our city generally, this appears to be where we are.

As I was thinking of a grade for the first two years, I was ready to give him a C. This was largely because it appeared that he was finally moving past the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate and focusing more on getting his staff in order and carrying out the basics of governance.

He also seemed to be getting along better with the City Council. In fact, there is far more comity between the current council and administration than when Greg Nickels was mayor. So, is this because of an alignment of priorities, leadership style, or something else?

I would argue that it has a lot to do with the council not perceiving the 7th Floor as a rival and competitor to the 2nd Floor — that this harmony is more of a product of McGinn’s perceived weakness than anything else. There are many reasons for the current state of affairs at City Hall.

His current troubles can be traced back to his campaign success. In 2009, he rode the wedge issue of the Viaduct to perfection. He used his opposition to separate himself from the pack in the primary and then recanted and pivoted toward what sounded like acceptance of a tunnel replacement to win the general election against another unknown quantity, Joe Mallahan. But the seeds of that victory were destined to grow into a tree that would bear bitter fruit. After his pre-election statement that was taken as a commitment that he would support the tunnel project if elected, Seattle citizens saw his obsession with stopping it, including his virtually loaning of staff to the effort.

The McGinn brand was set. He was seen as someone who locked himself into an opposition stance. And after he helped to engineer a defining vote, not just on the Viaduct project, but on his leadership, he suffered the most debilitating blow to his chances to lead.

It’s easy to see the fallout. The recent car tabs referendum and Family and Education Levy are the kind of campaigns traditionally led by the mayor. Think of past mayors leading the charge for schools, fire levies, libraries and community centers. Whether it was Rice, Schell, or Nickels, they were always out front explaining the benefits of the projects, raising money for the campaigns, and building coalitions.

The fact that McGinn has been so absent, and deliberately so, is a troubling reflection of his performance. And it’s not that he is disliked by people who know him and work for him. City staffers appreciate him for his kindness and earnestness. It is more that people don’t expect him to be around for very long and therefore don’t want to invest much time in accomplishing his agenda — although it is sometimes hard to figure out what that agenda is.

He has invested and burned so much political capital on failed initiatives that he has few cards to play. In reality, he only has about a year to gain traction and prepare for a re-election campaign in 2013. After 2012, all eyes will be on the challengers and every move will be seen as political.

Is there, however, time to change the game and move people his direction? Yes. A year can be an eternity in politics. He must start building a broader coalition around some priorities we can all agree on. Everyone wants to live in neighborhoods that are safe, where you can ride your bike, walk, and have access to transit. We want parks and shops within walking distance and well-maintained infrastructure. Simply put, he needs to come up with an agenda and a plan, describe the vision, and bring people along. He needs to find a way to communicate to the larger public that the perceptions about him born of the previous political battles are wrong.

But Mike McGinn came on the scene as an unknown to the electorate. Because of his campaign and the singular focus of his first two years in office on an issue that ended in defeats at the polls, he has a brand that is difficult to shake.

He seems to be making some smart moves lately: forgoing the rambling disorganized press roundtables, getting out to neighborhood chamber meetings and being prepared, and staying out of fights with other elected officials. But he still has big problems with the police department and the city’s Department of Transportation (SDOT). Morale at the police department is extremely low and commanders are waiting for a new mayor, while cops are trying to stay out of street confrontations that could land them on the front page of the newspaper.

SDOT has a maintenance backup on arterials of 500 years and continues to talk about a road and bridge maintenance crisis. The First Avenue onramp to the Spokane Street Viaduct is months behind schedule — it was supposed to be completed in September. This project has been in the design phase for over a decade, so, while it’s hard to blame the mayor entirely for this problem, he is ultimately responsible. How he responds and corrects these issues is part of how he will be judged.

Most observers would say he has handled the budget deficits well. Not everyone is happy but they never are when cuts are needed. He did not give the council a lot to complain about and they didn’t. But there is no money for him to use to accomplish his priorities and create a rallying point for a coalition.

So, again, his options for a comeback are limited.

At the end of the day, he has no money and no political capital. And while he has appeared to learn from some of his mistakes out of the gate, the true irony is that the genius of his campaign to get elected may be the undoing of his administration. It is difficult to assess a grade now — the final one will come in 2013.

But the reality on the ground dictates that the grade for the first two years is a fail with hope for improvement — but he better do it soon. And for the rest of us, the lesson to be learned is that good politics don’t always make for good governance.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.