You could argue that Peter Steinbrueck, who filed paperwork this week to run for mayor, has defined the city's vision over the last five years more than anyone else. During his tenure on the Seattle City Council, he wrote the preamble to the city charter—essentially the city's mission statement—after discovering "there was no preamble, there was no vision statement for the City of Seattle," he says.
"Can you believe that?"
"So I crafted a single paragraph," Steinbrueck continues, and he put that text on the ballot in 2007. "It was a small thing, but there's a principle there. The city should have a vision, and the leadership should have a mission that is longer serving than the here and now, the day to day, and the latest building boom. Former mayor Greg Nickels rebelled against it. He said it was silly. But I got support and got the damn thing passed."
Now the city's first directive, among other populist goals, is to act in the "general welfare of the people."
Five years later—after leaving a council seat he'd held for a decade to go back to his roots in architecture, urban planning, and consulting—Steinbrueck is ready to return to city hall, this time as mayor, because, he says, "I don't feel the city has strong leadership right now." If you want an example of the current mayor being "reactionary," Steinbrueck says, look at the police department, which is undergoing serious reforms only after the US Department of Justice demanded a federal court settlement to correct patterns of excessive force. To take charge, Steinbrueck says the police chief should be "put up for confirmation" periodically by the mayor and the council.
Steinbrueck also envisions preserving industrial lands for industrial uses, moving the proposed Sonics arena out of Sodo and into Rainier Valley or to the Eastside, developing dedicated rights-of-way for buses, and returning more decisions about density and construction rules to neighborhood groups.
"He's a unique candidate who has supported and defended the maritime and industrial businesses," says one of his early boosters, Vince O'Halloran, local branch agent for the Sailors' Union of the Pacific and prominent figure among Seattle's labor bloc. "The maritime industry has the same impact in Washington as the airplane industry, but we are never recognized. This is a maritime city: We've got the Sounders, the Seahawks, the Mariners—good grief. Seattle has so much to lose in our industrial base, and it should be protected far more aggressively, and Peter seems to be taking that position."
Steinbrueck's platform may appeal to a broad coalition that is increasingly disaffected by recent decisions in city hall (such as siting an arena in Sodo and allowing larger buildings to develop throughout Seattle). By uniting these industrial and neighborhood groups, he could carve out a coalition that hands him both money and foot soldiers in the mayor's race.
But Steinbrueck, who once represented the council's more progressive wing, is quick to point out that he isn't an anti-density freak. He sponsored legislation for one of the greatest height increases in downtown when he was on the council, while also using his leverage to extract more affordable housing from the deal (despite resistance from developers). And as for 65-foot-tall buildings—the type that some neighborhood groups have resisted? "I like 65-foot buildings," he says. "I live in one."
After five years out of office—and the public spotlight—Steinbrueck enters a heavyweight tournament of active politicians. His competitors include Mayor Mike McGinn, Council Member Tim Burgess, and a political giant at the height of his career, state senator Ed Murray, who celebrated the state's first same-sex weddings this month after a seven-year legislative battle for marriage equality. Others have also tossed their hat in the ring, including neighborhood activist Kate Martin and real-estate broker Charlie Staadecker.
But Steinbrueck sees an opening.
After all, the top-two primary election in August will be sliced into slivers, potentially allowing a candidate with less than a quarter of the vote to advance to the November ballot. He will rely in part on name recognition that approaches the closest thing Seattle has to a dynasty: He's the son of Victor Steinbrueck, a hallowed civic figure who led the fight to save the Pike Place Market and preserve Pioneer Square. "I'm fairly well known in Seattle, and I don't have to spend money making a name for myself," Steinbrueck acknowledges. "Can I win? I think so. I have friends and supporters everywhere that go well beyond what's been going on the last few years at city hall."
Also in his favor: This election is widely seen as a referendum on Mayor McGinn, who had never been elected to office before 2009. Many people attribute McGinn's callow-to-bungling management of the police department and his having testy relationships with other lawmakers as his greatest weaknesses; in response, this race is evolving into a test of who has the experience and temperament to run city hall. Steinbrueck's decade on the council, which includes two years as the council's president, gives him more city hall experience than anyone else running for mayor. And as voters seek a steady hand on the city's tiller, Steinbrueck can essentially run as the most seasoned and accomplished candidate on the ballot.
Of course, there are hurdles. His strongest track record—appealing to neighborhood and industrial interests—could trigger his strongest opposition. For instance, Steinbrueck advanced a bill in 2006 that prevented 5,100 acres of industrial land from being converted into office and retail spaces, essentially blocking Sodo from becoming a mixed-use commercial area. And he was among the most prominent critics of the basketball arena, saying, "I am not at all accepting of the Sodo site at this time."
"He wants to make it 1976 forever," says Brian Robinson, leader of the group Save Our Sonics. "Peter Steinbrueck is an obstructionist candidate who hopes to use theatrics, fear of change, and an anti-development platform to get through a crowded mayoral primary. Sonics fans in the region will never allow him to be mayor of this city."
Another hurdle for Steinbrueck is being branded with the "L" word—not a lesbian, but a lobbyist. He contends that his lobbying positions are consistent with his personal convictions. "I do some lobbying, but it's a tiny part of what I do," he explains. Steinbrueck has done work recently on behalf of the Port of Seattle to oppose the arena in Sodo.
In addition, Steinbrueck has recently taken work with the Washington State Department of Transportation (as a historic architect for settlement issues along the deep-bore tunnel alignment), the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority (for waterfront design), a University District group (advocating that the future light rail station have a park atop of it instead of a building), and Virginia Mason Medical Center (helping with its land-use planning). And finally, he's working on behalf of the South Lake Union Community Coalition, which is lobbying the city to restrict a proposal for 400-foot towers in South Lake Union.
Which presents another challenge for Steinbrueck: raising money. Because, just to state the obvious here, employees at companies like Amazon, Clise Properties, the University of Washington, Vulcan, and other major stakeholders in South Lake Union are historically vital to funding campaigns. Already, mayoral candidates have begun hauling in significant sums: Murray has locked up $123,000, McGinn reported roughly $95,000 at the end of November, Staadecker had reported $58,000, and Burgess had reported $26,000. Steinbrueck will need to catch up.
But then, money isn't everything.
McGinn won in 2009 with little cash and a strong ground game. And Steinbrueck's vow to once again give neighborhood groups a larger role in crafting zoning regulations could be a rallying cry, says Seattle Neighborhood Coalition organizer Bill Bradburd. Those sort of activists—and there are hundreds of them in this city—could mobilize for Steinbrueck in a way that gives him an uncanny advantage in winning votes. "The neighborhood voice in Seattle has been marginalized over the last decade," Bradburd says. "It's pretty clear that Peter aims to correct that."