Ideally, mayor’s races are good times to get new ideas into the public arena. Voters get inspired, and they get a better sense of what they would be getting from the next mayor.
This Seattle’s mayor’s race is not exactly a campaign rich in new ideas or vanguard positions, at least not yet. In part, this is because an incumbent mayor is running, so the race is largely about Mike McGinn's record and personality. Challengers can simply say, “I’m not that guy!” Also, Mayor McGinn, who did run an idea-rich campaign in 2009 (de-highwaying, broadband, taking over the schools), doesn’t want to remind voters of the inexperienced McGinn whose big idea, blocking the waterfront tunnel, flamed out.
The debates and interviews I have seen produced few specific and debatable ideas, at least from the front-runners. (Tim Burgess, who does have a lot of good ideas, balked at the last minute and dropped from the race.) What spice there is comes from the long-shots, who need to get some attention. Charlie Staadecker proposes an elite public high school of science. Kate Martin has her own design for the waterfront park. Joey Gray, an intriguing newcomer, talks about “a culture of kindness.”
Take a look at the candidates’ websites. Normally such sites are where ideas are hidden away, enabling candidates to say of course they have substantive ideas that they don't have time to talk about today, "but you can check my website."
Sen. Ed Murray’s website barely mentions any issues, stressing instead his desire to change things, his experience and his ability to build political (and physical) bridges. Murray is a seasoned legislator who has a very experienced campaign team, so it's not a surprise that he has digested fully the conventional advice to stay away from issues in a campaign, since they just draw fire and limit your flexibility when elected. If your opponent comes up with an idea meant to differentiate him or her from you, just say you love that idea, too.
Mayor McGinn’s website is mostly a sampling of favorable news stories and endorsements. In order, he stresses his battle against coal trains, endorsements from Seattle Transit Blog and indicators of current Seattle happiness (employee satisfaction, 4.7 percent unemployment). Oddly, no mention of the Sonics. Basically, Merry Mike says: It’s morning, Seattle! And by the way the current McGinn is not to be confused with the floundering and rude rookie mayor.
Peter Steinbrueck’s website is more detailed, as befits a candidate with long experience at city hall. But it is generalized: stable funding for parks, Duwamish cleanup, concern for homeless, a good transportation mix, and “complete neighborhoods.” Oddly, no mention of the Sonics arena in SoDo, his one real defining issue. And by the way, the current Steinbrueck is not to be confused with the stubborn, populist former City Councilmember Steinbrueck.
Bruce Harrell does have some new ideas. One is a College Endowment Fund, which would raise $20 million in private money to give anyone graduating from a Seattle public high school one free year (mostly remedial) at Seattle Central Community College. Another proposal is for Empowerment Centers in many neighborhoods, teaching civics, conflict management and the like to young people. Good ideas, though modest in impact. (As usual, new ideas do not involve raising taxes or diverting funds.) And by the way the commanding candidate Harrell is not to be confused with the inattentive City Councilmember Harrell.
Maybe these idea-shy candidates have over-learned a lesson from the recent governor’s race where the candidate with highly specific programs, Rob McKenna, lost to the pure-image candidate, Gov. Jay Inslee. Maybe Seattle is just too complacent and group-think-y to feel the need for uncomfortable change. We are a long way from laying out the kind of blunt, big priorities targeted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: The city is broke, schools are terrible and crime is out of control.
Ever a helpful pundit, I offer some of the big ideas floating around in municipal policy circles and looking for a good advocate and a good round of debate in the public arena.
The “collective impact” approach. This idea, first implemented in Cincinnati, takes a holistic approach to schools in poorer districts. All the schools agree on a common metric, normally something like doubling the percentage of high school graduates who go on to further education. All the social service agencies also agree to work toward this goal, coordinating the after-school and summer programs. Third, donors and philanthropies buy in, refusing to fund requests that aren’t part of the grand scheme. Such is being tried in South Seattle, South King County, called the Road Map project. A similar effort, called Eastside Pathways, is being proposed by Bill Henningsgaard for Eastside schools. The idea could be expanded both geographically and to include other social welfare goals.
A second Forward Thrust. Forward Thrust was a comprehensive, countywide bond issue in 1968 that acccomplished what balkanized, stingy governments could not do: clean up Lake Washington, construct parks, community centers, an aquarium, arterials and the Kingdome. The region is so starved of funds for infrastructure projects that such a regional approach, sweeping in the suburban tax base and many new programs (bike trails, daylighting streams, culture centers in the burbs), could build broad, aggregated public support.
Pop-up Urbanism. Tired of public process, free spirits just go ahead and do temporary improvements, some of which catch on. Empty storefronts become art galleries; streets become farmer’s markets; forgotten spaces like alleys and triangles at intersections become instant parks. A sophisticated planning director could bless, fertilize and multiply such projects, setting aside zones for such inexpensive and catchy "temporary urbanism."
King Transit. First, merge the five local transportation agencies. Second, forcefully use transit as a change agent in our emerging outer cities and some Seattle neighborhoods: new development, new job centers, walkability, free bikes. You have to think regionally (always a challenge for Seattle mayors). You can’t privilege rail. You need a strong council of mayors to stand together when the NIMBYs hire lawyers and the rail/bike/bus absolutists get impossibilist. But a dramatic, regionwide transit push would make us a modern metropolis at last and do a lot to improve mobility (including social mobility) in a region where income disparities and geographic sorting are extreme.
Big Tech, Big Data, Big Productivity. Seattle’s powerful businesses are thriving because of their embrace of the data the computer age can bring to bear on decisions and marketing. What if this powerful tool migrated to government? A bit of this is happening at King County, where Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett is importing lean management ideas from Boeing and Toyota. Improve productivity or we cut jobs, is the mantra of Executive Dow Constantine, who has made some real progress (though slower than first thought). Seattle deploys such data-driven techniques in a few areas, such as fighting crime or measuring parking meter prices. It would have made some more strides under a Mayor Burgess, an advocate for data-driven policy decisions. Huge opportunities, and huge resistance, loom.
Equitable Growth. The Seattle area is growing jobs and population, but it is also one of the worst regions in educational and income disparities for blacks and Hispanics, according to Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution. The main reason for the widening gaps is not an absence of progressive legislation around the edges, such as mandatory sick leave, but “poor regional cohesion.” Real regional planning means rail can be built quickly (Denver), suburban tax bases can fund urban problems (Oklahoma City), and comprehensive planning, not just transportation planning, can allocate resources, cut down commuting time and distribute public services better to lower-income folks (Kansas City). That’s why Salt Lake City, with conservative local politics but excellent regional planning, is the most equitable metro region in the country, according to regional economist Chris Benner of U.C. Davis. (Here's Benner's recent TedX talk on the subject.)
A Sharing Economy. The mantra of people age 25-40 is “own less, rent more, spend less.” Five years ago, for instance, 44 percent of disposable income in King County was spent on retail sales; now that figure is 36 percent, according Matt Griffin, a local real estate developer who has been building compact, downtown rental apartments to meet this recession-chastened market. So: free bikes, free broadband, co-housing, shared arrangements for aging in place, subsidized transit, free adult education at local public schools in the evening (which Seattle had a century ago), lots of free tickets to the arts. As candidate Joey Gray might say, “a culture of kindness.”