by Erica C. Barnett
(This interview originally appeared on The C is for Crank and has been republished with permission)
Last week, former mayor Mike McGinn took many in the local political community by surprise when he announced he was running again for his old position. Although McGinn’s name had certainly circulated in the past as a potential challenger to Mayor Ed Murray, who defeated the then-incumbent in 2013, he always demurred when asked, calling the question of whether he planned to run “unanswerable.” It became answerable, it appears, after a man named Delvonn Heckard sued the mayor, alleging Murray had sexually abused him when Heckard was a teenager in the 1980s. McGinn announced his run with a press conference in his Greenwood backyard and the perplexing campaign slogan “Keep Seattle,” which he told me means “Keep Seattle for people.” I sat down with McGinn on Capitol Hill last week.
Erica C Barnett (ECB): I know you don’t want to comment on the charges against Mayor Murray, but I do wonder whether your decision to run now, instead of declaring before the scandal broke, is a bit opportunistic. Did you decide to run because you have specific issues with the mayor’s record, or because you saw an opportunity open up and you want another bite at the apple?
Mike McGinn (MM): I do care a lot about the city, and I’m interested in how we can make it so that people can move here and live here, and that we’re still a place for immigrants and refugees to land, that we’re still a place for young people and artists, and that we’re not driving people out. This has been the dominant issue of the day. I’ve been watching the land use and transportation issues with concern. The homelessness issues also concern me. And all of this is in the context of a budget that’s growing and growing and not really being managed very well. When I saw Ed come out at the State of the City speech and say, ‘Here are my solutions: two more taxes,’ [a tax on sugary soda and a property tax increase to address homelessness], I just decided we’re not managing the city for the people who are here or who want to come here.
ECB: In your announcement, you said specifically that growth has been responsible for driving up rents, and that the city needs to adopt policies to mitigate those impacts. To me, that sounds very different than the Mike McGinn of 2013 or 2009, when you ran as a pro-growth candidate. What’s changed?
MM: I think that my views on land use and transportation issues have really been consistent over time. I think the biggest thing that’s changed is the incredible growth in jobs at Amazon and other companies. It’s like a different environment. That’s the biggest difference. Things really change when we have a situation where tens of thousands of jobs are being added, and that puts demand on housing and increases rents and housing prices. And then the taxes. Our overall tax system is very regressive. So it turns out that there are people benefiting from the growth, but the people who are objectively benefiting the least, those with the lowest income, are actually getting priced out. And that’s a different place than the city has been. When I was at Great City [the pro-growth nonprofit McGinn co-founded], we were still working on, how do we get major employers to locate downtown? And that, historically, has been the issue for cities like Seattle that saw big employers depart for the suburbs, whether it’s Microsoft or T Mobile or A&T Wireless—all of these companies were moving out. We went from zero cranes in my term to many, many cranes now, and that calls for a more aggressive policy response than we’ve had.
ECB: What do you mean by a more aggressive policy response?
MM: I’m in favor of the policies that I’ve always been for. I’ve been a supporter, as you know, of missing middle housing. In my term, we tried to make it easier to build small apartment buildings, microapartments, backyard cottages, and the like. We were for those things. The critique I’ve had—and this is, I think, where some of the confusion arises—was of the HALA process. It was good-hearted in the sense that a bunch of people came together to promote their best ideas, but coming from my own experience as mayor and my own experience in the green community, I could sense what was going to happen, and it did happen, which is that there were a lot of people who were left out of that process and there was an immediate backlash against the proposals, which led to some of the more promising proposals just being dropped entirely right off the bat.
ECB: Are you actually saying that you don’t think there would have been a backlash if Murray had included all the groups that feel they were left out of the process, even if they arrived at the same set of recommendations?
“The HALA process was good-hearted, but there were a lot of people who were left out of that process and there was an immediate backlash against the proposals, which led to some of the more promising proposals just being dropped.”
MM: There may have, but we know the result we ended up with. The debate over growth, as we can see ,is becoming a really polarizing one in the city. People want to label each other—’Oh, they’re an urbanist,’ or ‘Oh, they’re a NIMBY’—you’re not going to make that go away. There are people on either pole who aren’t necessarily going to be persuadable, but in my experience working in neighborhoods, there are people in the middle who are persuadable. But if you can’t overcome the process objection, your’e never going to be able to get there.
ECB: So are you saying that you think the HALA process should be revisited, even though the council has already adopted a lot of the upzones?
MM: I think that process is going to obviously run its course through the council. There’s a number of things happening and we can quibble over specific policy details, but I do think it’s not going to produce the types of changes in housing policy that we ultimate need. It’s just not the scale that we need. So we’re still going to have to revisit the issue of, how do we make it so that people can live here.
ECB: One specific thing Murray has done is to distance the city from the neighborhood councils, and as you know, there was a backlash to that. His response to that backlash, and I think it was a appropriate one, was to say, ‘We’re not excluding you, we’re just including other people too.’
“Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection.”
MM: I personally was bothered by the way Ed kind of got rid of them. I do think they have a place but—you should go reread the article I wrote on Crosscut. I expressed that there were weaknesses. But I think that [cutting ties with the councils] was a divisive act. It was perceived by those folks as an attack. And I think there’s a way to say, ‘Look, you’re a voice and we’re going to continue to solicit your views, but we’re also going to invite more people in. That’s a process issue as well.
ECB: But I feel like those people hated you anyway. So how are you going to convince people that Ed is divisive but you’re not?
MM: You have to define what you mean when you say [divisive]. Are there are people in every neighborhood who are resistant to changes? Sure. But I think there are also people in every neighborhood who are open to change. I’ll give you an example: Bicycling in the the city. When it was portrayed as, the mayor is imposing his will on neighborhoods on biking, that was not something that went so well. That was one of the beauties of the road safety action plan. We actually brought folks in the room and we found a different way of talking about and approaching the issue. That helped change the debate. Now I’m not saying that all of a sudden everyone says, ‘Oh, I’m for a bike lane.’ There are going to always be some people who hate a bike lane. But when you have neighbors talking to neighbors about what an outcome should be, you remove the process objection. I look at the HALA focus groups. The reason people dropped out is that ultimately, it didn’t feel meaningful to them, for whatever reason. And so that’s what I’m trying to get at, is you need to have that engagement on the front end. When I went to a town hall and had a group of people saying we can’t do something on this street, and we had other people saying, ‘I live in this neighborhood, and I do those things.’ That fundamentally changes the debate.
ECB: It’s my impression that the neighborhood-versus-city or homeowner-versus-renter divide is much sharper now than it was when you were mayor. What’s the breaking point, when you have to say, ‘Sorry, you might not like this policy, but we’re going to do it anyway’?
MM: Ultimately, you have to make the call, but first you have to listen.
And I walked into rooms with hundreds of people yelling at me, and I brought my staff with me and I brought my department heads with me. Has [Murray] ever just walked into the room and said, ‘Anybody in the neighborhood who wants to ask me a question, go, one after the other’? I did. And what I learned was, the first meeting, people really unload. And the second meeting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s showing up again.’ And by the third meeting, maybe you feel like you’re starting to make some progress. But you need to show that you’re going to have a continued commitment to showing up in the room, and the next time you show up in the room, you show that that you’ve delivered something, and that you’ve heard what they say and you’re trying to deliver an outcome. Who you speak to, who you let question you, changes what you do, and if you’re just in the room with the lobbyists, if you’re just in the room with the donors, certain things are going to become priorities. If you don’t hold yourself accountable to the neighborhoods, other things become priorities.
When you talk about the divisiveness issue, you should look at who’s getting upset and saying that. I think a lot of groups in the city thought I was far more inclusive than they had seen. But there are hard issues where there are deep divisions, like land use, zoning, bike lanes, and you can do things as mayor, inadvertently, to drive that division.
ECB: Can you give me an example of something you did to inadvertently exacerbate a division?
MM: Fire station 39. [In 2012, Lake City residents opposed plans to use a decommissioned fire station in their neighborhood for shelter and services for homeless people. Last year, the city reached an agreement with the Low-Income Housing Alliance to develop workforce housing at the site.] There were neighbors that were upset about that. They didn’t want it there. And this was an example where we were like, ‘Okay, who are the neighbors who support it?’ And the breakthrough, as time passed, was that we realized that there was a division in that neighborhood that already existed, between people who were fine with it and supported it and people that were adamantly opposed. And we started a Lake City planning process to talk about how we deal with these issues, and projects came out of that that people could agree on who disagreed w other things.
The HALA process is very divisive, it is tense, but we’re going to have to revisit it.
ECB: But the HALA upzones are all passing the council unanimously.
MM: Yeah, but I think at the end of the day, I don’t think that those upzones are going to be sufficient, and the measurement of sufficiency is in the rents and housing prices that we’re going to see.
ECB: So what do you want to see? Higher incentives? Higher payments? Just more process? What would you change?
MM: I think we could have gotten a little more out of luxury condos and we’re probably getting too much out of small apartment buildings, as an example, and one of the ways to get more out of the bigger buildings was to let a tower be more of a tower. It’s harder to get as much out of small apartment buildings. But having said that, let’s not forget that in the last couple years we also saw microapartments ruled illegal as well.
ECB: With the support of your ally, Mike O’Brien. What did you think of that vote [effectively barring new microhousing developments]?
“Murray did not recognize that this problem is scaling up, and that we need to scale up the response—not just ring the fire alarm, ask the feds to come in, and then just run out of the building. You’ve got to be the fireman on this one.”
MM: I think that they were not for everyone, but they are for some people, and it’s disappointing to me that we don’t make that option available. With backyard cottages, Mike had to try to carry that alone, really without much support from the mayor’s office at all, and now it’s tied up in litigation. [A neighborhood activist sued to stop the implementation of rules that would making it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, and O’Brien announced last month that the city would do a full environmental review of the impact of backyard cottages and basement apartments]. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but that’s something where the mayor basically walked away from those recommendations because he thought it was too hot.
ECB: The issues you hear people getting worked up about now are not things like a single fire station. They’re, ‘I see encampments 400 times a day.’ How do you think the mayor has been doing at addressing the issue of homelessness?
MM: Not well. I think what we saw was the scale of the problem grew dramatically but not the scale of the response. Declaring an emergency is a good thing, but it was then followed by, ‘Let’s wait for the state.’ The strategy was that [the declaration of emergency] will encourage the state or the federal government to give us more, and I don’t think that was good judgment. When I was mayor, we had Obama as President and community development block grants were being cut. It was happening even without Trump. And the idea that he federal government was going to rapidly change course was not realistic. We spent a lot of time not responding. The number of sweeps picked up and we weren’t picking up the scale of our response. It’s a management issue around effectively handling the sweeps, but there was also the policy issue of prioritizing our resources.
ECB: You use the word ‘sweeps,’ which is itself a loaded word. Are you now opposed to sweeps?
MM: I did them as mayor too, but my view was always that if we needed to do it, we needed to be able to say to the public that we were providing more options for somewhere to go.
ECB: Murray says his new Navigation Team does offer meaningful alternatives. Do you think that’s b.s.?
MM: No, I don’t think it’s b.s., and I’m sure there are some really good things happening there, but we are three years and three months into his term, and he finally figured out how to do it, and that’s a serious problem. He did not recognize that this problem is scaling up, and that we need to scale up the response—not just ring the fire alarm, ask the feds to come in, and then just run out of the building. You’ve got to be the fireman on this one.
ECB: You’ve said you want to find efficiencies in the city before asking voters for another tax. Do you think there’s enough room in the budget to pay for the growing need for homelessness services?
MM: We may indeed need more resources—I suspect we will, as a way to get through it—but I don’t want to say we need another tax until we take a really close look at spending. I believe there’s real money in that budget to be reprioritized.
“When I was mayor, we had Obama as President and community development block grants were being cut. It was happening even without Trump. And the idea that he federal government was going to rapidly change course was not realistic.”
And if we are going to tax, what I would look at would be what happens if you, for example, increased the business and occupation tax on businesses over a certain size and expanded the exemption so that small businesses have lower costs. There’s actually a lot of money to be had. The dreaded employee hours tax—what came to be known as the head tax—is another example. And these are things, by the way, that the city council can do without passing a ballot measure.
And I think, let’s answer the income tax question, for crying out loud. [State law prohibits a state income tax, but both McGinn and Murray have said they want to propose a local tax to see if it stands up in court]. I would get that going as soon as we could so we could get an answer on that. I actually think a city income tax, if legal, could probably be better than the corporate tax I was just describing.
ECB: Do you think that since you left office, the city council has moved in your direction politically?
MM: Absolutely. Yeah. For example, the city council’s big response to homelessness the first year I took office was an anti-panhandling statute [which Tim Burgess proposed but which never passed]. They opposed the temporary encampments again and again—in fact they took a vote and told me I had to evict them back then, and for that, some labeled me divisive because I was standing up for the homeless. And now we’re starting to see people putting tiny houses in the encampments, and they’re really better places than they were when the council was trying to stomp them out.
Municipal broadband, while it’s certainly been quashed by Ed, the demand is still out there. I remember when I first ran, people were going, ‘Municipal broadband—what does that have to do? Fiber optic—what does that have to do?’ That has changed. When I ran, a lot of people criticized me for wanting to get involved in the school district, and now the it’s taken for granted that the city should be part of education and the school district, and a partner on things like expanding youth violence prevention. So has the city moved more in my direction and the things I was fighting for then? Yeah. And that’s where I thought the city was going.
Featured image by Erica C Barnett