Mayor McGinn: Is Seattle starting to see him differently?

After two years of fighting and frustration, the biggest winner from the voters' decision in favor of the waterfront tunnel could be the project's biggest opponent. 

Crosscut archive image.

Mayor Mike McGinn discusses winter storm planning (October, 2011).

After two years of fighting and frustration, the biggest winner from the voters' decision in favor of the waterfront tunnel could be the project's biggest opponent. 

The story of the Comeback Kid or the underdog pulling out a last minute victory is a staple of political and sports lore. These stories are so prevalent because they are often true. Mayor Mike McGinn was counted out during a crowded election field in 2009, but pulled out a victory using a finely tuned field campaign and a principled stand on environmental issues.

Now McGinn is staging another “comeback” of sorts. After a rocky beginning as mayor, his chances at re-election — maybe even an easy re-election — get better every day. Here’s how I (as someone, to be sure, who supported him in 2009 and expects to do so again next year) see this coming about. 

First and foremost, the tunnel issue is now out of the foreground of civic debate. Putting the tunnel on the ballot may have been ill advised for a number of reasons, but its defeat freed McGinn; the people have spoken on the tunnel. McGinn now has started being the mayor of a middle-sized American city, managing day to day emergencies and doing the things that mayors do, rather than opposing the tunnel.

Press releases tell part of the story: “Mayor announces $1.6 million investment in Seattle arts organizations,” “City Emphasizing Pothole Repairs After Winter Storm," and “McGinn to announce innovative new job-readiness program for immigrant and refugee youth.” These are all mundane, boring, workaday headlines that chronicle the ribbon-cutting and street-fixing that people associate with running a major city.

No blood and guts here. And that’s the point. With the recent addition of Beth Hester to McGinn’s team the steady drip of boring press releases is an indicator of discipline in the Mayor’s office. The story is that the work of the city is getting done. The maxim of any elected official should be, “when news happens I make it happen.” And McGinn has been, mostly, making his own positive news. 

A snowstorm in a city like Seattle is almost an expected programmatic element, like the bridge getting washed out in an episode of Lassie. It happens from time to time, and as problems go for a city it is a rather mild crisis. But as Greg Nickels can attest, Seattle people drive a hard bargain when it comes to snow storms: Don’t screw it up.

McGinn, building on the politically fatal lessons learned by Nickels, the Mayor showed up to slap the backs of snowplow drivers. Appropriate foot wear is critical, as both Nickels and Richard Nixon can attest, the latter showing up with wingtips on the beach and the former with tasseled loafers. I don’t know what McGinn was wearing during the snowstorm: mission accomplished.

Lastly, McGinn is doing a dance with professional sports. If he can somehow get Seattle a professional basketball team his odds of winning re-election shift dramatically. I personally think that any sports team needs to sign an ironclad commitment to generate wins on the field before we, as a community, give them anything. Reliably get into the playoffs and get into championships, then we’ll talk. But none of that matters in politics or sports, and even though Seattle is a truly lack luster sports town in many ways, bagging a franchise that can play as the Sonics would be huge win for the Mayor, even if he’s just a small player.

McGinn benefits from the political principle that if a mayor acts like a mayor, avoids big gaffes or mistakes, and produces some actual wins — even if they are trivial in the vast scheme of things — he will be tough to beat. If McGinn keeps going on his current trajectory, what is the rationale to run against him? Will an opponent haul out three-year-old headlines about the tunnel? I’m no political genius, but that doesn’t sound like a winning strategy.

As more time passes, the early goof ups of a new mayor fade, and the steadiness of an incumbent mayor running the city day to day becomes the dominant image. Any opponent will have to go negative in a city that doesn’t reward negativity.

We can learn a lesson about Seattle voters from Seattle Mariners fans’ relationship with pitcher Bobby Ayala. Ayala was famous for loading bases and walking in runs in the late innings when the Mariners had built up a big lead. But in the stands, even after he walked the tying run in, the stands wouldn’t necessarily fill up with derisive comments or demands for Bobby to be pulled from the game. Instead you’d be likely to hear, “That’s OK, Bobby, we’ll get the next one!”

It’s true, everyone loves a winner; but potential challengers to McGinn may find themselves feeling less certain about the reasons to run against him. Seattle is far more likely to rally around a comeback kid, who, in the late innings of his term, pulls it out of the fire and hits the strike zone when it counts. As one in-the-know pol, formerly frustrated and even disliking McGinn, recently told me: “You know, the guy is kind of growing on me.”


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