Meet Your New Mayor
Richard Conlin, the city council president, is now the most powerful politician in Seattle. What's he going to do about it?
If ever Seattle needed a strong leader, it's now. The great recession, the crumbling viaduct, the toxic Duwamish River, the leaky 520 floating bridge, density and its discontents—all of these challenges cry out for a steady hand on the civic tiller.
Fortunately, we now have such a hand: a veteran of grinding bureaucratic battles, a visionary, a man who can make law and attend a Sound Transit board meeting and threaten certain growth- management goons, all before lunch. People of Seattle, meet your new mayor.
Meet Richard Conlin.
Yes, very true, we're in the midst of electing a new guy (too close to call, but McGinn's in the lead) who will actually hold the title of mayor. Sure, McGinn and Mallahan have potential. But at the moment, that's all they've got; they've never run anything like a large port city full of complicated problems before. So while whoever it is tries to figure out where the mayoral scepter is, Conlin's actually got all the power.
Elected to the city council in 1997, Conlin honed his skills in combat with the adversarial mayoral administration of Greg Nickels over the last eight years and has developed a particularly tough posture as a result. At the end of 2007, his fellow city council members, recognizing this quality in him, elected Conlin council president. This December, they're expected to do so again, making Conlin one of only a few Seattle council members in history who have served multiple consecutive terms. (The last was Paul Kraabel, some 20 years ago.)
"The fact that Richard is being reelected, which is very likely, is testament to his leadership," said city council member Tim Burgess. With an untested and relatively inexperienced new mayor, Burgess continued, "the council's role will be more noticeable and more dominant." In other words: While the new guy tries on his new raiment, the nine-member council, led by Conlin, will be pursuing an agenda that will shape the city's bridges, waterfront, and transit network for years to come.
True, Conlin's not exactly a head-knocker in the mold of Robert Moses (the fabled development-financing tycoon who reshaped New York City after the Great Depression). In fact, he's kind of a hippie—inordinately proud, for example, of having written an ordinance to legalize pygmy goats within city limits. (Hey, they're a good source of milk, he points out, and a truly local food source if there ever was one.) He's kayaked down the toxic Duwamish River and describes the experience as "fun." He's walked through the bowels of the 46-year-old 520 floating bridge. ("Yeah, it is going to sink," he said. "I have been in the pontoons and seen the water leaking in.") But his goofiness belies his efficacy in pushing city-shaping policy, and it can distract from the fundamental fact: He's running the show at City Hall.
The year he took the council presidency, Conlin reversed the building's politics, asserting himself as the top dog by proposing a $146 million parks levy—over then-mayor Nickels's objections—that would raise property taxes to pay for 40 projects, including parks construction and improvements. It was a reminder of the council's ability to go over the mayor's head, and it passed with 59 percent of the vote.
"The council was not intimidated by the mayor in the parks levy," said city council member Tom Rasmussen. He added that Conlin "butted heads with the mayor quite successfully."
Conlin himself put it this way: "The mayor administers, but he can't do anything with legislative authority. That is where the council is strong. The mayor has the power to propose things. The council has the power to assert."
And with the council behind him and the new mayor just moving in, Conlin is poised to do a lot of asserting in 2010.
So what will the Conlin administration do?
Here's what he's planning:
• Building Light Rail to West Seattle and a Streetcar to Ballard
"I would like to see us extend the South Lake Union Streetcar over to Fremont and over to Ballard," Conlin said. He envisions using the same sort of traffic-signal preemption light rail uses on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South to allow a streetcar to move quickly through traffic. But that's only a stopgap until we can afford to build a Ballard-bound light-rail line, he said. In the meantime, Conlin thinks the city can build a light-rail line to West Seattle within a few years. "I think that that one is relatively easy from a logistic standpoint," he said. "We have to come up with the money, but I don't think it's terribly expensive." A member of the finance committee of Sound Transit, Conlin thinks the voters would approve "a financing plan that makes sense" to pay for the project. He proposes a small utility hike, buy-in from businesses closest to the line, and other tax increases.
• Rebuilding the 520 Bridge
The concrete slab that crosses Lake Washington between Seattle and Medina is literally a death trap. "I have been a voice crying in the wilderness on this for years," said Conlin. It carries 115,000 vehicles daily, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, which says that it is "vulnerable to windstorms and earthquakes and [is] at risk of collapse" and "could cause serious injury or loss of life." But the project has taken a backseat to the viaduct replacement. "We want a project that is going to promote transit connectivity and that is going to work for neighborhoods, and that is going to take some money," Conlin said. "If we do it on the cheap, we will regret it for 50 years, just as we are regretting current configuration." The current bridge—which has interchanges shoehorned into the Montlake neighborhood—hosts daily traffic jams, doesn't serve transit riders, and snarls neighborhood traffic. "It's worth it to spend that money," he said.
• Digging the Deep-Bore Tunnel
Despite an election cycle dominated by tunnel debate, "I think it is going to be a relatively quiet year [on the tunnel]," Conlin said. The state will now be busy developing designs for the deep-bore project, and as that goes on, all the talk about fixing the waterfront mess will fade. While some see this as the year for a fight in the legislature over who's on the hook for potential tunnel-cost overruns, Conlin has moved on. He describes a state law that puts Seattle on the hook for overruns as "an unenforceable provision that's so vague as to be meaningless," and he believes 2010 is not the moment to go to the mat in Olympia in order to make that crystal clear; there will be plenty of time before the project starts. He joined his council colleagues in voting to support the tunnel's eventual construction. In Conlin's world, the tunnel is happening, Seattle's not on the hook for overruns, and that's that. Next.
• Working Better with the Legislature
Essential to many of Conlin's plans—like, oh, building the tunnel and rebuilding the state-run 520 bridge—is support from the state legislature. Nickels had a famously poor relationship with Olympia. He used "a divide and conquer strategy" with the Seattle legislative delegation, Conlin explained, much like he had with the city council (before Conlin turned the tables). "Find the people who support you, and don't pay attention to the ones who don't" is how Conlin characterizes the Nickels approach to the legislators. But Conlin thinks that divisive strategy is a disaster cookbook, particularly when legislators from around the state are competing for the same revenue Seattle needs to advance its economic recovery. Conlin's approach for the legislative session, beginning in January, is more innovative. "The council members will have a buddy system, that we each build a relationship with two or three legislators who we have ties to. And then we try to make it a two-way street—when they need things from us. So we are not always saying, 'We want this, we want this, we want this.' But also, 'How can we help you?'"
• Cleaning Up the Duwamish River
"We are going to stop making this our Kalakala," said Conlin, referring to the dilapidated, decommissioned ferry that's been dragged from port to port—always with the goal of being restored to its art-deco beauty—but remains a rusty wreck. The Duwamish River, which connects the Green River to the industrial southern gulf of Elliott Bay, is host to a huge collection of poisons, including mercury, petroleum, an alphabet of chemical compounds, and feces. But Conlin—who has proudly kayaked this literal river of shit—thinks Seattle can "make it into more of the center, something we treasure as a part of our city." He believes the city can get federal approval to clean the river, declare it a Superfund site, and fund the project with assistance from Boeing, King County, and the Port of Seattle.
• Pushing Economic Recovery and an Environmental Agenda Simultaneously
Conlin sees the city pulling itself out of the gutter by embracing the most progressive elements of his environmental agenda. For example, a company called General Biodiesel—which uses primarily waste fats like cooking grease and tallow—was having a hard time getting permits, Conlin said, and by removing red tape Seattle was able to help that company (and, hopefully, laid down a marker that will help attract other green-job companies). "We should be targeting companies like that and asking, 'What can we do to help you?'" he said. Conlin also envisions Seattle becoming a hub for small businesses that develop electrical hardware and write the software for wind- and solar-power companies. And in line with his backyard-local agenda (goat milk, y'all?), he will continue working with neighborhood organizations to push a local-food initiative. "It's not the exclusion of trade but saying, 'Go out and support your neighborhood businesses because those are the ones that will be helpful in bringing in jobs now.'"
Looking at the big picture, Conlin knows he now has an even larger leadership opportunity than he had under Nickels. "Any mayor is going to come in with a steep learning curve," he said. Already on the new mayor's plate: appointing the next police chief, picking new department heads, scrapping with suburbs to restore bus service in the city, and, coming up in a few short months, outlining the 2011 budget.
"If the mayor is learning where the bathrooms are and how the phone works, naturally the council's influence will be ascending," said Burgess.
The council has already set the stage for a positive working relationship with the mayor. On November 2, the council's budget committee approved a $175,000 grant to assist the new mayor's transition staff and offices. Is that intended to grease the wheels for the relationship between the council and new mayor? "That would be my intention," said city council member Jean Godden, chair of the council's budget committee.
In the past, Conlin has been known for—and criticized for—tolerating the geologic pace of Seattle politics: meetings, hearings, design proposals, more meetings, more hearings, etc. But Conlin seems to have mastered winning the protracted confrontation. "You sit down and you reason together," he explained. "You build your coalition. You operate from an assertive position and try to figure it out." Meaning: When you know you're right, you stay patient and steadily grind down the opposition. For instance, when Nickels proposed a third transfer station for trash in 2007, Conlin refused. He favored reducing waste and encouraging composting instead. "They kept trying to go around me, but when they couldn't get five votes, they capitulated," he recalled.
When that doesn't work, there are other ways of doing things.
"If the council feels strongly enough and the mayor feels strongly enough, we go back to the parks-levy scenario," he said. Meaning: The council can always force its agenda after an attempt at cooperation has failed.
The mayor, Conlin reminded, "can't change anything without the council actually making it possible."
This story has been updated since its original publication.