State of the City: McGinn speaks from political strength

A smooth and confident mayor spins an inspiring tale of success and togetherness in 2013 Seattle.
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Mayor Mike McGinn speaks to City Councilmember Nick Licata at the State of the City address.

A smooth and confident mayor spins an inspiring tale of success and togetherness in 2013 Seattle.

Mayor Mike McGinn is running for mayor from a position of strength. His many opponents have to raise funds and work at their day jobs, and they've done the mayor the service of dividing the opposition and improving his chances in the summer primary.
If McGinn simply does his job, he's campaigning, and giving campaign speeches. It's what a mayor does; it's the advantage of incumbency. And his State of the City speech (on Tuesday) was a great showcase for McGinn, a chance for him to tell the story of the city's progress under his rule.
McGinn has come a long way from his first speech in 2010, which was widely criticized for its disorganization, off-the-cuff feel and downbeat tone. Even McGinn supporters were let down: Here was a visionary mayor lost in the weeds of budget cutting, a bad economy and institutional resistance. The rookie, mistake-prone McGinn also had qualities that made some wonder if he wasn't a kind of Dixy Lee Ray in the making. Dixy Lee being the smart, combative one-term Democratic governor who was her own worst enemy. A team player she was not, and it led to her downfall.
One of Dixy's problems was that her intelligence did not seem to come with a learning curve about politics: She was an I-Know-What-I-Know kind of pol. McGinn seemed similar, but judging from this week's speech, he's come a big distance from the elbow-throwing activist elected in 2009.
If there was a single theme that tied McGinn's survey of the city together is was "partnerships." He was happy to credit the voters, the city council, community groups, the state's voters, everyone he could think of, for the great state of the city. And he made the case that things are looking good: enviable job growth (fourth best in the country), rising occupancy rates (look at the Smith Tower!), the lowest major crime rate in 30 years and progress on rail, transit, planning, public safety and better schools.
We're a city that's now got paid sick leave and massive new rental housing in the pipeline. Library hours are being restored, the seawall funding has been approved and we'll have a new waterfront without a highway cutting through it. Gay marriage is legal — he called the 136 marriages performed at City Hall on the first day of legalization the "best and happiest use of City Hall ever." There's a new transit master plan and studies on more rail connecting neighborhoods. Our carbon emissions are down, and recycling is at record rates. Fiscally, the city is in the black and rather than the empty Rainy Day account he faced in 2010 we're on track, McGinn says, to have the largest reserve ever.
If McGinn has a confident spring in his step, it's understandable: He took the tiller in tough times, we've weathered them, and now there are fairer economic winds ahead. Just look at the cranes overhead, and imagine the high-rises that will soon be looming. The prickly, slovenly McGinn of 2010 is now grayer, better dressed and calmer. His speech was well delivered, confident but not full of attitude. McGinn seems to have lost some of his defensiveness, which often came through when there was nothing much to be defensive about. He's shelved some of the skills he learned in pick-up basketball and seems to have figured out that he's in the front office now. And that's almost literally true, as he's knee-deep in the efforts to get the Sonics back in a new SoDo Arena.
Seattle politicians do best when talking about the big vision, the Utopia we're creating here, and this too plays to McGinn's strengths. His opponents, and many of them too are smart and dedicated, must out-do him on the vision front if not now, then later.
McGinn's speech showed that knack that Bill Clinton had and Barack Obama used in his latest State of the Union speech of being able to combine big ideals with specific initiatives and numbers. He speaks of social justice, and then points to 9,000 more housing units in the permit pipeline. He talks about community support of schools, then specifies the programs that are helping students at Beacon Hill Elementary. We're building huge infrastructure, but don't forget the new South Park Bridge.
He builds toward that classic pitch that Seattleites love, the appeal to ego. He mentions that the mayor of Chicago wants to steal our bikers and techies; that Kansas City might outdo us getting more gigabytes for broadband to its citizens. Are we going to be outdone by Kansas City? Robbed by Boss Rahm Emanuel?
McGinn also appeals to Seattleites belief in a big picture as our competitive advantage. We debate p-patches and plastic bags, but we are redeemed by wanting to do right by the planet, by caring about more than our own backyards. We see the connection between coal trains  (a "disaster for the city," he says) and the health of the planet. Look at us, he says, we're proof that a fast-growing economy and progressive politics go together. If 2010 was a "bummer" speech, this one was all feelgood.
Again, he goes small, citing the community partnerships that can change the world, and the worlds within worlds. Take 23rd and Union, he says, featured in The Seattle Times. It's a one-time druggie neighborhood now being renewed by locals working together, transformed in just a few years.
Things are good, he concludes, but we can still make progress. "Let's resolve," he says, "to go further together." 
Talk about transformations. A mayor once accused of being a lone wolf, an outsider, an obstructionist is now speaking the language of cooperation and partnerships. The words "together" appeared in the mayor's text 17 times. "You can't win an argument in Seattle by arguing what's best for you, you have to show why its best for everyone," the mayor said. 
A campaign consultant could not have said it better. That nugget shows McGinn has been studious at Seattle Mayoral University. When it comes to telling Seattle what it loves to hear, Mike McGinn is earning his degree.
To read the speech as prepared for delivery, click here. For full Crosscut coverage of the 2013 mayor's race, click here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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