Like Mike: Seattle's next mayor will be McGinn-esque

Commentary: The city's new chief exec will readily play his or her part in a powerful, public-private “urban regime” that enforces its own set of priorities and crowds out other agendas.
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McGinn has learned to play the game.

Commentary: The city's new chief exec will readily play his or her part in a powerful, public-private “urban regime” that enforces its own set of priorities and crowds out other agendas.

When people ask me to speculate on who will win the 2013 Seattle mayor’s race, my answer is “Mayor McGinn, though not necessarily Mike McGinn.” 

What follows are my reasons for thinking that this is a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) election, resulting in a McGinn-like mayor, maybe even McGinn himself, being elected next November (and beyond). It's a contest of the Mike-Alikes.

This race is not about contesting McGinn's progressive, business-oriented agenda, since it fits so well with contemporary Seattle politics. The policies are stipulated, so the race will be about style and effectiveness (especially with McGinn's setback in trying to get the Sacramento Kings), with a few quibbles about some details.

One reason for this consensus is that Seattle politics is now brightly “red-lined,” in the sense that no politician can challenge the consensus on major issues enough to disturb the McGinn status quo. Well-organized interest groups such as bicycle clubs, nightlife businesses, developers, environmentalists, gay-advocacy groups, low-income-housing developers, city employee unions and social-service-delivery organizations enforce these red lines so forcefully that all mayoral candidates (to be serious) are now essentially look-alikes, agreed on all the major issues.

Cross those red lines (for instance by complaining about too many bike lanes), and you are subject to a drone attack. Of the serious contenders, only Peter Steinbrueck, a long-shot candidate struggling to raise money, is pushing the envelope of consensus.

Had Maud Daudon, the current president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, decided to run for mayor on a pull-everyone-together platform, she might have crossed a few red lines (notably on public safety and rolling back mandatory sick leave). It would not have been pretty. She instead will remain a key inside player in the shadow government that is a main orchestrator of the current consensus.

Seattle politics is now a classic illustration of “urban regime” politics. Urban regime theory, which has dominated recent academic discussion of urban affairs, argues that certain cities have their agendas firmly controlled by a “regime,” consisting of dominant power coalitions — business interests, major civic leaders (not always the mayor), unions, developers and law firms — who agree on and enforce priorities and invite in (or co-opt) others who agree to abide by the regime agenda and bring some real resources to the effort.

The agenda is never made public. The media are not privy to it. Voters don't get to express their opinions on the master agenda or vote for its shadowy leaders. Even so, all who want to join the club know exactly what the agenda is, and how they must behave in order to be invited in.

Seattle has long been a company town, successively dominated by timber, Boeing and now Technopolis. It has lacked an Establishment of old line families or powerful corporations to call the shots, but has instead fashioned broad power coalitions to set the agenda. Lawyer and dealmaker Jim Ellis was a master in orchestrating the shadow government, building up the Boeing-led city and region in the years after the World's Fair. Another illustration is what I call the "Great Consensus" on state politics, built around the Cold War economy, quarterbacked by such leaders as former Congressman Norm Dicks.

Mayor Greg Nickels followed the formula of finding common ground among big labor, big government and big business. The South Lake Union boom Nickels initiated is an excellent example of the new consensus: technology, in-city living, a singles lifestyle, transit, density, University of Washington research. He may have been bounced from office by an insurgent Mike McGinn, pushing a deep-green agenda, but it only took about two years for McGinn to join the club.

In robust regime cities, there is no two-party system. Those outside the regime consensus are marginalized. Other agencies who show signs of heresy are tamed and incorporated into the consensus. Public-private partnerships dominate.

To grasp the sway of the regime, consider these recent examples of the Seattle corporate-political regime flexing its muscles: getting the waterfront tunnel approved despite anti-auto resistance; building a massive central waterfront park; pushing through the Chihuly museum at Seattle Center; railroading the proposed SoDo basketball arena; raising money to keep Boeing jobs in the region; tax breaks for tech industries; stopping the Monorail (a threat to Sound Transit); upzoning South Lake Union and breaking the resistance in Bellevue to Sound Transit.

This is not to say there are no skirmishes left in the outer frontiers. The regime lost (only temporarily) its plans for a Seattle Commons in South Lake Union. (Instead of a park, we got a research park, driven by Vulcan and the University of Washington.) While foundations and businesses are pushing for outcomes-based school reform, the forces of reaction pushing against the ed-reform consensus are gaining ground; Seattle Schools may soon be written off as unreformable.

Bellevue’s city council used to be an example of what’s called a “caretaker regime.” That kind of regime resists unwelcome or rival development and hangs tough for low taxes. Bellevue is now split, thanks to the immense changes brought by the Microsoft-related workforce. The fault-line lies between two powerful developers: Kemper Freeman, with his redoubt in downtown Bellevue, and Wright-Runstad, building new urban nodes along the Sound Transit line heading to Microsoft’s Redmond campus. The former still controls the Bellevue city council, but not for much longer.

By contrast with Bellevue, Seattle showed no split over the way South Lake Union and Amazonia set out to build a rival downtown to the central business district. The Seattle regime holds firmly for high-end development, since it offers density to the urban environmentalists and transit advocates, tax revenues to City Hall and the kind of globally-oriented, high-wage economic development that the Chamber favors.

This march of progress will next push into the territory west of the UW campus (“North Lake Union”), SoDo, the International District, and Interbay (between Queen Anne and Magnolia). All the mayoral candidates except Steinbrueck and all the city council (possibly excepting Nick Licata) have bought in. Regime rules!

There is a different kind of regime, called a progressive regime, which resists the corporate regime agenda by stressing the needs of lower-class people, dwellers of modest neighborhoods (who need good schools, safety and parks), and environmental concerns. One could imagine Seattle having such a progressive consensus, given its past history of populism and labor radicalism.

In Seattle, however, the environmental groups have mostly joined the regime consensus, which responds by granting favors and funding and stakeholder participation. The Sierra Club, which tried to buck the consensus over the waterfront tunnel, may have helped to elect Mayor McGinn, but that battle was lost and today the club is much diminished as a political force. The same holds true, largely, for unions.

Or one could imagine an insurgent mayor who would focus on tough, pressing problems, the way Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago is tackling the city's big three issues: crime, schools and huge civic indebtedness. In Seattle, that big-issue agenda might be: the flight of kids and the middle class, government productivity, how Sound Transit is decimating Metro, our antiquated tax system, the sinking fortunes of the University of Washington. Such big issues are too divisive for the regime coalition, so they are mostly off the table.

Mayor McGinn came into office with a politics of spitting in the eye of the corporate-growth consensus and its pet issue, the waterfront tunnel. He failed painfully to breach the walls of the regime castle and instead pivoted to sue for peace with the majority party. Both he and King County Executive Dow Constantine signaled their fan-loyalty to the regime by jumping ahead of every other politician in embracing Chris Hansen’s baskeball dreams, rich with the symbolism of Seattle as a destination city for tech-workers and tourists.

The next to feel the choke-collar, I suspect, will be the Port of Seattle. The SoDo Arena, in open conflict with the Port’s hopes for expanding container traffic, showed just how strong the regime consensus can be on such an issue, and how the Port was quickly isolated in its efforts at mounting resistance to Hansen’s proposal. The Port (like the Mariners) will soon have to cover its retreat with a few concessions to mitigate a bit of the traffic in the congested area.

The Arena issue has been full of significance regarding the current state of the opposition to the regime consensus. The Seattle Times is the one consistent media skeptic, though probably not for long. Former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, hired by the Port to fight the Arena location, is building a mayoral campaign around resistance by the manufacturing/industrial sector of Seattle, squeezed by new claims on its land by the “tomorrow economy.”

Steinbrueck, long a lone wolf on some issues in the past and on the density dogma of today, is also appealing to the conservative neighborhood groups who worry about rising costs of living, ugly apartments and the shortage of dollars for middle-class needs such as parks and repaved roads. In effect, his campaign is a plebiscite on the New Seattle Order.

But this side of Seattle is going down to defeat, shredded flags bravely fluttering.

Click here for our ongoing coverage of Seattle's 2013 Mayor Games.








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