People who want to change politics in Seattle no longer run for office.
They start groups instead.
Sure, there remains a handful of newcomers who still want to sit on the council dais. But for every Venus Velázquez or Tim Burgess, there's a Gary Manca or Mike McGinn—citizen activists who've decided that the best way to effect change is from outside City Hall.
Earlier this year, a new group called Friends of Seattle (chaired by Manca) held its kickoff right at the nadir of the debate over the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The new group, which supported the once-fringe surface/transit option, felt like something exciting, different, and new—an alternative to the stale viaduct-versus-tunnel discussion that then dominated the political debate. Now that some version of surface/transit is starting to look like a real possibility, the emergence of another pro-surface/transit group, McGinn's Seattle Great City Initiative, seems inevitable.
But is there room for both? At last week's Great City launch party, a decidedly more establishment crowd than the one at the Friends of Seattle kickoff mingled over wheels of brie, sushi rolls, edamame, and wasabi rice crackers at the downtown offices of Triad Development, which is building a 650,000-square-foot office and residential building across from City Hall. McGinn, a cheerful, barrel-chested man who got his start in Seattle's neighborhood movement, now appears poised to reclaim that movement from reactionary activists who pine for Seattle circa 1972. McGinn leaped onto a low coffee table and made a surprisingly ballsy pitch for funding: $5,000, more than seven times what candidates for city council can legally request. They ultimately pulled in $14,000.
The new group seems to reflect an emerging consensus: The era of freeway building (and SUV buying, and hostility to transit) is over. Even some of the most ardent proponents of a new freeway on the waterfront now seem to know it. Last week, onetime protunnel stalwarts Allied Arts sent a bomb-throwing letter to Governor Christine Gregoire and state, county, and local officials, calling on leaders explicitly to "reject" five of seven planned "compromise" projects on the waterfront. (Many of the projects, as I reported April 26 ["Road Block"], could preclude a surface/transit option.) "Seattle citizens sent a strong message that Seattle needs to think about this project in a new way, and Allied Arts is concerned that the governing parties are not listening closely enough," the scathing letter begins. Moving forward as the state has proposed, it continues, "breaches voters' trust and illustrates the state's unresponsiveness toward Seattle citizens' desires."
Compare that to the relatively tepid letter penned to the same state, county, and local officials by neighborhood, business, and environmental leaders (including McGinn) on Monday, May 7, which proposes only that the city, county, and state begin a "stakeholder-driven, credible, impartial" process to wrap up in June 2008, without stating what the outcome of that process should be. The implicit goal: to take the initiative away from Governor Christine Gregoire, who still supports rebuilding the viaduct.
Meanwhile, at City Hall, the council just agreed to come up with a "mobility plan" to replace the viaduct—a currently trendy way of saying that they'll develop a surface/transit option, and use $8 million in city viaduct funds to do so.