Mayor Mike McGinn was carrying his bicycle helmet when he arrived at our office last week. That image may seem like a caricature of the man who campaigned with the slogan "Mike Bikes," or something out of a Portlandia sketch, but he proudly confirmed with a nod, "I did bike here." He'd ridden from City Hall to discuss his reelection campaign, which he will formally announce this week. As McGinn sees it, he'll ride a raft of successes from his first three years in office—funding transit, helping at-risk students, striking a deal for the Sonics arena, and laying the groundwork for high-speed citywide broadband among them—to victory this November.
But as mayor, McGinn's two-wheeled transport and raw style have often upstaged those substantive accomplishments. His supposed "war on cars" is a favorite theme of the Seattle Times editorial page, which hilariously declared that, thanks to McGinn, "cars are being shoved aside" for a "Motor-Less City." That's ludicrous, of course, but it's typical of the attacks launched from the sore-losing business lobbies and opinion writers who opposed him when he ran in 2009. Still, those criticisms and some of the mayor's ham-fisted antics have contributed to his reputation as a vulnerable political target: His approval rating last year dropped to 33 percent, according to a poll of Seattle residents by SurveyUSA.
Setting down his helmet on our conference table, the 53-year-old mayor began eating two free-range hard-boiled eggs.
Seeing as how cycling has become a wedge issue, I started, is carrying around that helmet a liability for his campaign? He said that most voters don't care how he commutes. "I bike to work most days and ride home when I can."
"I am also in better shape now," he added, popping another egg.
If this makes McGinn sound too folksy to be a typical politician, well, that suits him just fine.
"According to the conventional wisdom, former mayor Greg Nickels couldn't be beat in 2009, because he had all of the endorsements, the institutional support, and the fundraising," said McGinn, who entered the race as a Greenwood neighborhood activist with the lone endorsement of the local Sierra Club and relatively little power to raise money. "The questions they asked about me in 2009 are the same questions they ask about me today."
McGinn won that race despite being outgunned—which he has a knack for doing. In 2008, McGinn ran a campaign to pass a $146 million parks levy, even though Nickels opposed it. In 2007, McGinn resisted the conventional wisdom by defeating a ballot measure that would have made light rail contingent on also building billions of dollars in new roads (which political insiders said was necessary for light rail's success), and instead bet that voters would approve light rail without new highways, and he was proven right the following year. All of this is to say that being dismissed as a marginal outsider—one who lacks connections, money, and political finesse—and defying political power brokers have defined McGinn's electoral career.
A very successful electoral career.
"Mike McGinn is an intelligent, perceptive political player who should not be underestimated," says Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the ML King County Labor Council, the region's largest consortium of workers, which clashed with McGinn over his opposition to the deep-bore tunnel shortly after he was elected. "That said, the lingering perceptions of the first year or so of this term continue to present challenges in terms of his perceived effectiveness."
But McGinn, an attorney who speaks with a Long Island lilt, doesn't mind the chattering class writing off his chances for reelection this fall. After three years in office that include missteps with the police and caustic relations with other lawmakers, he hopes to ride a groundswell of support from his traditional base of social-justice advocates and cyclists, not to mention sports fans who treasure a recently secured Sonics arena deal, environmentalists hitched to his funding of transit, and scores of regular voters who have attended his 108 town halls since taking office.
And if a handful of yappers at the Seattle Times and wealthy lobbyists bray about him biking to work? Who cares, he shrugs. Those aren't the people who make or break elections—after all, they were wrong last time.
For McGinn to win this time, he must deflect the inevitable character attacks and shift the conversation to his record, essentially challenging his opponents to explain what they would do differently. For example, take one of the politicians lining up to challenge McGinn, Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess. Burgess used a typical refrain when he said McGinn "chose a leadership style that... has alienated a lot of people." State senator Ed Murray and former council member Peter Steinbrueck, other leading contenders in the race, have leveraged similar attacks. The tenor of the campaign is likely to dwell on McGinn as irascible (he once said, "I don't believe we can trust the governor") and treat the city council as if they've been the only adults in the room.
But McGinn noted that plenty of previous mayors aggravated the council and Olympia, and all of those burned bridges can be repaired. "If you want to have a real conversation with us instead of a political one, a posturing one, our door is open. It doesn't matter what your history is with us," he said. "There's a lot of stuff we've done that has not been on the media radar but has come out of sitting down and talking and working with people, and we have made a lot of new friends."
For a few examples of his accomplishments: McGinn led the charge to double the size of the Families and Education Levy that helps at-risk students, which is the sort of accomplishment that resonates with parents. He has laid down dark fiber in several neighborhoods for a citywide broadband network, the sort of infrastructure that supports tech firms. And he's overcome the city council's persistent opposition to new transit (it twice voted to freeze the money for transit planning). Nonetheless, McGinn's latest budget found money for studying a rail line from downtown to Ballard—which means that if Seattle approves light rail in 2016, it will be nearly shovel-ready instead of years away.
And contrary to the perception of the council being the only adults in the room, it's McGinn who set much of the council's agenda the past year (arena, budget, South Lake Union zoning). Plus, as mayor, he's satisfied plenty of other constituencies: labor that McGinn backed in a recent garbage strike, Sonics fans who look like they'll get their team back, Southeast Seattle residents who got a new Rainier Beach community center, and that list goes on. McGinn's leadership style—call it what you will—isn't without victories. And with six candidates thus far, McGinn may need only one-fifth of the vote to get through the primary.
"Sure, he's angered some powerful corporations that would prefer a more roads-only approach, and some in the media have attempted to make his balanced approach to transportation unnecessarily controversial," said Craig Benjamin, policy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, which endorsed McGinn when he first ran for office. But, he points out, "If no one's getting upset, you're not getting anything done."
It's important to distinguish McGinn's actual failings from the smears against him. And he admitted he has made some mistakes. Coming into office with a pledge to eliminate 200 consultant positions, thereby triggering a revolt among city staff, was "not a thoughtful approach," he conceded.
However, his greatest stumble was handling the Seattle Police Department, which was the subject of a federal lawsuit last year to eliminate a pattern of excessive force and concerning trends of racial bias. Even though The Stranger endorsed McGinn in 2009—enthusiastically—we've criticized his lethargy in implementing meaningful police reform and have said that he blew it by appointing John Diaz as police chief.
"I am holding my police chief accountable not just to achieve reform but to achieve it at the pace and depth that the public expects," the mayor explained. "If we're not making progress, I won't hesitate to choose leadership that does get progress." McGinn personally hammered out some of the deal with the US Department of Justice, and he deserves credit for reducing the cost of that settlement by beating back some onerous proposals from the DOJ.
As for the deep-bore tunnel, which he unsuccessfully fought despite indicating he would leave it alone when he first campaigned, voters ultimately approved it. "That may have hurt me politically," he said, but "the public is who I work for, and they said yes."
Meanwhile, he's fallen short of other expectations, like leaving the Bicycle Master Plan underfunded and failing his campaign promise to put light rail on the ballot by 2011. But for Ben Schiendelman, who runs the advocacy group Seattle Subway, there's no one else speaking to those transportation interests better than the current mayor. "Basically, he's been effective in quiet ways, and he's getting more effective as time goes on," Schiendelman explained. "I think if we want more sidewalks, more bicycle lanes, and more Sound Transit in 2016, rather than 2020 or later, he's the best person to keep us on track."