When City Council Member Richard McIver was arrested on suspicion of domestic assault, local media responded by focusing on the details of the alleged crime. According to the account his wife, Marlaina Kiner-McIver, gave to arresting officers that night and to radio stations the following morning, McIver came home just before midnight on Tuesday, October 9, after a night of drinking. The two got in an argument, McIver flew into a rage, and, according to Kiner-McIver's account to police, grabbed her by the throat. "She said that she had to physically push him off of her, and that this happened at least three times," the police report says.
But one aspect of that night that hasn't gotten much attention is the fact that McIver, by his own admission, had been drinking. He even acknowledged to officers that he was "probably drunk." One day later, self-appointed family spokeswoman Dawn Mason announced unequivocally that McIver "will go into rehab" if alcohol was involved. Neither McIver nor his wife returned calls requesting comment; McIver was expected to provide media interviews later this week.
Does Richard McIver have a drinking problem? In doing research for this article, I interviewed nearly 20 current and former council members and legislative aides. The vast majority either volunteered or agreed that McIver has issues with drinking. However, almost everyone I talked to also expressed shock at the domestic-violence charges against the good-humored if occasionally grouchy council budget chair. Some said they wouldn't have been surprised by a DUI charge, but no one would have expected DV, they added. (McIver has never had a DUI or been charged with any other alcohol-related crimes, and no one I talked to for this story said they had seen him get into a car drunk.) One former council staffer who sometimes drank with McIver at the Four Seas, the Chinatown dive bar that has long been his favorite haunt, described him as "totally harmless... kind of a goofball" after a few Johnnie Walker Reds—his drink of choice. "I know some people get more angry and aggressive when they're drunk, but he just got more smiley and goofy. The more he drinks, the more social he gets." Another called him "the perfect gentleman."
City Hall, like the newspaper business, is a welcoming environment for drinkers. More than any other profession besides journalism, politics seems to breed an affinity for alcohol. As one council member puts it, "The image is that the pressures of political life drive people to drink, but maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's a certain kind of personality."
Over the years, some of my best drinking buddies have come from City Hall. County staffers have their own house bar—the Collins Pub on Second Avenue—and city staffers have theirs. Currently, that role is mostly filled by the O'Asian just down the street from City Hall, but Fado on First Avenue, McCormick's Fish House on Fourth, and Bush Garden (where council staffers used to belt out karaoke versions of songs by Stevie Wonder) have also, at various times and for various council offices, served as watering holes for City Hall. Although booze is banned in City Hall itself, after-work drinks remain common, and more than a few council members have been seen over the years whooping it up after hours with work friends, constituents, and reporters.
The frequency of drinking, however, seems to have leveled off in recent years—according to many council staffers, as the council and its staff have gotten older and moved farther and farther away from downtown, more people simply go home after work, leaving the socializing (and boozing) to the young and unattached. Several council members, including Sally Clark and Tom Rasmussen, hardly drink; at least one, David Della, doesn't drink at all. Compared to the old days, City Hall circa 2007 is downright puritanical.
One council staffer says she would "rather die than have a glass of wine with lunch," because someone would inevitably witness it. And drinking around City Hall has never compared to the frequency and intensity of alcohol consumption in Olympia, where, according to some former state staffers, it was not uncommon to see legislators obviously impaired on the house or senate floor—often after a few drinks at Waterstreet, the Mark, or the Elks Club. McIver, as a frequent social drinker, is a holdover from an earlier, boozier era.
The Four Seas, McIver's favorite watering hole, is a dingy, black-painted cavern of a bar in the back of a massive Chinese restaurant. Men sit alone drinking shots and manhattans under a soundtrack of R&B and soul; a sign on the wall reads, "Herradura Blast Off! 20 Dollars." A young waitress named Rachel (who politely declined to comment for this story) flirts good-naturedly with the mostly middle-aged, exclusively male, clientele; a plate of chicken, cooked to a rubbery texture, is hard to distinguish in the gloom.
This is where McIver holds his after-hours office hours. Colleagues and staffers say he would "hold court" here several days a week, taking visitors and shooting the shit with friends until it was time to go home to bed. (McIver is an early riser, frequently arriving at City Hall by 8:00 a.m., long before other council members.) The Four Seas served as both social club and after-hours office. At the Four Seas, the drinks are strong, the food is fried, and the smell of smoke still lingers on every surface—epitomizing McIver's old-school, fuck-what-the-doctors-say persona. McIver, famously around City Hall, leads a lifestyle that even by 1950s standards could not be described as healthy: He eats red meat, smokes like a chimney, and doesn't exercise (even to walk down the single flight of stairs to the smoking area). Attempts by staff to get him to join a gym have been futile.
Whether hard living, particularly drinking, has affected McIver's performance on the job is unclear. Dwight Pelz, who challenged McIver in 2005, tried to make McIver's on-the-job performance an issue in his campaign, noting in a campaign mailer that McIver had missed 13 meetings of the Sound Transit light-rail oversight committee over two years. During his decade on the council, colleagues say, McIver has become notorious for falling asleep at meetings; at one public hearing at which he sat at my table, I recall him snoring audibly. That could be a sign of getting older (McIver is 66), but it could also be an indication that McIver's nighttime drinking has had an impact on his daytime performance; after all, nearly everyone—including me—has had the experience of trying to work after a night of boozing. (There's no indication McIver has ever drunk or been drunk on the job.) Although Pelz made a big deal of the fact of McIver's absences, he has missed only two full council meetings so far this year; in 2006, he missed just four.
McIver's presence has certainly been missed in recent days. Earlier this month, the mayor sent down a proposed $921 million city budget that has just been taken up by the council's budget committee. In McIver's absence, that committee has been chaired by first-termer Jean Godden—a capable but sometimes unfocused committee leader who lacks McIver's iron hand and ability to instantly sniff out bullshit. These days, McIver's office is populated mostly by pink message slips and anxious staff, who rush between office lines and cell phones, fielding calls from reporters about their boss's future. When I visited on October 12, just one day after McIver was released from King County jail, his office looked like it had just been abandoned. A Diet Coke sat half empty on one desk; a hastily written list of items he had requested upon his release—cell phone, reading glasses, wallet, cufflinks, ties—sat on another.
No one but the McIvers will ever know what really went down that Tuesday night. It's up to the courts to decide whether it constituted abuse or just an argument gone horribly wrong. However, one thing is undeniable: When drinking and anger mix, sometimes bad things happen. I'm not trying to excuse what McIver allegedly did or say that being drunk exonerates him—far from it. But situations where drinking and violence intersect are inevitably more complicated than initial media reports suggest, and the weeks to come will almost certainly prove this true. Studies have shown that drinking increases the likelihood of abuse; according to one 2003 survey, the odds of male-to-female violence among those with a predisposition to abuse were 11 times higher on days when the men had been drinking than when they had not.
As for McIver's future political career: It's hard to say. (The city attorney's office isn't commenting on the possibility of censure by the council.) McIver had no plans to run for reelection when his term ends in 2009, although he had hoped to be council president—an ambition that is now almost certainly dashed. What happens next will be largely determined by whether the county presses charges; at press time, a court hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, October 17. Council members say that if charges move forward, McIver's ability to function as a council member will be diminished—especially if he does not issue a strong statement taking responsibility for what happened, including his drinking. It's hard to imagine life going back to normal for Richard McIver after this.
And maybe that's a good thing.