Late Tuesday afternoon, Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess filed paperwork to run for mayor. Political hounds have long considered this inevitable. Burgess’s eight years as a Seattle cop, his reputation as a bellwether on the council, and his generous backing from the downtown business lobby make him a natural challenger to the lefty outsider incumbent, Mayor Mike McGinn.
Add to the mix the city’s collective frustration about ongoing problems with police misconduct during McGinn’s term, and Burgess seems a likely front-runner in the race to command city hall.
But here’s what isn’t as predictable: that Burgess would choose to make his announcement here in The Stranger, a paper that endorsed McGinn in 2009. It’s a paper that often sharply disagrees with Burgess’s establishment base. But if there’s one thing Burgess does well—and there are many things he’s done well since he was first elected in 2007—it’s standing up to his opponents. Giving an advance interview to The Stranger is classic Burgess; it’s his cunning genius to neutralize critics by talking to them. “You guys have been critical, but you’ve endorsed me every time I’ve run for city council,” Burgess explains. “One thing you said in an endorsement a year ago, you said, ‘Gosh, he might actually be a public servant,’ and you cannot have said anything better for me.”
Of course, Burgess also says that giving us this interview “might harm me in the long run.”
Burgess typically travels to appointments alone, but this time, in our Capitol Hill office, his new campaign manager is in tow, hanging on his words, an indication of the micromanagement and entourage that will swirl around him over the next 11 months. Burgess, 63 years old and slightly resembling a bald eagle, is wearing his standard politician’s uniform: button-up shirt, jacket, tie.
Burgess brought to our interview a list of accomplishments on the city council, with some items highlighted in neon yellow. I set that list aside to discuss the issue where he will have the greatest political leverage: cops.
Mayor McGinn’s job-approval rating sank to 33 percent earlier this year, according to a poll of Seattle residents by SurveyUSA, and the ratings were even worse for police chief John Diaz (30 percent) and the Seattle Police Department (27 percent). That police force, under McGinn’s watch, was the subject of a federal probe last year that resulted in a federal lawsuit alleging unconstitutional abuses of force. Whoever is elected mayor next fall must satisfy the terms of a court order to reform the department by 2017. This compromised police department may give Burgess an upper hand with voters. An SPD detective in the late 1960s and later a department spokesman, Burgess is widely seen as uniquely qualified to be the executive who can corral the cops.
“I think that leadership of the department needs to be much stronger,” Burgess says. “It needs to be focused on innovation and change.” He acknowledges that there is still “resistance” to reform inside the SPD. “Natural change agents in the police department need to be identified and put in positions where they can effect change,” he says.
Despite the recent court order, SPD’s ill practices appear to persist under McGinn. A video released Tuesday appears to show officers choking and punching a suspect in the face last month. Charges were dropped against the suspect, but the video of the incident only came out after he sued the police chief for withholding it.
Would Burgess fire Diaz?
“I think the appointment of a police chief is probably the most important appointment that a mayor can make, and if I win election, I will make that assessment, not only of the police chief but of all the department heads,” Burgess says.
It’s going to be a crowded field to challenge McGinn. The names bandied about already include Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, former council member Peter Steinbrueck, business consultant Albert Shen, and state senator Ed Murray.
But Burgess, who worked as an adman and an advocate to end global poverty, is a stunningly effective fundraiser. His last reelection campaign was studded with contributions from executives at companies including the Mariners, Microsoft, Vulcan, and Weyerhaeuser. More than 100 attorneys gave Burgess over $100 (more than 25 gave over $500). “I think I will have labor union support, but I don’t want to be presumptuous,” he says. “I think I will have the business community’s support, and the nonprofit community’s support. But of course, all that remains to be seen.”
Another asset: that list covered with yellow highlighter ink. To name a few accomplishments, Burgess has supported waiving admission taxes on live-music venues; more density in Roosevelt, West Seattle, and Beacon Hill; and funding the mayor’s plan to study more transit. Burgess also takes credit for strengthening the deal for a new Sonics arena, a deal initiated by McGinn, by keeping more revenue flowing back to the city instead of investors’ pockets. Plus, Burgess has the support of many colleagues: “I like Tim,” Council Member Tom Rasmussen told The Stranger earlier this year. “He does his homework… He would make a good mayor.”
While McGinn will also tout the arena deal as a prime accomplishment at city hall, he has a reputation as an irascible bridge burner.
“I think Mayor McGinn’s experiment in governance has been very interesting,” Burgess says. “He chose a leadership style, that, how shall I put it, has alienated a lot of people. And I think that has hampered his effectiveness.”
Working well with others could help Burgess where McGinn has failed. For instance, McGinn applied to extend bar hours past 2 a.m., but he didn’t build coalitions with law enforcement outside Seattle, and, predictably, the state’s liquor board scotched the plans. Burgess may do better. “I was a cautious advocate of easing liquor and nightlife rules,” he says, “but I think that with the right mayor and right safeguards, that can be tried again.”
Being a law-and-order candidate cuts both ways. Burgess has long sought to quell what he calls “street disorder”—everything from unpleasant panhandlers to drug dealers—that could help him win support from neighborhoods including downtown, Pioneer Square, Belltown, and the University District. He talks at length about “evidence-based policing,” which he describes as attempts to “prevent crime from happening in the first place.” Burgess cites his successful experiment with state prison officials to briefly re-jail people who violated terms of their parole. That tactic, which reduced recidivism, is being adopted statewide.
But his desire to swiftly crack down on crime is also Burgess’s Achilles’ heel with social-justice advocates. His bill to ticket aggressive panhandlers blew up in his face in 2010. Evidence grew over the year showing that panhandling problems were already declining and ticketing offenders wouldn’t make it decline any faster.
Burgess, for his part, thinks he was maligned as anti-poor over the course of the bill, which McGinn vetoed. “That was an interesting learning experience for me. One thing I am happy about through that process—even the opponents of that legislation will tell you today that I listened to them, I was fair.”
Tim Harris, the director of Real Change newspaper, clashed with Burgess over the panhandling bill. “I can talk to him, and he often speaks well of me,” Harris says. “After the panhandling thing, he was quick to build bridges, and he is always supportive of Real Change. He’s quite a politician.”
Still, Harris says, “He played the emotions of fear and indignation for all they were worth through the entire campaign. I can’t bring myself to trust him with the welfare of the most vulnerable people in Seattle.”
Nevertheless, Burgess led the council in doubling the Families and Education Levy that helps some of Seattle’s poorest residents. He supported a bill making it harder for incumbents to hoard money and get reelected. He supported a ban on plastic grocery bags. He helped create a registry to opt out of phone-book delivery. And he’s been in the mix to pass other genuinely progressive legislation. All this is to say that Burgess, who I once called the city council’s “most conservative” member, has been very thorough about rounding out his record. It will be hard for other candidates to pigeonhole Burgess as “too conservative,” and even harder to beat him.