Murray as mayor: Can a longtime legislator make the switch to CEO?

State Senator Ed Murray puts his leadership skills at the heart of his campaign. But after the 2013 stalemate in Olympia, that may be a tough sell.
Crosscut archive image.

Ed Murray, left, and Rodney Tom chat after a pre-session discussion of legislative issues.

State Senator Ed Murray puts his leadership skills at the heart of his campaign. But after the 2013 stalemate in Olympia, that may be a tough sell.

Sen. Ed Murray is making leadership the central issue of his campaign, picking up on a theme that was also key to Tim Burgess's aborted challenge to mayor Mike McGinn and one that is echoed by most of the mayor's challengers. Bruce Harrell promises unity, Peter Steinbrueck pledges better planning, Charlie Staadecker says he'll listen, Mary Martin says Karl Marx has all the answers. For his part, Murray pledges a more strategic, less contentious approach than McGinn.

Murray supporters point to the senator's statewide accomplishments, leading on transportation and gay marriage. Critics wonder whether 18 years in Olympia is really going to help him administer anything. The legislature to which Murray belongs seems to be increasingly ungovernable.

Critics also wonder if legislators make good executives anyway. For his part, Murray points to positive examples: Gary Locke shifting to King County Executive and Booth Gardner to Pierce County Exec, and both going on to two-term governorships. The counter examples: Mike Lowry, who had trouble making the transition from liberal Congressman to the governor's chair and, though it's still early, Jay Inslee who is accused of being stuck in perpetual campaign mode.

County Exec has been a position that seems to be a good administrative training ground: Locke, Gardner and Governor John Spellman all went that route. The mayor's office, not so much. But Murray can take consolation in the fact that some very good Seattle mayors cut their teeth in Olympia. At a recent Crosscut writer's meeting I informed Murray of that good news, citing Wes Uhlman and George Cotterill. He asked if he could quote me on that. He needs ammo to reassure the skeptics.

If Murray has been effective legislating in Olympia, the record was muddied this year when he lost his leadership position in the Senate due to the mutiny of two Democrats, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon. What kind of majority leader can't keep his troops in line? Is that fairly indicative of his leadership abilities?

Murray, when asked, emphatically says no, that Tom's disillusionment did not happen on his watch. Tom had grown disaffected with Olympia's process under the senate leadership of Lisa Brown of Spokane, and anyway, says Murray, Tom seems to be congenitally uncomfortable in any party he joins. Murray adds that, in fact, despite being a Seattle liberal he had leadership support from the so-called "roadkill" caucus of fiscally conservative Democrats who bolted to make common cause with the Republicans on the state budget last year. Murray emphasizes in his campaign pitches that he had herded three times more cats on the transportation committee than sit on the Seattle city council, and that his work in Olympia has been hallmarked by his willingness to reach out and work across the aisle and on regional differences. In theory, working with fellow liberal Democrats in Seattle ought to be easier.

If Tom's Olympia revolt was a surprise to the public, Murray claims it was no surprise to him. Tom had told him by phone before last November's election that if the State senate margin was narrow enough, he would flip, giving control to a Republican-dominated coalition. That could occur when Clark County Republican Don Benton won his election by a slim margin, which put the Senate in play. Tom says he was determined to do so because he wanted the task of shaping the new biennial budget to be bipartisan from the start.

"I didn't want to wait until the end of session like last year before the budget blew up," says Tom. "I knew that especially considering we had to craft a biennial budget (instead of just a supplemental budget via the 9th order in 2012), it needed to be a much more thorough process in preparing a budget for the full two year cycle."

So, Murray was deposed by Tom when the Democrats slipped into the minority. If Rodney Tom was lost to the Democrats, the die was cast before Murray took brief charge. In a Seattle Weekly profile of Tom and Sheldon last April, reporter Nina Shapiro caught Democratic state party chair Dwight Pelz in a reflective mood in looking at the Democrats' own culpability in pushing dissident Dems away. Shapiro wrote: "'You gotta give people a back door in this business,' said Pelz. 'You go to them, you listen to their concerns, you give them some authority." He suggests that didn’t happen when Tom, Sheldon, and other conservative Democrats started to show signs of unrest. Pelz says the rest of the Democratic caucus 'pilloried' and 'labeled' the dissidents. 'And so they began to glorify in that label."

Having challenged Murray's leadership, what is Tom's perception of Murray?

Crosscut archive image.

When asked by email for his assessment of Murray's leadership abilities, Tom (left) gives him a thumb's up. "I think very highly of Ed," wote Tom. "I think he's one of the more strategic thinkers in Olympia. He's very pragmatic, not so set in his ways that he can't compromise and find a workable solution. He's been able to work with R[epublican]'s on all three budgets: capital, transportation, and the operating budget in a manner were everyone came out of the negotiations thinking they got a win. Not everything they wanted, but enough to vote YES on the agreement."

Tom has reason to praise the outcome; the operating budget is less-loved by Seattle liberals and the transportation budget failed to pass and left Seattle facing serious transit cuts and may have been a fatal setback for getting light rail on the new Columbia River bridge. Murray might not want that to be a measure of his leadership abilities. Still, Democrats did get some of what they wanted budget-wise. A deal was made and both sides smiled.

Tom lauds Murray for qualities Murray also highlights. He says that the city needs better strategic thinking on transportation. He told Crosscut that he'd love to have former state transportation head (and Crosscut contributor) Doug MacDonald running the show, but that it wasn't going to happen. (Doug was not at the meeting to blush.)

Murray also argued that the city needs a more regional approach, working with other cities on transportation funding, for example. Murray's answers to leadership questions suggest he is selling himself as more of a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy. He cites his decades-long commitment to gay rights as an example of moving an idea from a radical notion to mainstream acceptance, and law.

Murray self-described his key assets to the Seattle business community as consistency and civility. He promised to bring "predictability" to city government in terms of how departments treat business, and criticized the combative style of McGinn as exemplified in the tunnel battle. Murray says that McGinn's calling Gov. Chris Gregoire a liar was hardly good leadership. McGinn had said he didn't trust the governor's office, and Gregoire said McGinn had demeaned the mayor's office. The two broke off communications in 2010; if the governor needed to talk with the city, she went to then city council president Richard Conlin.

If Murray likes to talk about leadership and keep his view of Seattle at some altitude, some question whether that approach is really an attempt to cover for a lack of understanding of the smaller, grassroots issues that are so much of city politics. Murray does confess to being acronym-challenged, getting the names of ballot measures wrong, and he doesn't always have numbers at his command when making a point. The strength of his argument rests on a vision aimed at a city operating on better terms with its constituents, and all its parts (schools, transit, zoning) better coordinated. A city not hunkered down in its self-centered regional self.

As far as the fiasco of the recent legislative session, Murray portrays himself more as victim, the situation more of an aberration than an indictment. His critics are likely to point to Olympia dysfunction and ask whether that is really the best training ground for the politics of running Seattle. In Seattle, the budgets are smaller, the details matter, people care with a vengeance and having the respect of your enemies is not always considered a virtue.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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