Seattle mayoral hunger games: What kind of mayor do we need next?

Don't get your hopes up for real change, since we favor "hedge politics" in these parts, tamping down bold ideas. A look at the early dynamics of the race.
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Councilmembers Bruce Harrell, left, and Tim Burgess, right, escort Mayor Mike McGinn to give his 2011 budget address to the City Council.

Don't get your hopes up for real change, since we favor "hedge politics" in these parts, tamping down bold ideas. A look at the early dynamics of the race.

The coming year will be fascinating politically. There’s the Seattle mayor’s race, already crowding up early because of the slumping popularity of Mayor Mike McGinn. The Port of Seattle will have four of its five commissioner seats up for grabs, with perhaps two or three vacant seats. The Seattle School Board, teetering between a reform majority (elected in 2007) and a slow-down majority (elected in 2011), will try to resolve its split. The King County Executive race, where Dow Constantine has a lock on the job, looks like a yawner, as do the Seattle City Council races, with strong challengers likely biding their time on the chance that 2015 will see elections-by-district.

But if the horse races will be compelling, the “course races” (what kind of course are we setting for the city and region) will be less so. That’s because local politics has become strongly resistant to significant change, in large part because good (or reviving) economic times dull the appetite for uncomfortable change. More about the possible courses below.

Our stalemated and cautious political order is a kind of “hedge-fund politics,” meaning the voters like to hedge their natural liberalism with strategies that “short” these investments. Our main short investment is with Tim Eyman, so that however often we elect Democratic liberals to run the governorship and the Legislature, we make sure that Eyman’s supermajority initiatives on raising taxes also pass. (Even King County voted for the latest Eyman supermajority measure, 54-46.) And now, to make sure of checkmating liberal lawmakers, the Republican minority has taken over the state Senate with help from two defecting Democrats. 

We continue to have liberalism without the money to do much about it. And the Republicans in Olympia are willing to make the cuts that keep state government from runaway spending. Both parties can hold onto offices by appealing to their respective bases this way, but big issues don't get solved and big ideas don't get traction.

The hedge in Seattle politics is the city council. A Mayor McGinn with sweeping progressive ideas may get elected, but a cautious, consensus-seeking council keeps the centrist bridle in place. Voters feel good about themselves for voting in a daring rookie leader, promising to be the greenest mayor in the land, knowing that the hedges (and the recession) will prevent any runaway idealism. A cautious consensus prevails, protecting the major interests.

The result is a sharp contrast between our disruptive-change businesses such as Amazon, merrily overturning the past 500 years of book publishing, and our slugs-paced politics. Absent some kind of serious setback such as Microsoft failing or Boeing departing, or China eating our lunch, it will probably stay this way. Our “course race” will be about staying the course.

Accordingly, it is distinctly possible that Mayor McGinn will be re-elected, now that he’s somewhat mastering the job and the council keeps tempering his excesses, saving him from his follies. He has the advantages of incumbency, a group of constituencies (greens, bike clubs, night clubs, Sonics fans, and ethnic groups), his show of executive muscle in making a deal for pro basketball, a strong economy that will even start creating some play money at City Hall again, and a record full of rookie mistakes but no scandals or WTO riots. Further eroding the momentum for change is the fact that political and economic interests in Seattle have grown to rather like filling the vacuum of a weak mayor.

A minister friend once observed wryly that if you royally screw up on the job (canoodling, blowing through the endowment) you normally get a handsome settlement from your church to get you to go away quietly. Do an exemplary job and you get a lot of love and a farewell supper in the church basement.

And so, in politics, if you have a whole lot of miscues, as McGinn has, you get rewarded with the good fortune of a whole lot of challengers, dividing up the opposition. That may happen with McGinn. If, say, five or more challengers get in the race, that would assure McGinn’s surviving the primary, where he might only need about 16-20 percent of the vote. And his general-election opponent might have weaknesses that McGinn could overcome. (Too close to business for Tim Burgess or broker Charlie Staadecker; too volatile a personality for Ed Murray; too narrow an agenda for Peter Steinbrueck, etc.)

It also matters with these challengers whose hide they are taking their votes from. Some candidates, such as former city councilmember Steinbrueck, would take votes away from McGinn’s green and anti-downtown base, as would councilmember Bruce Harrell and Asian businessman Albert Shen, drawing off minority votes from McGinn. Others, such as Port Commissioner Bill Bryant (toying with getting in), Staadecker, and former Bellevue mayor Cary Bozeman (pondering a race focused on doing the central waterfront park right), would take votes away from Burgess.

On the other hand, if the race comes down to a small number of good vote-getters, such as Burgess, Murray, and Steinbrueck, you could easily see McGinn duplicating the fate of former mayors Paul Schell and Greg Nickels by being squeezed out in the August primary.

A lot depends on how well Councilmember Burgess does in the next few months. If he is able to get key endorsements and a good war chest, he can probably discourage the long-shot candidates and keep certain last-minute possibilities (notably former King County Executive Ron Sims) from getting in. Equally critical is how well Sen. Ed Murray, who announced a tentative campaign last week, does in getting key backers, especially in the gay community, to keep their powder dry. If Murray can do that, others still deciding will have a better chance. The early fundraising shows McGinn with $95,000 in so far, Burgess with $25,000, and Staadecker with $60,000.

Murray's prospects got more complicated after the Senate coup a few days ago. The chances of a deadlocked legislative session, keeping Murray in Olympia far into prime campaigning (and fundraising) season, could force Murray to decide whether to resign his Senate seat or forgo the mayor's race. Similarly, the toppling of the Senate Democrats, shortly after electing Murray their leader, does not exactly fortify his credentials as a leader.

Here I might dust off my three historic axioms for the Seattle mayor’s race. First, city councilmembers rarely rise, since they have a reputation for nit-picky, process-driven small ball. Second, the more liberal candidate always wins the general election (and probably only Ron Sims could get to the left of McGinn). Third, last-in, best-shot: the candidate who gets in at the last minute has a huge advantage, given the intense media attention to early entrants, and the opportunity for tactical positioning by a late-entrant candidate. (Mayors Norm Rice, Paul Schell, and Mike McGinn all practiced this tactic.) Axiom three could spell a big advantage for Murray who, due to his duties as Senate Democratic leader, will be a last-minute guy.

As for the “course race,” let us ask what kind of mayor does Seattle need in the next four years, as opposed to which candidate needs the job?  Here are a few scenarios, with some indication of which candidates would do best.

  • Bold reform. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel exemplifies this agenda, with his big three targets: lousy schools, terrible murders, and crippling municipal debt. Burgess and Sims or a longshot like Rep. Reuven Carlyle would have the best claims to this agenda.
  • Regional statesman. This is the Brookings Institution formula for regional coordination, greater political clout and thinking comprehensively about transit, urban growth and smart allocation of resources. Denver and Minneapolis are leading examples, with Seattle a woeful laggard. Bozeman, Bryant, Murray, and Sims (as well as long-shot Maud Daudon, head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce) seem most suited to this course.
  • Liberal/lifestyle magnet. This is the school of thought associated with Richard Florida, by which if you create an Amsterdam-like city that smart young people want to live in (nightlife, liberal tolerance, gay-friendly, affordable, lots of transit and bikeways), they will flock to the place, and tech start-up businesses will follow. Seattle is totally into this strategy, and McGinn, Murray, and Steinbrueck would seem the best ambassadors.
  • Cluster-maker. Pick a rising sector, such as clean energy or advanced manufacturing, and rush to the head of the class. Seattle already has two: software and aerospace. Available for a new mayor to push: green economy, biomedical, tourism. Best candidates for this: McGinn, Bryant, Burgess.
  • The forgotten basics. Cities like Seattle are increasingly globalized and technologized, hence very neglectful of those with modest educations or struggling to find an up-escalator in this economy. A social-justice agenda would help them. Boston is a good example of this approach, where multiple “ladders” of upward mobility for all classes and neighborhoods are a big part of the city’s agenda. Equally neglected in Seattle: potholes, public safety, schools, parks, and the have-less neighborhoods. Part of this agenda is smarter management of the bureaucracy. Best advocates: Burgess, Steinbrueck, Sims, Harrell, Shen.

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