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The Mayoral Conundrum

By • on November 1, 2013 at 4:06 pm

As noted in our endorsement article, the Seattle mayor’s race this year is confounding a lot of progressives types in town, myself and the other ETS! core folks included. Both candidates have much better progressive records than previous mayors – but both also have serious flaws. Both have reputations for being arrogant and hard to work with; both have ranged from disingenuous to dishonest at various points in the campaign.

We were stuck on what to recommend, with the four of us being, respectively, a strong McGinn supporter, a narrow preference for McGinn, a narrow preference for Murray, and a strong preference for Murray. We usually try to reach consensus – no such luck this time. Instead, what I’ve been charged with doing – and I’m one of the narrow preference folks, so hopefully I can do this fairly objectively – is list out the respective areas where each is very strong and seriously problematic. Depending on which factors are most important to you, you should vote accordingly.

We’ll take them one at a time. Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive summary of each candidate’s positions on issues, record, etc. – just what seem to be the most notable and defining characteristics. If we left out something that, one way or the other, has been important in swaying you, please leave it in the comments!

Mike McGinn: The incumbent is always The Devil You Know, and that’s particularly true with this mayor. McGinn and his defenders have responded to his critics by claiming that the missteps early in his term were part of his learning curve and that he’s gotten better – but he’s actually been remarkably consistent, both on his priorities and his leadership style, all the way from his earliest days as a Greenwood neighborhood activist to his current re-election campaign. And that’s both a good and a bad thing.

The Very Good:

McGinn is an ideologue on climate change, filtering almost every City Hall decision through that lens. In 2013, that should be the attitude of any responsible officeholder. But it’s not. He’s a nationally recognized leader among big-city mayors in taking on what the 21st Century impacts of climate change will be, especially on coastal cities. Granted, that’s a low bar. But, still.

He hasn’t gotten much credit for it, but McGinn inherited a steaming pile of poo with the city budget when he came into office in the face of the worst local economic downturn in a generation. He did a surprisingly good job, in his budgets, of protecting essential social services in an austere time. And with the gradually improving economy, he’s added back services and programs that were cut in past years. That’s not something which always happens.

McGinn has quietly done a lot of outreach with immigrant communities and other disenfranchised constituencies, especially in the south end. And his treatment of homeless groups and communities is vastly better than that of his predecessors.

Lastly, McGinn has pissed off a lot of the right people. His status as an “outsider” to the city’s longstanding political and financial elite has given him an envious amount of independence. He hasn’t always used that well, but at least he has the option.

The Bad and the Ugly:

McGinn, waving the banner of climate change, has been a champion of density – but a particular type of density, that shovels massive amounts of money to corporate developers to create new, upscale housing while doing virtually nothing to either preserve existing affordable housing or to create new housing to replace what’s being destroyed. In only four years, McGinn has done more long-term damage to housing affordability in Seattle than every other mayor in the last 20 years – combined. Density that promotes neighborhoods with a mix of different incomes and backgrounds – a staple of modern urban planning – does not seems to have even occurred to McGinn and his allies. Neighborhood plans that were years in the making have been run roughshod over; neighborhood groups that used to have a good relationship with the city can’t even get their calls returned. What’s going to be left is a city of, by, and for the wealthy.

McGinn’s transit priorities have been similar. He’s funneled almost all discretionary transportation money first into the Paul Allen Beautification Project (aka the Mercer Messier), then into his streetcar vanity project, which mostly follows existing bus routes and doesn’t draw any new riders into public transit, but does cost exponentially more per mile than buses. What all of these – along with the tunnel, which he first opposed, then accepted, then opposed, then supported – have in common is that they’re not transportation projects. They’re real estate development project that, often as not, make transportation flow worse. Unless you can ride a bicycle everywhere, in which cae they only make it more dangerous.

McGinn’s apologetics for the Seattle Police Department, and his doing everything possible to first prevent and then weaken the reform process – which is now happening only because a federal court demanded it – really ought to disqualify him from any office. Even as, in his campaign, he take credit for police reform (!), McGinn has never once acknowledged that decades’ worth of community concerns over SPD abuses ever had any legitimacy.

That sort of dissembling is a pattern for McGinn, as is his tendency to take credit for other people’s work. The pattern isn’t just in his mayoral term – people who’ve worked with McGinn going all the way back to his Greenwood neighborhood activism days describe a guy who parachutes into a group or issue, takes credit for other people’s work (especially women’s), destroys it, and moves on. There’s also an undercurrent of misogyny in many of these stories. It’s telling that virtually everyone who’s worked with McGinn as mayor has endorsed his opponents. A majority of city council members have endorsed the challenger. So has the union representing city employees. So did the firefighters. So did the police guild, even after McGinn’s SPD apologetics. All that isn’t a coincidence, nor is it just McGinn’s “outsider” status. McGinn doesn’t build bridges; he burns them.

Ed Murray: Murray, too, has a long record, but it’s entirely as a legislator. The last time an affable long-term legislator became mayor, we got the imperious Greg Nickels – so Murray’s record as legislator may or may not be indicative of how he’d like to run things if he’s in charge. Nonetheless, two decades in Olympia tell us a lot more about both Murray and his priorities than his simply having been a champion of LGBTQ rights.

The Very Good:

Murray’s best-known for his status as an iconic champion of LGBTQ rights. Same-sex couples that can get married in Washington state have a lot of people to thank, but Ed Murray is at the top of the list. And that’s only one of countless things he’s done in Olympia over the years to improve the civil rights of not only LGBTQ folks, but a variety of sexual, religious, and ethnic minoritires.

Murray, too, has been very good in Olympia on social services, finding money to fund programs in years where there was no money. As an example, dozens of formerly homeless young adults in Seattle now have permanent affordable housing thanks to a joint YMCA/ROOTS program Murray somehow got through Olympia last year even while the state’s budget was being cut down to and into the bone.

In sharp contrast to McGinn, Murray has been meeting frequently with Seattle neighborhood groups and pledging to do a far better job of incorporating them into future planning. He’s pledged to revitalize the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, once a bastion of citizen civic participation which, under McGinn, was gutted and re-staffed with a bunch of insular Paul Allen sycophants.

The Bad and the Ugly:

Of course, the last time a long-time liberal legislator ran for Seattle mayor promising an open door, what we got was Greg Nickels, who stopped returning the calls of the folks who got him elected about five minutes after being sworn in. And, while McGinn has gotten a lot of attention for his reputation as a dissembling, arrogant bully, Murray has the same reputation. In Olympia, he’s not popular among colleagues and is known for treating his staff badly. He’s also told a few whoppers on the campaign trail – most recently, accusing McGinn of defunding domestic violence services when they were simply renamed under a new department. And the appearance of Tim Ceis on Murray’s campaign staff is a worrisome sign; as Greg Nickels’ chief of staff, “The Shark” was responsible for a lot of Nickels’ reputation as an abrasive, kneecapping politician. The last thing Seattle needs is a return to that M.O. As is, voters are faced a choice between two guys known as arrogant bullies.

Similarly, when establishment favorite Tim Burgess pulled out of the mayor’s race, most of his big money business support moved to Murray, who became the clear choice of the elites who had “their” power stolen by McGinn’s 2009 election. Murray has since been tacking to the right, and his staggering fundraising totals, especially from the business community, reflect it. For better or worse, he can be expected as mayor to be a return to the bad old days of Norm Rice, Charles Royer, etc., when the city was run by Masters Of Their Own Little Universe who were happy to have socially liberal policies so long as taxpayer money kept flowing to the right people. And sometimes not even socially liberal policies – in 2001, Murray endorsed anti-homeless fanatic Mark Sidran for mayor, a reminder that within the clique that runs Seattle, loyalty trumps all.

Because Murray has consistently had the upper hand in the race, he’s been able to get by with an alarming lack of specifics in his campaign. (Conversely, on the stump, McGinn likes to drown listeners in the minutiae of his “accomplishments” without noting that a lot of the things he lists are standard job duties for any mayor.) This has left Murray a lot of room to pivot in whichever direction he likes once elected. That almost never means a more progressive mayor. Since both candidates have been trying to out-progressive each other on the campaign trail over issues like a $15 an hour minimum wage, that sort of pivot seems like even more of a possibility.

The fact that Seattle has two mayoral candidates trying to get elected by flaunting their progressive cred is a hopeful sign of the times. And on their pet issues, each has a record to back it up, and each has fans and fierce defenders because of it. But it’s uneven – and the leadership style and bridge-burning of both men runs the risk of, long-term, damaging the prospects for building genuine change that can’t be undone by the next guy. Which one will do the best things, with the least collateral damage, is up to you.

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