Steinbrueck for mayor?

Can the architect-activist and former City Councilmember shed his rep as a rebel and lead the city?
Crosscut archive image.

Peter Steinbrueck announcing his candidacy at - where else? - the Market.

Can the architect-activist and former City Councilmember shed his rep as a rebel and lead the city?

Even in his mid-50s, Peter Steinbrueck looks too young and too diminutive to be mayoral material, especially in this venue on a recent Friday evening. To be seen and heard, the candidate is standing on a chair in The Highliner pub at Fisherman's Terminal. There are some grizzled faces in an otherwise mixed crowd of 100 or more. There are a few notables in attendance: fisherman/activist Pete Knutson, "Kindergarten" author Robert Fulghum, Port Commissioner Tom Albro, the only one wearing a suit and tie.

Introducing himself, Steinbrueck lets the people know he's a man of many parts, a guy who's studied urban planning at Harvard, but whose carpentry hobby makes him familiar with the weight of a tool belt around his non-middle-aged waist.

Candidate Steinbrueck is indeed a man of contrasts. He's relatively young with a ton of experience (10 years on the City Council). He's future-focused but sometimes painted as a "nostalgia" candidate who fights for historic preservation. He's an outsider green activist and architect who became an insider; since leaving elective office he’s been consulting for the Port of Seattle and Washington Department of Transportation.

But the one thing everyone sees in Steinbrueck is passion. Agree or disagree with him, there's no denying that he loves Seattle. He has dedicated much of his more than half century on earth to the city and its possibilities.

He came by his passion honestly. His father, Victor Steinbrueck, is the University of Washington architecture professor who designed the Space Needle and led the original fight to save the Pike Place Market in the late 1960s and early '70s. Peter followed in his father’s footsteps by "saving" the Market again, this time from the clutches of a New York investment group in the late 1980s.

The Pike Place connection is embedded in Peter's campaign imagery, which features the famous Market clock as a backdrop. Peter has navigated the civic waters differently from his famous father, however. Where Victor was the perpetual activist, Peter has sought to bring his vision into the mainstream of city business. Where his father made indelible sketches of the city in books like “Seattle Cityscape” and “Market Sketchbook,” Peter has drawn real legislation. Where Victor made enemies, Peter has been, though sometimes prickly, more politic.

When the younger Steinbrueck left the City Council in 2007, it was on an upbeat note. He points out that in three citywide campaigns, he increased his share of the vote each time, winding up with 83 percent in his final run. He made it clear then that he wasn't retiring. "I do not plan to 'retire' in any way from civic life (ever!)," he said. He likened his decade on the council to the whitewater of Wild Waves. Now, after a break, a divorce and the Harvard fellowship, he's ready to run the political rapids.

The waters weren't too harrowing at Fisherman's Terminal, in part because they are so familiar. The marina was itself embroiled in the kind of conflict that seems like the centerpiece of Steinbrueck's current campaign: the fight for "working" Seattle.

The city is growing, Steinbrueck told the crowd. Expect another 100,000 people in the next 15 years or so. Growth "has to be accommodated, but in an intentional way, not an ad hoc way."

The maritime industry is often overlooked, but it's been a huge source of job growth for the region, even during the Great Recession (3% per year in hard times). And it creates family-wage jobs. Steinbrueck claims support from the Longshore, Warehouse and Sailors unions, and a personal connection to the industry: His brother David is a Bristol Bay fisherman.

Fisherman's Terminal is an example of the eternal tug-of-war between new versus old, in this case fish guts versus gentrification. Nearly a decade ago, there was a struggle to preserve the Terminal as a working homeport for the fishing fleet instead of turning it into an agglomeration of condos and luxury yachts, a development plan pushed by the Port. The people who work here know that what they do is both valuable and lucrative, and that it is part of the city's very foundation. In the 1860s, Washington fishermen lobbied the Lincoln administration to open Russian (now Alaskan) waters to area fishermen. The sawmills and coal mines are mostly gone, but not all the healthy runs of fish.

That struggle figures prominently in the debate over where to site the planned new basketball/hockey arena underwritten by hedge-funder Chris Hansen with help from the city and county. Steinbrueck takes pains to explain that he is not anti-basketball or anti-Sonics — his son plays forward at Nathan Hale — he just thinks the location of the arena is a huge mistake.

As a councilmember during the Greg Nickels era, Steinbrueck led the effort to protect Seattle's industrial lands and zoning. When the city looks at mixed-use, it has to consider residential, retail, office and industrial, he argues. A healthy city has all of them. Steinbrueck, who’s been a paid lobbyist for the Port on the issue, worries that the arena deal will leave the city on the hook for more than the promised returns, dump too much traffic into SoDo and damage the Duwamish industrial and manufacturing base.

This perspective is a good example of what Steinbrueck brings to civic discussions. His message is that Seattle can do better.

He's been a critic of the mayor's proposed South Lake Union rezone in part because it impinges on views, gives too little back to the city in terms of parks and low-income housing and puts too much development pressure on historic properties. He's expressed frustration with Seattle's top down approach to neighborhoods — a perennial complaint from those neighborhoods. He finds the urban planning in Vancouver, B.C. preferable to the often poorly designed market-driven chaos our city allows. He often seems eager to get out his pencil and draw a better picture.

As the crowd at the Highliner munches chips and happy hour meatballs, Steinbrueck points out that the health and development of nearby Lake Union are not just in service to condos and cafes. It is still a working lake, essential to a healthy maritime industry. It provides jobs for more than just Amazonians and waterfront waitstaff.

The audience peppers Steinbrueck with questions about issues relevant to their piece of working Seattle. What can the city do about climate change and ocean acidification? What is his position on the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard? Steinbrueck talks generally about the need to work on Puget Sound and how the mayor of Seattle can be a regional leader — second only to the governor — in getting action to reduce run-off pollution. On the Burke-Gilman, he leans toward a Ballard Avenue solution that wouldn't be as dangerous or disruptive as the Shilshole route. Bikers and truckers should both be accommodated.

Steinbrueck describes himself as an outsider running against a bunch of insiders. Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, Ed Murray, and of course Mayor Mike McGinn are all current office holders. "I don't need on-the-job training," he says. He gets big applause when he takes a gentle swipe at McGinn by saying, "I can work well with the city council. I can work with the city attorney!"

Steinbrueck is known for his outsider's temperament. He is seen as a feisty populist and not always as a team player. In response, he points to his recent work on the Children's Hospital expansion as evidence of his collaborative style. The opening of the hospital’s new wing struck a balance between neighborhood concerns and the needs of an important regional institution. He says he got along well with his colleagues on the City Council.

Some media observers dismiss Steinbrueck as a guy who lacks, said one, "stature," a view that echoes the oft-expressed desire on the part of some Seattleites to see more grown-ups in charge. And a city is more than simply good urban design. Can Steinbrueck, for example, get the police department under control? Can he lead on education? Can he work with Olympia? Can he run the bureaucracy?

Steinbrueck's best shot at winning is to run a classic grassroots campaign, one fueled not by downtown or special interests, but by neighborhood energy. Nostalgia won't be much help. For many in the city, Victor is ancient (and unknown) history. The Steinbrueck brand does help — to a point. So too does the younger Steinbrueck’s intense, competitive desire to save the city from its worst impulses.

But he’ll have to overcome his reputation, in some circles, as a naysayer or a rebel (on density, on the arena) and lay out a broad and positive vision that embraces urban growth and makes the city work for everyone, rich or poor. He's been an important maverick voice, but didn't we elect a maverick last time?

One big question for Steinbrueck: Can he forge the people who agree with him into a winning coalition? And bigger still: Can he lead the city?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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