Here's a bit of contrarian punditry for you: The biggest winner in last week's pro-tunnel victory was our anti-tunnel mayor, Mike McGinn.
"Whaaaaa...?" you might be asking yourself. "Is Goldy drunk?"
Well, maybe. But I expected the tunnel referendum to pass by a double-digit margin, I don't view it as a profoundly anti-McGinn vote, and I'm convinced that the referendum's passage was the best thing that could happen for McGinn's 2013 reelection prospects. And judging from his terse yet graceful response to last week's results, I'm guessing the politically savviest of the mayor's people agree with me.
My premise is simple: Politically, the tunnel was a godfuckingawful issue for McGinn that was destroying his relationship with the city council, distracting him from the rest of his agenda, and drawing public attention away from his accomplishments. Had it dragged on any further, it would have surely ended his political career. The tunnel is poison, and it always has been.
(For what it's worth, I don't even think the tunnel worked for McGinn in 2009. Rather than being the key to winning the general election that year, McGinn's campaign victory largely hinged on former mayor Greg Nickels's failure to shovel our driveways and challenger Joe Mallahan coming off as a disengaged, clueless, and entitled prick.)
Had the referendum failed and the tunnel remained an issue, it would have continued to bury McGinn with it, defining the 2013 campaign (his many opponents will still attempt to define it this way, but with less success) and caricaturing the mayor as an obstructionist, single-issue loser. But with the question finally settled, it can only produce political brownie points for McGinn from here on out. Either construction goes smoothly, and McGinn, when asked, can calmly explain, "I worked to give the public a direct vote on the tunnel," or things fuck up and McGinn gets to spit I-told-you-sos at his critics. And either is a much better place for the mayor to be than perpetually on the losing side of a political battle he could never win.
McGinn promised to fight the tunnel. He did that. He lost. There's no disgrace in that. And his anti-tunnel base certainly can't blame him for lack of effort. As for the pro-tunnel camp, if the downtown establishment types think that the average voter holds the same sort of resentment toward McGinn as they do, they've got another thing coming. This was not a referendum on the mayor. Hell, I don't even think this was a referendum on the tunnel, per se. More than a decade after the Nisqually quake marked the viaduct for demolition, this was a referendum on doing something—anything—and getting this whole ordeal over and done with.
This is not to say that Mayor McGinn will have an easy road to 2013. He won't. The smart money is still on McGinn being a one-termer. But the mayor and his advisers now have an opportunity to use last week's electoral defeat as a pivot toward reelection, a chance to stop talking about what the mayor opposes and start talking about what he supports. For example: transit. McGinn's opposition to the tunnel was always rooted in his preference to spend the money on transit, a policy objective that's always popular with Seattle voters.
But that part of the conversation simply got lost within the noise of the larger debate.
So let the mayor's opponents misread pro-tunnel/anti-McGinn sentiment into last week's vote; it will only throw them off message. Meanwhile, McGinn has two years to redefine himself as a fiscally responsible, administratively competent, visionary mayor who shares Seattle's values on the broadest number of issues and is intent on moving all of Seattle forward, rather than just a single, multibillion-dollar, special-interest-backed tunnel.