The morning of November 4, with a narrow 910-vote lead in the race and more than 100,000 ballots outstanding, Mike McGinn had breakfast with campaign volunteers in the back room at Cafe Presse on Capitol Hill. Then he went downtown to the Mercury Group on Second Avenue, the political consulting firm that worked on his campaign. We talked in a big, windowless conference room that looked not unlike an abandoned war zone. McGinn, serene and tired and dimly beaming, erased debate-prep notes from the white board walls (I had to agree to them being off the record), and sat down at one end of the conference table. After we talked, he ate a sandwich standing up in the Mercury Group's kitchen along with some of the firm's staff, and then spent the afternoon with his family.
This is an unabridged transcript of our conversation.
How tired are you today?
I'm pretty tired. I'm pretty tired. We got to bed late last night, around 12:30 or so, and I'm just in the habit of waking up every morning at 6:30.
You got up at 6:30 today?
Last night after the initial batch of results was posted, you came out and thanked supporters, and then your field manager Derek Farmer got up and pointed out how close things still were, and asked everyone at the party to go outside and make cell phone calls to supporters to tell them they could still get their ballots in, and you had volunteers at five ballot-drop stations across the city until 11 pm. Farmer told me this morning you got 203 more ballots last night—after those results. Something tells me that if the other guy had the lead that you had last night, he probably wouldn't have asked everyone in the room to step outside and start making calls. What is it about you guys that leads you to think so differently about campaigns than anyone else?
You know, we had a few people that understood organizing and campaigning and volunteer recruitment at the start of the campaign. They were folks who worked in the Sierra Club or elsewhere. I've got to tell you, that team—it wasn't so much that Derek Farmer stood up and said it, it was the fact that people picked up phones, started making phone calls, went to those locations, picked up ballots. Um, I can't really answer the question. The dedication and ability of the team—many of them weren't organizers before, but they turned into incredible organizers, incredible campaigners. If it's anything, I think it's because they saw in this race a real opportunity to change the nature of the political debate in Seattle. They saw the opportunity not just to change the debate, but for real change, too. I'm a little bit different from your usual politician—because of the background, because of the things I've worked on. And they saw in me an opportunity that the city could begin to work on things they believed in. They also saw that they had the capacity to create change. They saw it every day on the campaign. I think that's what drove them. They understood that the campaign was about the future of Seattle. That it was personal for them. They went out and did it. I'm blown away by the sense of mission and passion that this team has had.
Some people have the wrong impression that your campaign was just a big get-out-the-vote effort. In fact, the campaign was not about getting out the vote. It was about persuading voters to vote for you through actual conversations. What did you learn in the course of that long, ongoing conversation with the city?
Probably the most meaningful conversations I had were in the town halls we held. We held 25 town halls. And it was in meeting with various groups interested in the outcomes. And, you know, there's something that goes on in an election, and I'm really astounded by the power of democracy. It's not just about the vetting of the candidate, this process. It's not just about, you know, Do we like him? and What positions does he or she take on the issues? The campaign is also—since you have to go out and talk to voters one-on-one, because that's how elections are decided, who has the most votes, not who has the biggest pile of money, who has the most votes—so you have to go out and talk to voters, like we did, in order to win. That means that we, as a group, myself as a candidate, I had to grow and change too. I had to listen. And I had to try to understand as best I can what was really important to Seattle voters. It's one of the reasons I've been saying that running for office has just been one of the best things I've ever done—with the exception of marrying my wife, probably the best thing I've ever done. Because I had to grow as an individual if I was going to ever have a chance to meet people's expectations. And I had to listen and I had to learn and I had to really understand the depth of concern there is out there about jobs, about safety, about education, about kids growing up in a healthy place. And for me it just kind of increased my resolve that, if I'm elected, we're going to have to do a really great job, and we're going to have to make these things priorities. Not just in words but in actions. It's increased my resolve around those issues.
If you had said something different on October 19, after the council voted unanimously on the intergovernmental agreement committing Seattle to the tunnel plan—if, for instance, you'd said you were going to still do whatever you could to stop it—do you think you would have made it out ahead last night, on top?
Such a great question. It's a very tough question to answer. It was really important—we were talking about listening. And that was one of the things I heard. People were really concerned: "Mike, we get it that you're against the tunnel, but"—and I'd even hear this from people who were also against the tunnel—but they'd say, "If you don't prevail, are you going to tie this city up in knots?" They weren't really asking about my position on the tunnel. They were asking me about how I would behave as a mayor under adverse circumstances. So when it was a 9-0 vote from the council—and by the way what I said to them in forums, when they asked me, was the same thing I said to the press that day, which was: "I understand there's a 9-0 vote here, and I don't get to pick and choose which 9-0 votes I follow. There are still open issues. One of the really significant ones is cost overruns. And I'm going to fight hard on that. And I still hate that tunnel." So what that statement that day was about wasn't about my position on the tunnel, because my position on the tunnel didn't change. What that statement that day was about was how do I as a leader respond to the political situation I'm in. And I think on balance the voters appreciated just hearing an honest statement from an elected official about, well, here's what I think given this is the situation. But I really can't tell you whether it hurt or helped me.
Are you sticking with your promise to get a ballot measure to get light rail to Ballard and West Seattle in front of voters within two years?
The power establishment in the city coalesced around Mallahan during the race. If your lead holds, those interests are going to be jockeying to curry your favor. Any signs that that's already begun to happen?
[Laughs.] You know, I've worked as an advocate and supported a lot of campaigns. And I've backed people that won and I've backed people that lost. And it's always important that everyone recognize there's the heat of the campaign, and there's a fight, but that ultimately there are problems to be solved and we have to work together. That was the position I took as an advocate and if I'm elected that's the same position I'll take now. The folks that were opposing me and coalescing around Joe, as you mentioned—they have legitimate concerns, they have things they want to accomplish in the city, and of course I'm going to work with everybody. And of course they're going to come to me with their concerns and ask for my support and ask for help. And they get their concerns evaluated the same as everyone else. Because ultimately what will be the measure of leadership is the ability to solve problems, and that requires a lot of people being engaged, whether they were on my side on the campaign or not.
You built a team for this campaign.
Tell me about the team you plan to build for your administration should you win. You would take office in less than two months.
Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the things we did at the close of the primary, before the general, we pulled together people who had been involved in the campaign or were getting engaged in the campaign after joining late in the primary, and we had a planning session. And one of the most important things we did in that planning session was, right upfront, establish norms of behavior. And the norms had to do with lot of things you'd expect—about teamwork, about helping other people that needed help, about focus on outcomes, about being really good representatives to the public from the campaign at all times. And those norms were occasionally brought out or we were reminded of them in the course of the campaign... Obviously, running a government is different from running a campaign, so if elected we're going to have to build a transition team, we're going to have to build a mayor's team in the future, if the votes continue to go our way. Some of those members of the campaign team of course are going to be involved in helping us move forward: they know me, they're effective, they're good people. But we're going to have to bring in new people. We're going to have to bring in people with lots of different experiences—experiences of city government. But one thing we can't change is a culture of how we do work, and how we support each other, and how we remain true to principles of being open and listening to people at all times. Sorry for the longwinded answer, but those are the things I'm thinking about right now.
Let me ask it again in a slightly more drilled-down way. You have a core of volunteers who worked more than 40 hours a week, for more than six months, for no money, in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. Will they have jobs in your administration?
Absolutely some of them will have jobs. They demonstrated their capacity to communicate well with the public, to get things done, to work hard. And they know how to work with me and with each other. So absolutely, if elected, people who worked on the campaign will be involved in helping with the transition and helping with governance. Because it would be foolish to lose those qualities and to lose that sense of teamwork. But you have to bring in new folks with new skills, new backgrounds, new experiences as well, because there's a set of characteristics we're going to need in the mayor's office and we won't necessarily have all those types of skills among people who worked on the campaign.
It's widely believed that Tina Podlodowski would be Mallahan's deputy mayor were he to pull ahead. Who would be yours?
That's premature. We're not there yet.
How did your kids react to last night's news?
You know, my kids—they're just great. They were excited for me, really supportive of me, and they were really happy at the win. There were lots of hugs all around. There were lots more hugs this morning—everybody came up and hugged me this morning when we woke up, because they'd had to go home for bedtime. I'd stayed up past their bedtimes. But they're just really great kids, and they've made sacrifices, too. They didn't see their dad very much [during the course of the campaign]. But I hope I can make that up a little bit the next few days. But I think they were excited too because they like seeing their dad try to do something hard.
Assuming you're still ahead after today, what are you going to do with your family to celebrate?
Just spending time together usually works for us. There's nothing special. Just being in the same place together. You wouldn't believe it, but I'm raising a bunch of competitive little kids, so playing cards or playing a board game or just hanging out usually goes fine.
Where will you be today when the new batch of results comes out?
I'm not sure where I'm going to be. I'm not going to be at campaign HQ. I'll be with my family somewhere.