Exit Interview: Mayor McGinn goes out swinging

The outgoing mayor sits down with Crosscut to talk political faux pas, the new political landscape and why the city council is starting to scramble.
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Mayor Mike McGinn concedes the election.

The outgoing mayor sits down with Crosscut to talk political faux pas, the new political landscape and why the city council is starting to scramble.

Seattle's outgoing mayor can't or won't name Seattle's political power elite. Asked which five of the city's top power brokers he would like to put in a room together, Mike McGinn demurs. They're more of a force, he says. Protectors of turf. Broadly speaking, they are members of what he calls "the donor class" — people whose money and influence give them unequal access to power.

"When I came in, I didn't know the rings I was supposed to kiss," he says. Four years later, he is an outsider still. And if he didn't know which rings required a pucker, he certainly was adept at stepping on toes.

Early on, he put forward his plan for replacing the seawall without fully briefing the city council. They slapped him down. "The real crime was that a new mayor like myself did not appreciate the territoriality" of the city council, he says. They were letting the new kid in the game know whose home court it was.

In another establishment oops moment, the outgoing mayor tried to re-open a city agreement with the Museum of History and Industry. Budget times were tough (the city was facing a $60 million budget "adjustment") and McGinn, emboldened by a windfall sale of the old Montlake MOHAI property to the state, wanted to see if he could get back some funds dedicated to their South Lake Union move. He was slashing city budgets and asking unions for concessions. Why not ask the museum for some help? 

So the city wrote MOHAI a letter, requesting a new deal. That's just not how it's done, McGinn was told: You pick up the phone. The letter was leaked and suddenly McGinn looked like heritage's Scrooge. "That just shows the power you have when you have a powerful board and a $500-per-hour lawyer," he says. "I got clobbered."

Such are the hard knocks of Mayor's School. 

But McGinn continues to be suspicious of the donor class' notion of consensus. Access to power in Seattle, he says, is not equal. Policy is made by monied interests who finance campaigns and have big stakes in outcomes; politics that push people toward a skewed center and compromises that avoid our biggest problems.

"I was never content as mayor to find out where the middle is," McGinn says. For example, on the environment, he believes tough choices have to be made, sides have to be picked, a new set of priorities identified (note the bikes vs. cars debate). 

He points to Gov. Jay Inslee's climate change workgroup. "Kudos to Inslee for flushing out the differences between Republicans and Democrats" on climate policy, he says. 

Still, he questions the compromise transportation plan the governor is extracting from the Legislature — a House bill "that will be really bad for the environment" and a Senate bill "that will be really, *really* bad." The plans call for too many new roads and highways, he says, and too little transit, road repair and maintenance. Any potential bipartisan compromise has already been compromised by the wrong priorities.

McGinn made his name shooting down a road-heavy transportation plan. If a new one comes to the ballot box, will he lead the charge to defeat it? "Great question," he says with a smile. He lets it hang there.

Noted for his skepticism about the tunnel, he seems tempted to say I-told-you-so about Big Bertha's stalled progress. Thom Neff, his tunnel consultant, warned in advance that soil hazards (boulders, etc.) and the project's relatively unknown underground route make it very high-risk. But McGinn likens Seattle's "powerbrokers" to the Pyramid builders: Merely paving a road, he says, "doesn't get you remembered in the future." 

And being a Cassandra doesn't make you many friends.

But the entrenched donor class is facing a changed landscape. McGinn, who supported the switch to districts, believes they will move city government closer to the people; will make it easier to run grassroots, doorbell campaigns, yes, but also to expand a candidate's donor base. The money — and constituencies — that elect mayors and council members, he says, will not be coming from the same fat wallets anymore.

District representatives will have to deliver for their wards. In District 5, that will mean sidewalks. In District 2, they will have to do something about South End schools. There will be horse trading, and more accountability. The middle will get muddled, redefined. Issues and priorities will see more vigorous debate.

That change is already being felt, he notes. "Now, you have nine city council members trying to keep their jobs. When I came in, there were four or five trying to get my job." 


One possible lightning rod he sees is the central waterfront redevelopment. The council, donor class and waterfront stakeholders have bought into an expensive makeover, but McGinn wonders how it will be paid for. "There are real questions about our ability to fund their dreams." With the new district system, council members might be more willing to break from the pack and ask, "Is this really a priority?"

The surprise election of socialist Kshama Sawant was another blow to council complacency. Conlin symbolized the old, out-of-touch council, McGinn believes, and that put a bulls-eye on his back, but Sawant, he thinks, could have beaten any incumbent this year. 

Likewise, McGinn insists he knew he would win his own 2009 campaign from the start; insists he was dealt a hand that allowed him to shoot the moon — a risky all or nothing Hearts strategy. Still, even he can see that he overplayed his hand by shooting the moon too often. "I'll take responsibility for not playing my cards better."

McGinn isn't sure what's next, but he won't rule out running for office again. The hand he's dealt would have to be right, aligned with what he believes in. What kind of job? He loves working with others to make community. 

"If anyone has any ideas, let me know." He laughs. "I've got a kid in college and two on the way."

Whatever he ends up doing, McGinn will stick to being who he is. "I said I would do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may," he says of his time as mayor. "I set some chips a flyin'."



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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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