EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of six profiles of 2017 mayoral candidates we'll be publishing before the Stranger Election Control Board announces its endorsements.
Mike McGinn is sweaty. He biked to this little community gathering outside the Evans Pool in Green Lake, as he does everywhere else. On this particular Saturday morning, he's forgotten to take off his chain guard, a piece of string wrapped around his right pant leg. A woman points out that he still has it on, and he reaches down to untie it.
"I forget, you know," he says, thumbing the string like it's a set of rosary beads. "I carry a jacket in my bag so I'm camera-ready."
A camera crew has arrived to interview the 57-year-old third-time mayoral candidate and one-time former mayor. A dozen or so elderly Green Lake neighborhood activists hang around with signs that read "No to Privatization" and "Save Evans Pool." They oppose a parks department suggestion to work with a nonprofit like the YMCA in order to repair and renovate the dilapidated community center. To critics of a public-private merger, the plan meant "privatization."
McGinn identified the Green Lake Community Center as a pet issue when he first announced his run for mayor. If elected, he promises to prioritize keeping community centers publicly owned. And to do this, he would "thoroughly review our budgets to cut the cost of grandiose projects and save money in operations" before adding new taxes.
Outside the Green Lake Community Center, McGinn's promise to prioritize neighborhood issues before raising taxes is exactly what people want to hear. McGinn chitchats with a voter who worries about rising property taxes paying for downtown projects like the Waterfront Park rather than projects in his own neighborhood. McGinn defends the project while striking a conciliatory tone: "They need nice parks and nice streets, too. But you're right, you've got to be fair and get the money out across the city," he says.
When McGinn first came on the job as mayor 2010, he faced a $70 million deficit and slashed costs accordingly. McGinn's first budget proposed laying off 300 city employees, freezing police hiring, and raising parking rates. As a post-recession mayor dealing with the deficit, he also proposed reducing hours at several community centers—including Green Lake's. At the same time, McGinn funded a $20 million renovation of the Rainier Beach Community Center, which he identified as an equity issue.
Seven years later, outside a community center whose hours he once put on the chopping block, McGinn is proud of what he prioritized as mayor. Today, he thinks he'd be able to do a better job than Mayor Ed Murray in prioritizing Seattleites' needs. It's a consistent theme I hear throughout my weekend with McGinn. Despite a lack of specific policy ideas, he says has the know-how to make everyone feel heard in a way that our current mayor does not.
"Lots of times, people look at the race on a left-right spectrum," McGinn explains to me. "But there's another spectrum, how far or close to City Hall you are."
So where is McGinn on that spectrum?
"I tend to do better with people the farther away they are from City Hall is my experience," he says. "And that is maybe one of the reasons I had some problems."
Back in 2009, Stranger writers dedicated a four-part series to why Mike McGinn, then an underdog neighborhood organizer and former leader of the local Sierra Club chapter, should become Seattle's new mayor.
"Eventually, people of all demographics begin to see a man who possesses an unusual, powerful quality," Stranger associate editor Eli Sanders wrote. "It's a quality that has nothing to do with well-defined policy positions—though he does have those—and everything to do with gooey matters like disposition, idealism, and hope."
More white men ran for mayor back then (McGinn is the only serious candidate fitting that demographic this go-round), and they offered a narrower set of leftist options than today's field. McGinn, a staunchly anti-tunnel, pro-light-rail candidate who promised a vision of a city that was more equitable for people of color and didn't have to stick to the status quo of car-centric transportation policy, faced off against incumbent Greg Nickels and T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan. An army of grassroots youth support plus the Stranger endorsement delivered McGinn a surprising win in the primaries. In the general election, McGinn swept up the youth vote and beat Mallahan by less than 2 percent.
McGinn commanded a difficult first term marked by tension with a city council far more conservative than the current body. His critics called him ineffective, a charge his supporters resented in the context of a hostile city government. Also under his tenure: The Seattle Police Department entered a consent decree with the Department of Justice over use-of-force practices. As Stranger writer Dominic Holden summarized in a harsh postmortem of his first term, McGinn "stood by haplessly with a lame police chief while Seattle Police Department officers punched, kicked, shot, and killed racial minorities."
In 2013, McGinn ran for reelection and appealed to younger, more diverse areas of the city in the primary, but ultimately lost to Ed Murray, a well-funded state legislator who ran on his ability to reach across the aisle and strike compromises.
This year, McGinn declared his candidacy for mayor on April 17, 11 days after the Seattle Times broke the news about three separate child sex-abuse allegations against Murray. He announced his run with a cryptic tweet that read, "Keep Seattle." When asked what his puzzling campaign slogan actually means, McGinn says he doesn't want to lose the people already in Seattle to rising prices and regressive taxes. "It's becoming a rapidly different city if we don't figure out how to change course," he said. "We're heading down the path of San Francisco."
It's not exactly a slogan that stirs up the hope and idealism Stranger writers gushed over back in 2009. But even in a race with younger, more diverse, and bolder candidates, McGinn has loyal young supporters, including Hanna Brooks Olsen, a writer, marketing consultant, and cofounding editor of the political site Seattlish.
"I don't have a super-juicy reason for [supporting McGinn]. He's someone I've known a long time," Olsen tells me. "I think of him as a friend and a respected leader in the city, and I want to see what he can do under different (better) circumstances."
It's important to remember city politics back in 2009 and 2010, Olsen says. "The council was much more centrist and mired in process, there was resistance to progressive policy, and sales- and property-tax revenue had both declined post-recession," she explains. "With a more progressive council—one that's actually interested in tax reform, police reform, etc., I think he'd be a great leader."
McGinn tells me that he thinks of his first term as the city paying "tuition" for him to learn how to become a mayor. "I think I have the experience in working with different constituencies and in running government that I can advance an agenda further and faster than any other candidate in the race," he says.
Olsen agrees with that assessment. "I think he's spent a lot of time observing the nuance of hyper-local politics in the last four years," she says. "He's basically been training to go at it again."
At an organizing event for trans rights at SEIU headquarters on a Sunday morning in Sodo, McGinn mingles with organizers and asks one of them how best to tweet about the event. After introductions, McGinn spends much of the first part of the event glued to his phone, trying to encapsulate his support for the trans community in 140 characters or less.
An organizer recognizes him and smiles: "You were at my house!"
McGinn has grown accustomed to being recognized. At a later event for Somali parents at the New Holly Gathering Hall south of Beacon Hill, where McGinn wanders from table to table reintroducing himself, former deputy mayor Darryl Smith tells me that he still gets stopped in the grocery store in his South Seattle neighborhood and told how much people prefer "the old mayor." Smith tells me that one of the biggest accomplishments of McGinn's term was bringing previously unheard voices into the political discussion.
"We spent a lot of time in South Seattle building these relationships and making sure that they could actually reach out and be part of the conversation. That's huge in a city like Seattle, where the immigrant populations continue to grow," Smith says.
Mohamad Egal, a volunteer with McGinn's campaign, agrees. "He's a man with enormous knowledge of diverse Seattle communities," Egal says, adding that it was McGinn who established the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
But at the trans-rights organizing session, McGinn's recognition comes with higher expectations. Organizer Kaya Axelsson asks the room how many people they plan on bringing to the next event, and McGinn raises his hand at "three." "Aw, you were mayor," Axelsson responds. "You can do better than that!"
Later, the organizer asks McGinn what else he's going to do to rally support for the cause. He promises that he's going to put out an "e-blast" and tweet about it. It's an answer that receives a few nods from the young crowd.
"You let me know what you want," McGinn says. "I'm in."