Is It Time for Tim Burgess?
Violent crime is up, the mayor is hugely unpopular, and the city council’s only former cop is considering whether it’s his moment to run Seattle
Tim Burgess looks a little out of place. We're at the Unicorn, the carnival-striped bar on Capitol Hill, and he's wearing an argyle sweater and tan pants, his posture perfect, sharp eyes tracking everything. It's early February. It's raining outside. The murder rate is climbing. By the end of the month, first-term mayor Mike McGinn, dragging around a dismal approval rating of just 33 percent, will have declared a public safety emergency due to gun violence. He'll also have made more moves in a tense back-and-forth with the federal government—a back-and-forth that continues to this day—over Seattle's widely criticized police department, last year slammed by the Department of Justice for "a pattern or practice of unnecessary force." Burgess, 63 years old and now in his second term on the Seattle City Council, sips a beer and apologizes for having pushed back our meeting by a half-hour. He'd been delayed by this very issue: a meeting on the delicate dance between the police and the Feds.
Burgess used to be a cop himself, and it shows. He's six feet one, a former recreational runner and cyclist who now stays in shape with push-ups, sit-ups, and frequent walks between his home on Queen Anne Hill and his office at City Hall. He maintains a cautious awareness at most times, like someone who's learned to expect trouble without warning. That could just be his years in politics, though. Burgess's bald dome rises above the top of the booth as we talk about everything no one's asking him about right now. How he grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family whose version of the faith he rejected; how his first date with his wife of 34 years, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor Joleen Burgess, ended up being a trip to a West Seattle murder-suicide scene Tim was working, followed by lunch.
The subtext is obvious, though: I'm interested because I know people in Seattle will become more interested in Burgess's backstory as the city gets closer to the 2013 mayoral elections and the talk about who might run against McGinn accelerates.
Burgess won't say what his plans are for 2013, but his name is consistently at the top of the list of likely McGinn challengers, due in large part to the way certain segments of the downtown power elite already regard Burgess as a kind of mayor-in-waiting—a sane alternative to the maddening instability brought to their world by the election of a populist former Sierra Club chair who'd never held public office until (surprise!) he became mayor, in large part due to his opposition to the downtown Seattle tunnel project.
Burgess is a guy downtown can deal with—pro-tunnel, fiscally conservative—but also a guy willing to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and listen well outside his comfort zone. When we met for a second time at the Unicorn, Burgess again looked a little out of place, wearing a blazer and blue dress shirt, but that was because he'd spent the earlier part of the day giving a speech to a powerful group of business leaders known as the Community Development Roundtable. For that speech, the setting was the members-only Washington Athletic Club, where Burgess stood at a podium and called, as he frequently does, for "evidence-based" police reforms. "Most importantly," Burgess told the business leaders, "we can stop believing the crazy notion that a certain level of crime is to be expected, and even tolerated, in a large city. This attitude is wrongheaded and it is an excuse for inaction."
That's a message with appeal well beyond the nervous downtown establishment, and the fact that Burgess is willing to repeat it everywhere suggests another rationale for his candidacy. If the public is indeed as disenchanted with McGinn as polls suggest, then Burgess, with his background walking a beat (and, more recently, chairing the council's public safety committee), could emerge as the guy with the right credentials for this civic moment, a moment that seems to keep getting more worrisome, with this year's homicide count now higher than the count for all of last year.
Everyone in city politics is aware of this dynamic, which is why tremendous intrigue now swirls around the state of the relationship between McGinn and Burgess.
"Mike and I actually get along very well," Burgess tells me later in the spring, in a meeting at his tidy city council office. He's decorated the place with several black-and-white photographs from the city's Portable Works Collection, all of them images that arrived in response to his request for works portraying demolition and construction. On Burgess's bookshelves, lots of titles that reinforce his image as a student of sensible policing: Criminology and Public Policy, The City That Became Safe, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. Also on the shelves, titles that hint at his difficult-to-pigeonhole politics, from The Assault on Reason (by Al Gore) to God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (by Jim Wallis). On a table behind Burgess's desk: a 2008 Obama button.
So what's his plan for improving public safety in Seattle?
"Three things," Burgess says. "Introduce and practice more evidence-based policing—that is, focus on the science of policing. Second, focus very intently on persistent, high-frequency offenders. Third, do more geographically concentrated policing... If we did just that, did those three things, it would transform our city." Right now, he says, we just "dabble in it."
How about the current standoff between the city and the Feds over the problems within the police department?
"I have believed since early January that we could have had a very effective and quick resolution of this whole matter very early on," Burgess says, trying to be somewhat vague because negotiations are still ongoing—a result of the mayor's go-slow strategy, which is supposed to build police buy-in for reforms. "It's been very damaging that it's been drawn out this long," Burgess continues. "Extremely damaging to morale inside the police department. We have left hanging many concerns that the community has, and I don't think it's been necessary."
Back on his relationship with McGinn, Burgess highlights their points of agreement: "We worked very closely together on the Families and Education Levy. We are meeting regularly on police and DOJ matters. So I think a lot of the speculation about next year—and all that 'Tim and Mike don't get along' stuff—that's all in the minds of you pundits."
Okay. Then how does Burgess think his friend Mike is doing?
"I am not the mayor's evaluator," Burgess says, dodging. "I recognize and respect the fact that he is mayor, and I do my job as best I can, and I work with him as I need to."
In a statement, McGinn echoed that sense of functional tepidness. "Tim and I don't always see eye to eye on the issues," McGinn said, but he, too, pointed out their work together on the Families and Education Levy, as well as "other projects"—unspecified—and concluded: "We will work to build on those successes."
Asked what he makes of all the interest around his possible run, Burgess exhibits the deftness of a former ad man, which he was for more than 20 years—far more than the nearly eight years he spent on the police force. Combining some humble-bragging with some buffing of his nose-to-the-grindstone brand, Burgess shoves the chatter aside: "It's gratifying, obviously. But it's a little irritating at the same time. It's distracting. I have a job, and it's really important that I be able to work with my colleagues and the mayor."
If it were up to Burgess's colleagues on the council, who have made no secret of their frustrations with what they see as McGinn's bullheadedness, Burgess might be mayor already. At least, a solid majority of the nine-member body seems to like him and think he'd do well in the position.
"I like Tim," says Council Member Tom Rasmussen. "He's very considerate, really thoughtful. I would also describe him as very social. He pops into people's offices just to check in on how things are going. Studious, too. He does his homework. He reads all the time, particularly on issues of public safety... He's always seeking more information. He would make a good mayor."
Better than the current mayor?
"Oh, there you go," Rasmussen responds. "I think he would make a good mayor, let's put it that way... One reason I say that is he's really good at interpersonal relations with public officials here and around the state. I have not seen the mayor embracing that or taking that responsibility on. Not to the extent that Tim Burgess has."
This criticism of McGinn—that, as mayor, he doesn't play well with others—dates to McGinn's losing fight against the tunnel, during which he played to the sizable anti-tunnel constituency that helped get him elected by essentially giving the finger to state officials who were determined to make the tunnel happen, Seattle opposition be damned. When McGinn got beat in that fight, to the great disappointment of this portion of his base, those state officials vowed to remember the manner in which he'd conducted himself. He still hasn't been able to repair that damage, and he hasn't given off the vibe that he's much interested in doing so.
Council Member Rich- ard Conlin, echoing the idea of Burgess as the anti-McGinn in this respect, says of his council colleague: "He has an ability to really reach out to people, and listen, and then make decisions. And even on issues that I disagree with him on, he listens. He's straight with you."
Would he make a good mayor?
"As a matter of fact, yes," Conlin says. "Those are the qualities we look for in a mayor." Qualities that the current mayor lacks? "Not going to comment on that at this point," says Conlin. "Mike and I are working pretty well together right now on a lot of issues. If it comes down to having to make a choice, I will do so then. But for now, all I can say is that it will be an interesting campaign."
Council Member Mike O'Brien, who disagreed with Burgess on the harsh punishments for aggressive panhandling that Burgess narrowly pushed through the council in 2010—only to have them vetoed by a philosophically opposed McGinn—now says of Burgess: "I think Tim's a very thoughtful, intelligent person who has the best interests of Seattle in his heart. It sounds political, but I actually, truly believe that. I think he's a good person. Tim and I don't agree on everything, but as a colleague, he's been a really great person to work with."
Council Member Jean Godden, who lately has been in a lot of meetings with Burgess about the McGinn-backed proposal for a partially publicly financed Sodo basketball arena, which both she and Burgess have exhibited a needs-more-study coolness toward, says: "I think he's a very good council member."
Would he make a good mayor?
"I think it would be certainly a possibility."
The only two council members who declined to offer statements on Burgess—council president Sally Clark and current public safety committee chair Bruce Harrell—are widely believed to be considering their own mayoral bids in 2013. Likewise for Ed Murray, the state senator from Seattle, who has expressed interest in running and says of Burgess: "We've only had one meeting ever, so I don't have a particularly well developed sense of his style or his skills. It's not negative or positive. He's just not one of the council members I spend a lot of time with."
Godden, knowing how crowded the race might get, adds: "I won't say Burgess would be necessarily my only choice. But at the same time, I think he'd have the best interest of the city at heart."
Would he be better than McGinn? "Let's just say they organize their offices a little bit differently," Godden says, noting that Burgess's office is very well organized.
Council Member Sally Bagshaw, asked if Burgess would make a good mayor, responds emphatically: "Yes. I like him very much. He's a great colleague to have on the council. I've found him to be very honorable. Entirely trustworthy. And when he says he's going to do something, he does it."
Even lefty icon and longtime council member Nick Licata is a Burgess fan, though he starts with a warning: "Many of my friends aren't going to like this."
Aren't going to like what, Nick?
"I think Burgess would make a very effective mayor."
Licata continues, sounding a little Yoda- like: "But not, necessarily, would he be pursuing issues I think we should be pursuing."
Which issues would Burgess pursue that Licata wouldn't?
Licata recalibrates: "I think we would pursue the same issues: public safety, economic growth, human services, civil rights. These are all issues that we all think are important in the city. But I think his approach would tend to be a little more mainstream. I guess that makes me un-mainstream. Or, his approach would be more cautious. I guess that makes me un-cautious. I'm not painting myself very well... Let's say he probably wouldn't pursue as many risk-oriented solutions as I would like to see."
Later in our conversation, Licata recalibrates again: "The difference between McGinn and Burgess is that the current mayor has—for the most part, not always—more liberal principles, from where I stand, and so I'm more comfortable with them. But I think Tim is better in executing what he sees his vision as. And so the balance is: Do you have someone you're more comfortable with, but you're not sure he can get there because of, let's say, poor execution? Or do you have someone who's not quite where you are, but you're more confident they're going to get there, because they have good execution?"
Those are great questions—and they could easily end up being the central questions of the 2013 mayor's race—but for now, that's six council votes for the idea that Burgess would make a good mayor (seven if you count Burgess). This isn't how mayoral elections are decided, but opinions of council members are presumably something of a barometer for the opinions of their constituents. And it's worth noting: Six council votes in favor of anything is enough to override a mayoral veto.
Things get a little more complicated, though, when power brokers at city hall are offered a chance to speak about Burgess anonymously.
"The biggest problem Burgess has," says one such power broker, "is the perception that he doesn't really respect you unless you're important. And that does come across to people who are not important. For people who are important, they don't perceive it. But I know a lot of unimportant people."
"He appears to be quite formal," says another power broker. "When you see him, he's always very well dressed, in a suit and a tie... That could give the impression of being stuffy or standoffish."
"I have seen that he can be very stiff in appearance," says another. "I know that I have heard from women that they think he's arrogant. The fact of the matter is, he's not. He's not at all. He's incredibly open and thoughtful and kind. But women perceive him as stiff... The perception is something that he will have to deal with."
Imagining a 2013 general-election face-off between Murray and Burgess, one power broker says: "It would be a very interesting race... Ed has charm. That's one of the other problems with Tim. He doesn't have much charm. Ed, on the other hand, has too much charm. He's too much of a character. Ed will self-destruct on the launchpad."
Says another: "There are people who want to be elected to do something. And there are people who want to be elected to be somebody. On that spectrum, Tim starts off—what I've observed is that he really wants to be this thoughtful, analytical person. But at the end of the day, it's the political winds that determine where he goes... He's deeply ambitious. He really wants to be a high-status individual, very respected by everybody. That, at its core, kind of trumps the positions he takes on things."
This person spoke of "the three faces of Tim."
"He starts in a certain place on an issue, but he just—if downtown and the Seattle Times and everybody starts pushing back, he just wings into line."
Wait, isn't that only two faces of Tim?
"Three faces means that he'll pick a third choice if he wants to."
You can see, in all of this, a miasma of off-put feelings that could certainly be shaped, for political purposes, into an attack on Burgess for being too haughty, too downtown, too pliable, too ambitious, too important to care about unimportant people. Burgess knows this is coming and has taken a number of recent opportunities to highlight moments that play against the way he's been cast: rapping his own lyrics to the Wiz Khalifa song "Black and Yellow" at a Washington Bus candidate forum at Neumos during his easy reelection bid in 2011, expressing skepticism toward the current rich-guy-backed basketball arena proposal (which could be a political twofer for Burgess, cutting against his pro-rich-guy label and denying the mayor a win), working to pass the recent paid-sick-leave law over the opposition of some restaurant owners, and continuing his long and strongly felt fight against underage sex trafficking.
A different and potentially more damaging attack on Burgess, as voiced by one of the power brokers:
"He was chair of the public safety committee for four years. What did he do? He has no legacy for it."
Similarly, from another power broker: "I think the one area where he has to take ownership is the police situation. How can all of that be happening in this city? He was in charge of police oversight for so many years, and this is happening? I think this is a huge argument against him."
"True," says another. "He's vulnerable that way, but I think he's smart enough to deflect. Maybe not 100 percent of incoming fire, but about 90 percent... He is a political machine. He's probably the best on the council. I don't mean that as a compliment per se."
Burgess is clearly preparing to counter attacks on his public safety chair accomplishments with multi-point plans for crime prevention and police reform (he's aiming to put out another one next month), as well as with reminders such as this: "The council sets policy and budgets," Burgess says. "We do not run the day-to-day operations of the police department or any city department. That's the exclusive purview of the mayor."
So is Burgess actually going to run?
"Yeah," says one of the power brokers. "'Cause he can win."
And if he does win?
"I think Tim would accomplish the kinds of things that McGinn wants to accomplish but can't," says another. "Mike has come in and alienated so many people in the labor community, the business community, and even the enviros. Those who want to move forward on things are reluctant to be in public with him. Tim can bring people together." (Another says of the McGinn administration: "It's amateur hour over there, every day.")
From a different power broker, a different view on how Burgess would bring people together: "Tim Burgess will be a typical Seattle politician. He will say the right things to every constituency, and downtown will always have the last word. So no real tough changes will be made in any arena, but everyone will feel good because the right words were said to them."
Beneath all of this, a concern that has dogged Burgess for a long time:
"He's a little more conservative than Seattle," says one of the power brokers. "But he doesn't show it, because he really wants to be mayor."
Says another: "I will say that I was very wary of him when he started. I had that impression of him that perhaps you have—very conservative. That was not borne out by my actual experience."
All of which proves that whether you're talking to city hall power brokers on the record or anonymously, you wind up at the same questions: Is Burgess too conservative for Seattle? Or is his kind of ideologically mild conservatism just what Seattle wants right now?
The best answers to these questions might be found in Burgess's own evolution, which over the course of his life has taken him from Republican to Democrat, anti-choice to pro-choice, anti-gay-marriage to pro-gay-marriage, Goldwater backer to Obama donor. "I'm clearly a guy who has transitioned over time," Burgess admits. "I'm like Hillary Clinton. She tells the story of working for Barry Goldwater. I did, too."
Burgess grew up on Capitol Hill, back when the neighborhood was more working class. His father sold office supplies downtown for a company called Lowman & Hanford. His mother was a cook in the cafeteria at Meany Middle School. His was not an easy upbringing. "It would be fair to call them religious fundamentalists to the extreme," Burgess said of his parents, who are both deceased.
His family attended the former Tabernacle Baptist Church at 15th and John, now the site of Group Health hospital, where the congregation, in Burgess's words, was a bunch of "super, super, super-fundamentalists" who were very sexually repressive. No movies for Burgess, no television, no dancing. Also, "no sex standing up because it might lead to dancing." It was bad. "I could not go into the home of some of my buddies who lived on my block because they were Roman Catholic... We lived in this isolated, separatist enclave of American fundamentalism." And his father, he says, was verbally abusive toward everyone in the family, including his mother, and physically abusive toward one of his two older brothers.
His family struggled financially at times. Burgess remembers his mom, when she was working as a cook at the middle school, having him and his brother come by to eat the leftovers after school was out. "My mom would always try to stuff us," he says, "because we didn't always have dinner at home." When he was 12, his parents' home was foreclosed on. They moved into a rental home not far from the University Bridge, where Burgess, a "radio freak," would lie in bed listening to news of the Apollo moon shot and biding his time. "I lived in the rental until the day I was 18," he says, "and then I was gone."
He graduated from Lincoln High School in 1967 (after going to Hamilton Junior High and Seward Elementary, in Eastlake along I-5, where "we stood at our windows and watched them build the freeway"). Then to Shoreline and North Seattle Community Colleges, from which he got a two-year associate of arts degree in police administration and management. At the same time, to earn money, he was working in the news department at the radio station KJR.
"One of the major issues and stories that I reported on in 1969, and 1970, and early 1971 was the federal grand jury investigations of Seattle police, and the King County grand jury investigations of Seattle police," Burgess says. "I covered a lot of those corruption trials. I just was enamored with that process. How it all went. How the people who wanted to serve as police officers were corrupted... And then the reform era started in the police department, and Wes Uhlman was mayor... And I thought, 'You know what, I'm going to go do that. I'm going to be part of that reform era. I'm going to be a police officer.'"
He did overnight shifts for the police department while in college at the University of Washington, paying his tuition through what at the time was essentially a GI Bill for police. Then, eight credits shy of a degree, his police shift changed. The morning classes he was taking didn't work anymore. "I never went back," Burgess says of the UW.
After two years patrolling the High Point neighborhood in West Seattle, a chief who liked his journalism background brought him downtown to write speeches and do other kinds of public relations work. He became a detective for a time. Then, in 1978, nearly eight years after starting with the SPD, he left.
There were two reasons. "One was pull, the other was push," Burgess says. "One, I decided I was going to solve global poverty. Two was frustration with the bureaucracy. Half the guys in the detective squad worked, the other half didn't." Burgess volunteered for World Concern, a Christian humanitarian organization, did anti-poverty work in more than 40 countries overseas, and saw firsthand what he calls "structurally evil stuff." At the WAC speech, he recounted: "I stood in a village in southern India and looked at a mountain of grain perhaps 30 or 40 feet high surrounded by armed guards. As I talked to the village elders, I learned that the grain was intended for export; the armed guards were there to keep the hungry away. These systems created benefits for some, but very real harm for others."
Then, in 1985, he started an ad agency in Seattle, Burgess & Associates, which had grown considerably and changed names by the time he sold it in 2006.
Burgess won't say how much he earned from the sale of his ad agency, but it allowed him to think he could retire—until, on a bike trip in Italy with some friends, he said to his wife, "This retired life is going to be really boring." By the winter of 2006, he was considering running for city council.
"You idiot," Joleen said to him. "Why would you want to do that?"
Before Burgess won his city council seat in November 2007, he first had to defeat incumbent David Della. During that race, there was a lot of focus on work Burgess's ad agency had done for Concerned Women for America, as well as an op-ed he'd written for the Seattle Times in January of 2005, just after George W. Bush was reelected. In that op-ed, Burgess trumpeted the importance of respecting "values voters," and seemingly positioned himself as one of them.
Burgess now says the work for Concerned Women for America was a mistake, and says of the op-ed: "My premise was that if the Democratic Party is going to win elections, we cannot ignore people of faith. We are just shooting ourselves in the head if we do that."
Here's where Burgess sits, politically, today: He's dismayed with the Republican party's far-right tilt, in favor of a statewide income tax on the wealthy, opposed to capital punishment, in favor of same-sex marriage, in favor of legalizing marijuana, and says of abortion: "Legal, safe, and rare—I'm fine with that. It's an intensely personal decision for a woman that the government should not be making."
A lot of people still don't trust him and think Burgess might be some sort of religious conservative Manchurian candidate for mayor. But Burgess, who prays daily and goes to Bethany Presbyterian Church on top of Queen Anne Hill every Sunday, says he's not that—just your typical Seattle Christian, "progressive, social-justice-oriented."
He continues: "My faith is absolutely anchored to forgiveness and grace. Because I've experienced that myself. Totally opposite of what I was raised in."
Short of climbing inside Burgess's soul, the best I could do to test this claim was attend church with him. On a Sunday in June, I put on a shirt and tie, sat in the back row on the ground floor of Bethany Presbyterian, and heard nothing that would cause any Seattle liberal the slightest bit of concern. Just a lot of talk about feeding the poor, bridging divides, opening up hearts and minds. This time, I was the one who looked a little out of place. Burgess was wearing a short-sleeved summer dress shirt and jeans, and told me he'd almost worn flip-flops, which was believable given the casualness of the congregation.
Outside his church after the service, Burgess held his new granddaughter, cooing over her and gabbing about the upcoming wedding of one of his three daughters. If he looked like anything other than a happy grandpa, it was, perhaps, an undercover cop. A right-wing Manchurian candidate? Not so much. In fact, it's probably more accurate to view Burgess as a Seattle success story, not in the sense he usually emphasizes, but in the sense that the arc of his life in this city, combined with his willingness to keep an open mind and evolve politically, has caused him to become markedly more liberal over time. He says, for example, that it was a series of conversations with his gay colleague Tom Rasmussen that ultimately brought him around on gay marriage. We grab a cup of coffee. Queen Anne residents keep stopping to say hi and ask Burgess about various bits of city business. I ask Burgess again about his mayoral plans. He tells me again: no decision yet.