Why McGinn Lost
The Empire Struck Back, but the Rebels Also Put Up a Shitty Fight
Only 43 percent of voters had picked Mike McGinn as of election night, officially making the “most progressive mayor in America” a one-term phenomenon. That may be surprising to outsiders. Since McGinn took the reins of city hall in 2009, deep in the pit of the recession, crime has dropped significantly, workers have filled potholes speedily, and downtown has boomed, while the unemployment rate dropped well below the state average.
But locals saw McGinn stumble—and even face-plant on his own key issues.
As of election night, state senator Ed Murray became the mayor-elect with 56 percent of voters, a horde of endorsements, and enough money on his side to outspend McGinn by more than 50 percent.
While Murray used that wide cast of supporters to demonstrate that he could unify Seattle, he hammered on McGinn’s acrimonious style and ineffective leadership.
Four years ago, McGinn had run on the promise to put a light-rail extension on the ballot within two years, stay clear of the controversial deep-bore tunnel, bring bicycling inside the mainstream, and make Seattle more equitable for people of color and the poor. Instead? Light rail never materialized in any election. He unsuccessfully fought the tunnel anyway, to his detriment, while, even more detrimentally, he failed to present a viable transportation alternative. And bicycle lanes, ironically, became a whipping boy for all the city’s traffic frustrations. Worst of all, McGinn stood by haplessly with a lame police chief while Seattle Police Department officers punched, kicked, shot, and killed racial minorities. Once the US Department of Justice forced the city into a court settlement to fix SPD, McGinn’s fate seemed sealed.
McGinn became toxic even to much of his base, which could neither defend his missteps nor cite many concrete accomplishments. Lacking a list of big victories, McGinn and his supporters couldn’t change the conversation from his style back to policy. In the end, this mayor’s race was about style—about whether or not people liked McGinn. And they didn’t like him.
McGinn was the poster boy of a leftist insurgency against the conventional power brokers at city hall. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association, whose memberships serve as a roster of centrist business interests, backed his opponents four years ago. They lost access to city hall.
In nerdy parlance, the empire came to strike back this year. Indeed, Murray’s staff was the same crew who worked for former mayor Greg Nickels, and Murray’s donors, too, looked like an invitation list to a cocktail party of Seattle’s old gentry.
There is zero doubt that the conservative wing of the city council, the Seattle Times, and downtown business lobbies attempted to sabotage McGinn’s term from the outset. For example, council members froze his transit plan (a direct attempt to stop light-rail planning). But McGinn also sabotaged himself. For instance, one of his first acts as mayor was a hastily called press conference in which he hopped off his bicycle and announced a multimillion-dollar ballot measure to fund a seawall replacement. Had he consulted council members? No. Was his estimated cost of the seawall correct? No. Was this how to work with your new colleagues? D’oh.
Fair or not, it is always a mayor’s job to pick the lock of those relationships. Instead, he slammed the door.
McGinn even botched obvious alliances. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who used to sit on the city’s police discipline oversight panel, wasn’t even invited to the mayor’s press conference announcing a sweeping police reform plan. McGinn ignored Holmes’s advice on a new police monitor. Holmes endorsed Murray.
But as much as McGinn lost, Murray won. He brought grassroots enthusiasm as the leader on gay marriage in the state legislature, which gave him a warmth that softened his negative tactics. Murray made regular appeals to wealthy, conservative blocs for votes, and Murray’s campaign and independent PACs collectively spent more than $1 million. One PAC broke the law by hiding donations (they settled with election officials).
Murray used dog whistles to blast light rail and bicycle lane projects by calling them “unproductive wars between the various modes of transportation.” One Murray fundraiser was focused entirely on opposing bicycle lanes on Westlake, and Murray repeatedly claimed bicycle lanes were dangerous.
Even after polls showed Murray leading by 20 points, the kicks kept coming. Murray’s backers ran deeply deceptive smear pieces; one commercial claimed McGinn ignored domestic violence when he actually increased DV funding, and another suggested McGinn was behind “top down” economic philosophy. Murray was relentless about blaming McGinn for a downtown crime “crisis,” when crime is mostly down in downtown. It was the sort of framing that showed the Murray team would play as dirty as necessary to win. Murray never laid out a unique vision for the city, but with McGinn fumbling, he never had to. And he may have fought hard enough in this campaign that he’s already scared off any serious challengers in the future.