If Seattle is the Puget Sound region's 900-pound gorilla, the city's mayor is its handler. This week, eight of the current candidates for that office trooped out to Redmond for a noontime forum before a bunch of busy Microsoft employees who listened while munching the contents of their Boar's Head lunch boxes.
Sighting a Seattle mayor in the 'burbs is rare, but frontrunners and wannabes found their way to the charmingly named Building 122 to answer questions in one minute or less. The forum was billed as focusing on technology, STEM and transportation. But Microsoft invited the candidates out to Redmond, not simply for the convenience of employees who live and vote in Seattle, but because it has a corporate interest in the next gorilla handler. With tens of thousands of employees living and working all over Pugetopolis, Microsoft wants a Seattle mayor who can operate regionally.
That message apparently got through to the candidates, all of whom (with the exception of socialist Mary Martin who did not attend), spoke to that broader issue.
Mike McGinn touted his regional leadership in getting regional pols to sign on to stop coal-trains and mayors to pull together so that, united, they could go to Olympia for help funding Metro.
Peter Steinbrueck emphasized that "Seattle needs to get out of the bubble," and passed out copies of an article he wrote for Crosscut in 2011 called "Urbanism Needs to Move Beyond City Boundaries," evidence that his year at Harvard is germane to his run for mayor.
Ed Murray, as he has at other forums, reminded the audience that as a leader in Olympia, he had to bring together regional representatives on transportation budgets.
The trickier part was in the details, as when the panelists were asked what the Seattle mayor could do to advance progress on the west side of the new 520 bridge project. That's a potent symbol of (some of) Seattle's dysfunction. The new bridge is being built from east to west; the Redmond side of the lake is abustle with concrete and cranes. When the highway hits the Arboretum it comes to a screeching halt. Why? One big barrier is how to pay for the expensive work -—, and mitigations — required to get all the way to I-5? The money hasn't been found yet.
Collectively, the candidates reflected the kind of Seattle second-guessing that Microsoft transportation planners are probably tired of hearing. The 520 bridge is a project all of the mayoral candidates are to some degree inheriting, yet they'll have to move it along: A bridge to nowhere is bad enough, half a bridge to somewhere is even worse.
Charlie Staadecker said he didn't like the idea of tolls (on 520 and I-90) which are almost certainly required to fund the project. He predicted that tolling will divide the region east and west and wants to see higher gas and excise taxes instead.
Kate Martin prefers a big lid to cover the highway mess. Joey Gray called 520 too car-centric. Steinbrueck too criticized the lack of high-capacity mass transit lanes on the bridge and urged faster adoption of regional mass transit. McGinn said he got the Washington State Department of Transportation to modify the plan so the bridge could potentially carry light rail in the future.
Ed Murray seemed to blame Greg Nickels for making the 520 project a lower priority than the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement with his "one bridge at a time" strategy; Murray also argued that the I-90 toll was essential to the bridge's completion and long-term success. Bruce Harrell allowed that the project was complicated by having to satisfy neighborhoods, businesses, Sound Transit and the University of Washington.
In other words, no one grabbed ahold and proclaimed: "The plan's been made and vetted and I'm going to get 'er done!" Seattle ambivalence contrasted with the Eastside's eager beaver-ness, all made worse by the fact that no one has signed a check yet to pay for it all.
In the pander department, Murray said he would woo Microsoft to locate more employees within the city. When he claimed that, for the most part, Microsoft was absent from Seattle, some in the crowd attempted to correct him. The company has 500 to 1,000 Seattle-based workers. Murray stood by his qualification "for the most part" given that the company has over 40,000 Puget Sound employees. Still, if Microsoft simply moved desks across the lake, it might have simplified the 520 issue.
No one worked harder than Harrell to please the crowd. He got a laugh and a cheer by saying "let me put my Windows phone down for a moment." He reminded the crowd that his wife Joanne is a Microsoft exec, which gave him great sympathy for the hard work and long hours of its employees. Harrell said that as mayor he would be the "biggest evangelist for what you're doing" and a "champion" for Microsoft, steering city government to become the first to embrace the Microsoft model of doing things. Does that mean Steve Ballmer for deputy mayor?
Steinbrueck closed with his regional pitch. "We need a regional mayor," he said, someone who will "get out of Seattle and make friends with our neighbors." He said we're not using our regional power in Olympia effectively either, a not-so-subtle swipe at both McGinn and Murray. Looking beyond the mayor's race, Murray countered by saying that he looked forward to working with the new state senator from the 43rd District, Peter Steinbrueck.
No doubt working with him from Seattle City Hall.