How Mike McGinn Broke the Seattle Machine—and Why the City Will Never Be the Same
PHOTOS BY JEN NANCE
When you've fought every day for 10 years to turn a map you and a friend drew at a kitchen table into a $2 billion transit agency, and volunteered and done strategy for two winning underdog city council campaigns, and then run for city council yourself and nearly made it—to say nothing of half a dozen city and county ballot initiatives you've run, the first of which was called the region's biggest political upheaval of the decade on the cover of the Sunday New York Times—and in the end you lost most of your battles against WaMu or Paul Allen or the state or the Seahawks or the Mariners and had the gain sucked out of those battles you won, you know a couple things, or more precisely one thing: You know that the fix is usually in.
And you get pretty good at calling races.
In the mid-1990s, the city seemed to know the planet was being ruined. Friends complained about the clueless mall-walkers that downtown filled up with once the single-occupancy hotels were pushed out and Nordstrom got its taxpayer-funded garage, but these same friends way too often didn't vote. Meanwhile, many of those who were politically engaged suffered the curse of progressive America, stuck in an outdated cultural rebellion that seemed to lay up indulgences for later compromise. By the time I finally left town three years ago, I thought the stupidity of this city was irrepressible, its progressivism a pose—irony of ironies being Greg Nickels killing a transit system and rubber-stamping a freeway at home as he went junketing with his global-warming crusade and built a career as an environmentalist on the national scene. (Watch him drop this crusade like a hot potato now that he has no future in office- seeking.) The politicos who flew the green banner proudest and still managed to win used it as cover to go along to get along or fight progress (I'm talking to you, council president Richard Conlin, instrumental in putting the knives into the monorail agency and backing the viaduct replacement tunnel right up to leading the 9–0 council approval last month). Saying you "support the environment" was like putting a 100 percent hemp Free Tibet sticker on the bumper of your car. You didn't have to really do a fucking thing.
The mayor's race this year seemed no change, equally hopeless. The characters in the primary: Nickels, under threat for killing the monorail or losing the Sonics, whichever pisses you off most and if it's both call me, we'll have a beer; a no-chance-Charlie named Mike McGinn whom The Stranger was backing—been there, dude; a random sports figure; a city councilwoman who I'd always liked personally because she's fun to drink with but who ran as the Downtown Seattle Association's best friend; and a cell-phone exec who looked like a cell-phone exec and proved to be the most entertaining candidate in the race, a train wreck of pro-business bromides and ill-advised shout-outs (he kept repeating that he proudly hailed from suburban Everett, "the Pearl of the [sic] Puget Sound," without the slightest clue this might be the wrong thing to say). After Nickels's hemorrhage in the primary—the severity of which no one had predicted and which could have been about his grab-it-all style, the Sonics, his relationship with neighborhoods, his faux environmentalism, the two weeks the city spent snowed in last winter after which he comically overrated his performance ("I give myself a B"), or all of the above—the cell-phone exec, Joe Mallahan, became the front-runner and the old establishment lined up to support him. McGinn's lead role in beating the roads-and-transit campaign two years ago was downplayed to invisibility among the people who "matter"—despite the impressiveness of his going up against the mainstream environmental organizations that were crying that transit couldn't win an election without being bundled with more roads, and then proving them wrong.
I came back to Seattle this summer to write and raise money to produce a film, not very interested in the mayor's race. Of course I hoped McGinn would win. But I didn't care much, didn't think it would ever happen, wasn't going to let myself get heartbroken again. I worked on Nick Licata's first campaign 12 years ago, and our post-campaign vacation (courtesy of the candidate) to Mexico was my first journey to the country I would later make my home. Mexico is warm, in every sense of the word. Seattle's uptight Puritan New England/ Scandinavian Protestant soul is intensified by winter depression, cold weather, the rain—all reasons I can no longer live here year-round, and why (I believe) the Northwest has made the greatest doomy art in America since the tales of Hawthorne, and why its cultural heroes die so young. You can't talk about Seattle without talking about the weather, and you can't go away and then come back without noting that it makes everyone here a little crazy.
For a week, I helped prepare for a McGinn fundraiser a friend held in the middle of October. Two years fighting cancer had left him with hundreds of pounds of pine needles in his gutters and walks; rain had rotted the wooden steps. I was doing it for my friend, because he cared, and because he had let me crash in his spare bedroom for weeks—not out of any passion for the cause. I wove a dozen strings of Christmas lights across the shrubbery to lead the hundreds we expected up the dark cul-de-sac from the cross street. The organizers arrived to a ship's canteen of food but booze for only perhaps 70—we could run for more. A dozen people trickled in. Then it was more like 20. Then about 30. After an hour or two had passed and the party was tilting past its peak, McGinn, who had been waiting for more folks to show up, spoke. In the old days, this party (good people, great food, hardly anyone there) would have signified his death as a candidate. He had a muddled message that night (I stopped listening halfway through), one-third of his opponent's war chest, and zero air of inevitability.
Sad and by now drunk, I sidled up to an earnest Licata staffer, and we both spoke at once—whispering so our voices wouldn't echo across the (empty) parquet floor: "It's not gonna happen." Around this time, I had run into a man at a Georgetown bar who was on the board of Yes for Seattle when I was its executive director at the beginning of the decade. Back then, a handful of plucky young enviros from campaign shops and nonprofits considered a short-lived "initiative factory" a viable strategy for greening the city a summer at a time. But things had changed. "Remember how much we cared about this city?" my friend said with a smile. "Isn't that just worlds away now?" I agreed and thought about how we sounded like the old hippies who'd cut their hair and sold out back when we started this war against their complacency.
It was painful to watch McGinn campaigning, because his agenda was exactly the one I fronted when I ran for city council in 2001 (plus consultants and savvy calculation). I hung back at the McGinn event, moved chairs, dimmed the lights when asked, ate sitting down, drank heavily. The candidate and I found ourselves going for the red beans and rice at the same time—we had never met before—and he recognized me, grinned broadly, and shook my hand. He said, "You've been through all this" or "You kind of laid the template for this" or "You helped us get here"—I would like to remember what exactly, but I could barely concentrate on what he was saying. I kept thinking about energy and idealism and hope and young hearts being thrown against this immovable thing. Wasted time. I could barely speak. He was nice. He was going to lose.
But there were things going on that I did not see.
The Tunnel (it should be capitalized, because if it goes through it will be the crowning disaster of this city for the next generation) is a monster born of compromise: $4.2 billion authorized by the state legislature would remove the viaduct and rebuild the seawall and Alaskan Way, replacing the state highway underground—on the condition that cost overruns are paid by the citizens of Seattle. Megaprojects, especially ones underground, always have cost overruns, Boston's Big Dig being the chief recent American example. But in Boston's defense, that project undid a snarl of highways to open up a most unique city's divided heart, on arguably the most vital road corridor in the world, I-95. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, by contrast, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, carries only double the volume of traffic that runs every day on North 45th Street. That's all! To transfer a small ribbon of harborside roadway deep underground, everything else the city taxpayers cover—buses, libraries, parks, bond issues for schools and low-income housing, habitat restoration, parades, the arts, the homeless—is to be put at risk.
The rural GOP state reps—with the compliance of most of their ludicrously retrogressive Democratic state colleagues from Seattle—are willing to put up billions for the highway but not one cent for the reclamation of what might be the most scenic urban shore in America. We are on the hook for that, because the city's consensus- by-default in last year's election was to remove the viaduct without replacing it on the shore. And two weeks before the election, breathing the thin air of the Nickels administration, the city council voted unanimously to approve the deep-bore tunnel (in terms of engineering, the same technology that connects, say, Denmark to Sweden, or Manhattan to New Jersey) without opposition even from my old ally Nick Licata: His patch-up idea for the viaduct—strong on wishful engineering—was neither lovely enough for those wanting an open waterfront nor lucrative enough for the unions and construction lobbyists who finally got their way with Nickels and the council. (Steadfastly progressive on all other issues, Licata is understandably devoted to traffic separation due to an accident in which his stepson, a pedestrian, was tragically injured several years ago, and perhaps, in his unwavering allegiance to the less fortunate, believes the mad myth that the "poor" or "working class" depend on cars. Only 800 million of the six billion people on earth have access to a car: They're not the poor ones.)
And renowned environmentalist and new council president Richard Conlin? Except for his rare foray into real environmental advocacy on the ill-fated plastic-bag tax, Conlin, a characteristic light-green Seattle politician, has always been careful not to expose his flanks to conservative attacks or provide more than scant justification for his self-applied green label. While priding himself on deck-chair-rearranging legislation like the ordinance legalizing pygmy goats within city limits, he was instrumental in the slow assassination of the monorail project by Nickels, developer Martin Selig, and WaMu CEO Kerry Killinger—along with a rich supporting cast of real-estate barons; crypto-racist NIMBYs from Crown Hill block-watch groups, carefully phrasing their opposition to "outsiders" coming into their neighborhood; and well- intentioned light-rail true believers happy to let transit take a lifetime to get built. I suspect—after prolonged exposure to these people—Conlin's soft-enviro supporters are attracted more to what they hope he might be than what he is, with scant evidence beyond a yogic poise and goateed, unflappable calm that he is one of them. This year, a campaign as strong as council member–elect Mike O'Brien's would have dusted him.
It remains to be seen how hard the new council president will fight for the tunnel. You have to hope that McGinn's promised acquiescence to the council's decision begs a movement like the one that stopped plans for the Arboretum-destroying R.H. Thomson Expressway in the 1960s. No project since then here has been so stupid. There is no other word for it. It's not just the tunnel's concrete and the cars, the lack of exits downtown, the sprawl-multiplying effect, and the elitist gold-plated highway for drivers and the slow bus for the poor. If this were a transit system—$2 billion for 1.7 miles, not even counting the inevitable overruns—it would be a bad idea. In fact, it would be laughed out of existence. My darkest mind says if McGinn won only after accepting the eventuality of a tunnel, then what I decided four years ago after Nickels undermined the monorail is true: There is not a majority of voters in Seattle serious about sprawl; salmon-killing, orca-poisoning runoff; social justice; and climate change—and our "eco-consciousness" will continue as a back-and-forth shuffle of half-measures and corrections, a sham of image and self-regard. And something else: As I've aged, I've changed a little. I understand my Republican friends from high school who want to hunker down in their suburban homes in Texas and Florida, make their kids comfortable and safe, cook really good dinners, and ignore the fate of the world—but they don't act like they are any better than they are.
Of course, the state legislation promising to hold Seattle responsible for any cost overruns is still fungible: Conlin—elevated to quite undeserved hero status in a recent feature in The Stranger—is on the record, along with McGinn, calling it unacceptable. They may get out of it just by treading water while this nightmare project kills itself. A tunnel entirely on the state's tab is hardly, as the conventional wisdom would suggest, a "done deal." Mayor Nickels has characteristically done his best to hide the bad news. Studies show drivers—maybe up to 40 percent of them—will avoid the tolls the tunnel will have and take surface streets, in the absence of fixes to the downtown street grid, which won't have been made because of the cost of the tunnel. People's Waterfront Coalition chair Cary Moon says, "There is unlikely to be a single bomb that sinks the deal, but an accumulation of risks and negative impacts that may capsize it at any time." And that infamous breeding ground of lawsuits, the environmental impact statement, hasn't been done yet, and it'll be a doozy—probably a decade of construction shutting down either end of the city center, a tunnel mouth under a national historic district, and more traffic on the roads (because planners are finally discovering increasing road capacity in turn creates traffic to fill it). All for twice the traffic on 45th, people.
The 9–0 council vote boggles the mind, but I was not surprised when McGinn gave a brief sidewalk interview immediately thereafter, expressing his intention to enforce the laws of the City of Seattle or some such soft capitulation. This was business as usual. What was the point of playing nice if you were just going to get the pants beaten off you anyway? The mayor-elect's hired consultants, the Mercury Group—who came out of nowhere two years ago to strategize McGinn and O'Brien's campaign against the roads-heavy, transit-light RTID—might have known what they were doing all along, or perhaps were just lucky, or perhaps were the beneficiaries of a late pivot on McGinn's part that no one on the outside saw coming. McGinn's politically unwise opposition to the deep-bore tunnel under downtown was turned to his benefit with a parsing Mallahan could not only not have made but probably didn't understand either. It allowed McGinn to sound reasonable (We won't drag this out forever Seattle-style) without stepping away from his principled opposition. It was no longer the viability of that opposition that was the focus, but the heart, the sense—sort of like the monorail movement without the agency, the contractors, the condemned blocks, the weirdos for and the wackos against—minus the unpleasant and messy difficulty, the endless dead-end corridors of Nickels's vaunted "Seattle Way" itself.
The election of a mayor here is as much about theme as city business: Norm Rice (mayor from 1990 to 1997) proved to America that a nice African American without too much style could win a white-majority town's approval; developer Paul Schell (1998 to 2001) was the perfect regent for the city's dot-com gilded age and wore the finest suits I've ever seen on a man; Nickels, who came after Schell, was fat and bought his suits from JCPenney or something, his election largely a reaction to the caviar scent of his unlucky predecessor. Nickels was a pure pol, dropping out of college to work for Rice on the council and hailing from West Seattle, where the 1950s seemed to last to the final years of the century. His Seattle Way was an elevation of process and a bow to thousands of volunteers who had spent years negotiating never-to-be-followed neighborhood plans and bought his bullshit hook, line, and sinker. His execution of this style took place in classic backroom deals and bullying, a Machiavellian level of information control: Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis was quickly nicknamed "the Shark" and reveled in the moniker. The theme by 2009, however, was that process had ruined our chance to build the West Coast's Central Park, instead ceding the whole neighborhood to billionaire Paul Allen; had lost us the Sonics; had worn everybody down until the establishment got the answer it wanted on the monorail; and didn't show up when it snowed for two weeks and business froze to a standstill.
Nickels rose through the system on the hidebound and conservative Democratic district organizations—in a city as Democratic as Seattle, power seekers who would be Republicans anywhere else learn to wear the costume. But the Howard Dean campaign in 2004—and then the Barack Obama campaign in 2008—brought out young and earnest people eager to learn the organizational ropes, people for whom (bless their little hearts) it was fresh. A bland establishment candidate like Mallahan found no safe purchase there. Before Facebook, the pyramid scheme of campaign influence involved mostly political consultants and PR firms and boards of not-too-concerned citizenry and economic development groups and the unions. When I ran, the radical, immigrant-driven unions that have reenergized the labor movement for the past decade had just begun their resurgence. McGinn won the support of the upstarts representing the truly low-income service industry, grocery and hotel workers and janitors, who have nothing to lose.
A decade ago, in Seattle politics, union meant the middle-class unions: the building trades and longshoremen, the firefighters, the police, teachers, and the umbrella (shifted left by recent chair and McGinn supporter Steve Williamson) of the King County Labor Council. Campaigns were afraid to print their own materials—which makes the most sense for a low-budget grassroots campaign—because a crucial secret handshake was the tiny union "bug" on campaign literature printed by a union shop, a matter of protocol that rendered labor's true ideological allies indistinguishable and gave accreditation to anyone who could afford it. Most of these organizations, it goes without saying, endorsed McGinn's opponent this year, as they endorsed mine.
The Municipal League does not endorse but gives individual assessments: Ludicrously, Mallahan, an irregular voter with a nearly nonexistent history of real civic engagement, got top marks ("Outstanding"), while McGinn rated "Good" (the "fuck you" of Muni League rankings). The spineless Washington Conservation Voters has consistently hedged its bets and threw its strong name recognition behind establishment candidates, while the Sierra Club, from which both McGinn and O'Brien sprang, was usually willing to take the risk of supporting candidates who backed an actual pro-environmental agenda, and for this it was considered "fringe." At the top of the power pyramid, fed credibility from below, lay the papers: the Seattle Times and the late Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When they were both still in physical existence and were both making endorsements (the online remnant of the P-I no longer does), they bolstered the authority of each other, the Times' suburban-oriented right-wing editorial board tipping city folk to listen to the P-I, the presence of which softened the umbrage with which the Times' views are now received.
What the papers gave to all this was a daily check-in on the conventional wisdom, and most of what made a candidate win was whether the establishment believed as a whole that he or she could or would win. Without the counterbalance of the P-I this time, the Times' pro-Bush, pro-Hutchison editorial page had no credibility with the voting public. Its editorial writer covering city races, the haughty Joni Balter, is the apotheosis of the Seattle false liberal, making ad hominem attacks on individual council members for their riskier efforts (Licata is a favorite target) with a strongly discernible scent of classism. It is refreshing to see the power of Balter—whom I have witnessed use the presence of her children as a human shield from being taken to task in a public forum—diminish to a shrill sound in the wilderness as far as city politics are concerned. The papers came out every single day; now, sources of information have scattered and require heightened attention.
Information moves faster these days, but is polyglot: Judgment comes slow. The surprising development in this age when high schoolers call handwriting "cursive" is that noncentralized information spurs independent thought. And pollsters still don't reach cell phones. As the actress Parker Posey has pointed out, the crucial thing to remember about the internet is it is not real: When it throws a bad vibe, gets dirty or smelly, insults you or shouts too much, you can click it into oblivion and drown the offending opinion in the fulsome flood of its worldwide web. But you cannot close out a recurring mood or a common dream, and this is why the internet has changed the way democracy works—maybe for the rest of human history.
Like Nickels in 2001, McGinn was in Southeast Seattle late in the campaign, speaking to community groups and churches, his words being translated into Vietnamese and Spanish, Lao and Amharic, the languages of Seattle's newest newcomers. The presence of volunteers drawn aboard during these pit stops gave the venue of his very brief acceptance speech, at the campaign's secondary headquarters off Rainier Avenue and Othello Street, a truly international flavor the night the final results came in. One senses that this actual contact and received help, rather than the usual name-check pandering, will bring these communities deeper into the city's social fabric and power structure. McGinn—and this is perhaps why the pundits as well as most casual observers rated his chances of victory so low—has a way of doing three or four things at once when it looks like he's doing nothing at all.
Among the people in the room for McGinn's acceptance speech that night was Aaron Pickus, the 23-year-old media-relations coordinator for the mayor-elect. A recent college grad (double major in linguistics and political science), he fell into the campaign when he found himself with extra time between his part-time shifts at a radiology clinic. He is so far from the ordinary portrait of an inner-circle city staffer— which he will almost certainly become, after landing a job in McGinn's transition team—that it's wonderfully, joyously laughable. (Pickus was once an intern at The Stranger.) When he returned my call on the weekend before the final tally came in, he was polite and humble. He confirmed for me what I believed had a crucial role in this campaign—the presence, early and wide, McGinn established on Facebook and Twitter. I am a Facebook junkie, but I have never explored Twitter. Tweets were effective for announcing volunteer opportunities and keeping people abreast of developments in the race. But Facebook, Pickus says, "took on a life of its own, with people commenting, tossing up ideas. It was a kind of nonscientific, rolling poll, a 24-hour town hall."
The primary, from a distance, appeared to be a fluke when McGinn came out on top. But look a little deeper: Mallahan, after dropping more than two hundred grand of his own money into his coffers, spent $12.03 for every one of his primary votes; McGinn spent $2.03. Which was a good thing, because Mallahan was poised from the start to raise the big money. He ended up laying down three times McGinn's total expenditure, and losing: McGinn's cost per vote in the general election only went up two cents, to $2.05. Cleve Stockmeyer, an attorney and activist I befriended in the monorail fight and a founder of the nascent Transit Riders Union, puts it this way: "Here's the new math: Mallahan had about 400 $700 donors on average"—the maximum legal individual contribution. "McGinn had about 700 volunteers, 300 of them hardcore. You spend about six months with a Colby Underwood [Mallahan's fundraiser, formerly Nickels's fundraiser] on the phone, massaging those checks out of the people who write them. Everybody knows who they are—there are only about 4,000 of those people. Seven hundred dollars buys you about 2,000 pieces of mail. Or you can just go on Facebook and rely on networks that already exist, that will respond or not to your ideas, and reach at least that many people. So one volunteer is worth one maxed-out donor." Except more than that, because Pickus tells me that McGinn had only about 250 active volunteers.
Election night I ended up—briefly—at McGinn's party on the corner of Pike Street and Harvard Avenue at the Cold-War- nostalgia-themed nightclub the War Room. Most of the people there, 200 perhaps, were in their early and mid-20s. I saw Marco Lowe, Nickels's one-time campaign manager and aide—also 23 when he ran Nickels's first mayoral run but the opposite of an Aaron Pickus. Lowe was wandering alone through the McGinn victory party, unrecognized by most. He must have been there as a supporter. If so, good for him. But the look on his face said he saw the destruction of all that a few thousand people—comfortable, well-connected people who had long compromised themselves and fed great swaths of their lives to the machine—had once planned.
Two nights later, I attended an art opening at Lawrimore Project in the International District for the ingenious and extremely civic art collective SuttonBeresCuller. Walking through the crowd—which felt more like a house party, as events at Lawrimore always do—I did an unscientific poll. Everyone I spoke to was for McGinn, some ecstatic with hope for the city's future. Even the less politically engaged were drawn to him: Eric Fredericksen, curator of the Sodo gallery Western Bridge, said he didn't have time to pay very much attention to the campaign, but saw "a man on a bike, and that really said something to me."
My business partner, the film director Daniel Gildark, told me once—about the worst of the monorail opponents—that there are some people who simply thrive on destroying things, on tearing good and careful efforts down. I recall these foaming goons when they would stalk into the Seattle Monorail Project offices to testify at the agency's public hearings, moving with spitting contempt past the models and images of our dream. That energy—a version of it—will serve the fight against the tunnel. But it is a destructive energy, souring all it touches, and even if and when a groundswell rises to carry their critique of the tunnel project into the mayor's mouth and onto the TV and computer screen (Nickels worked this against the monorail—merely repeating its opponents' distortions catapulted them to the front page), it is vital that the mayor's agenda avoids being swept up in a negation. The possibilities now are too great, and to lose them to a huge distraction—well, it would be better to stand apart, let the fools build their tunnel and let them take the blame when it's half-done and the bill come due.
Of course, the question under every progressive campaign from Obama down to McGinn is when and to what degree will those brave challenges be compromised, played game to larger goals or mere tenure. Let's hope that's not what happens. My heartbeat is steady. As the artist Ben Beres said to me the Thursday after the election, when the outcome of the mayor's race was still uncertain (though not Mike O'Brien's victory, or Pete Holmes's, or Dow Constantine's, to say nothing of Tim Eyman's long-due trouncing or Nick Licata's win of a fourth term over his strongest challenger yet): "This is kind of the greatest thing ever for Seattle."
Under McGinn, Seattle might actually become what it has long liked to think of itself as: a grassroots democracy; a city dedicated to environmental stewardship; young, smart, progressive. I would like to think—it would help me to feel better about the course my life has taken—that McGinn's victory is an aftereffect, at least in part, of the years of work Moon, Stockmeyer, Licata, Dick Falkenbury, Peter Sherwin, Pam Johnson, Knoll Lowney, and I put in. Except that, thanks to time, circumstance, technological change, and a new generation to whom the crisis at hand is plain as day, McGinn actually pulled it off. It might be possible that in the next 8—or 12, or 24—years, we could see a network of bike lanes and paths more extensive than any in the world; sidewalks in the North End; covered bus stops and public restrooms; affordable housing; sustainable jobs; less glitzy shit and more places that honor the pedestrian; a waterfront for human beings where we can look out on the finest urban sunset on earth, hearing and smelling the Salish Sea and meeting its denizens; a rail network connecting with fast buses to form a comprehensive and regular system of regional and local public transit; schools that are the envy of the nation (and a courthouse that doesn't send nonviolent offenders into that darkest stain on our national conscience, the privatized American gulag); clean runoff and plentiful, healthy salmon in Lake Washington; pleasant density here and wild country outside the city; street life (music, street food, arcades for shelter from the rain, skateboarders, etc.).
I'm only back in town long enough to pull together a budget for a feature film—a dark romantic comedy I wrote about Ukrainian internet brides slated to shoot this winter in Kiev and the Crimea. McGinn says one of his first orders of business is to get a rail line along the old monorail alignment from Ballard to West Seattle on the ballot and to build it within the decade. I'm not back in the game: Being an artist is more satisfying than politics ever was, win or lose. But I am suddenly optimistic, after so long believing there was no cause for hope here, and happy for my friends who live in a city that might now begin to match their great dreams.
Grant Cogswell ran for Seattle City Council in 2001. GrassRoots, a dramatic feature film based on Phil Campbell's book about that campaign, will be directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and shot in Seattle this spring.