Mayor McGinn: Collaboration over confrontation

In an exclusive interview, Mayor Mike McGinn talks about his style, his accomplishments and his growth in office.
Crosscut archive image.

Mike McGinn, at an interview with Crosscut writers and editors

In an exclusive interview, Mayor Mike McGinn talks about his style, his accomplishments and his growth in office.

It was substance, not style, that pitted Mike McGinn against so many during his first term as Seattle's mayor.

That's how McGinn described his record of clashing with others during a meeting with Crosscut editors and writers Friday. While McGinn has a reputation for confrontation, he said it was honest disagreements on issues and not a quirk of his personality.

"We've got a strong mayor, a strong council. ... No one should be surprised that there's conflict," McGinn said.

Citing ways in which he has worked with City Council members are various issues while disagreeing with them on another question, he said, "I've never held a grudge against anybody."

The former neighborhood and Sierra Club activist and lawyer said he has matured into the job, becoming more savvy about governing over the past three-plus years. "I've gone a few rounds in the lower weight classes (as an activist) ... I was now punching in a higher weight class as mayor," he said.

Asked why someone wants to stay in a demanding, often-thankless job like mayor, McGinn said, "After four years, I'm not ready (to step down). I really like this job."

McGinn, 53, is expected to face seven Democratic and one Socialist challenger in the August primary, with the top two vote-getters going to a November ballot. He noted the 2013 primary field is more crowded than the one in 2009, saying an improved economy has made becoming mayor more attractive. "Three years ago, any (construction) crane would've been a welcome sight. Now, we're talking too many cranes," he said.

If re-elected, McGinn's plans to focus on continuing ventures begun in his first term.

Those include improving collaboration with the Seattle school system, a process which has been handicapped by McGinn having to deal with three superintendents in less than four years; following through on an Early Learning Academy to train 50 preschool teachers of low-income kids per 10-week session; expanding transit routes and facilities; and a plan for expanding Seattle's broadband access in neighborhoods working with private firms.

McGinn's highest-profile vulnerability has been on the city plan for extensive reforms in the Seattle police under a court agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. His handling of the issue has drawn criticism from his election opponents, and the city's minority communities.

One of the incidents leading to federal complaints about the city's policies and practices in the use of force was officer Ian Birk's killing American Indian woodcarver John T. Williams in a shooting later ruled unjustified. Birk was not charged, but he resigned from the force. The city paid $1.5 million to Williams' family. Another notorious 2010 incident involved police detaining, but not arresting a Latino man, Martin Monetti. He was ordered to lie face down on the ground, and was then kicked by an officer who also shouted racial epitaphs. Other police misconduct incidents have been reported, with racial facets in some instances sparking concerns from minority communities.

“I’m really upset about the whole environment of the Seattle Police Guild, which protects their own members despite what they do,” Bob Santos, a long-time Seattle civil rights leader told the International Examiner newspaper in 2011. “It’s an environment where rogue police officers are protected regardless of the situation. ... Young officers have to be more sensitive towards communities of color. They need to take into consideration that [some] people they interact with are non-English speaking.”

The U.S. Department of Justice concluded in late 2011 that Seattle police frequently use unconstitutional force, with an element of racially biased policing in some cases. As the city and Justice sought to settle a federal lawsuit, McGinn was perceived as siding with police in resistance to the feds' appointing a monitor to oversee the fix-it work.

McGinn said the police guild wanted to litigate to the bitter end while the city council wanted to accept the first offer from the feds. He said the feds wanted to select a monitor before the negotiations began, while he wanted to wait until after the talks finished before having a monitor appointed. He also said part of the delay in finishing the talks involved bringing the Seattle Minority Executive Directors Coalition into the negotiations, which he supported, while the Justice Department resisted. He said the group's involvement helped create a better agreement. After long negotiations with McGinn heavily involved, the Department of Justice and Seattle reached a reform agreement in mid-2012.

Last year's agreement included creation of a community police commission to help the court-appointed monitor — an idea McGinn drove. That commission includes police union members, critics of the department and representatives of community organizations. "That gave me hope that it will be something long-lasting and sustaining," McGinn said. The agreement also called for reviewing and overhauling the Seattle police's use-of-force policies and training.

But McGinn initially opposed the choice for a court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment and Resource Center, contending he had a conflict-of-interest. One of Bobb's partners there helped write the original Department of Justice report that slammed the Seattle police. But several council members — including current mayoral candidates Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell — supported the choice of Bobb. Feuding continued until McGinn eventually accepted Bobb.

In late April, Bobb delivered a report on the city police's reform efforts with a follow-up due later this year. The Seattle Times described the report as noting that compliance with the agreement has started, but that compliance has been uneven with resistance still present in parts of the police department.

McGinn recently nominated Boise's community ombudsman Pierce Murphy, a former police officer, to lead Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability, which is be involved with police reform efforts. The city council still has to confirm Murphy, but Bobb has praised Murphy.

McGinn said the city is asking area tribes for help on outreach efforts to Seattle's Native American residents. He said the city will try similar outreach efforts to other cultures within Seattle.

"Nobody wants to see the police mistreating anybody. ... At the same time, we ask the officers to put themselves in harms way on our behalf," he said. He added, "It's easy for people on the outside to throw rocks."

McGinn's first major public brouhaha as mayor involved the waterfront tunnel project to replace the earthquake-prone Alaskan Way Viaduct. He was a staunch critic of the tunnel during most of his 2009 election campaign, but dropping his opposition stance a few weeks prior to the actual votes being cast. But as mayor, he then questioned and opposed some facets of the tunnel project, ultimately leading the city to a public referendum on the project. But the public overwhelmingly supported the downtown tunnel.

McGinn said the main thrust against the project after becoming mayor was to get the state to cover potential future cost overruns. "I think I lost the message on that one," he said, but he said that the state still has not agreed to cover those potential future cost overruns.

While in office, Gov. Chris Gregoire insisted the state would never bill Seattle for the cost overruns on a state project, and current Gov. Jay Inslee — when he was on the campaign trail — took a similar position.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8