by Gina Luna
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Jimmy Carter lost reelection in 1981, transitioning from the American presidency to launching a non-profit that defends human rights and seeks to alleviate human suffering. His work includes eliminating more than 99 percent of cases of Guinea worm disease in Africa, being a central figure in the Habitat for Humanity project, and encouraging peace between Israel and Palestine, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2010, George W. Bush released a memoir, co-founded the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, built the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, and started oil painting.
What becomes of Seattle’s local leaders? In a recent conversation with The Capitol Hill Times, Mike McGinn reflects on his time as mayor, and what we can expect of him next.
When I think of Mayor McGinn, I think of the mayor on a bike who advocates for public transit. What else do you want to be known by?
You know, I’ll take that.
The idea that I was accessible and gave more people access to government and government resources is something that if people remember me that way, that would be awesome.
Is there anything that you wanted to accomplish as mayor but didn’t have time to complete?
I apologize for the pun, but I think that we laid a lot of good track on our Transit Master Plan. We obtained planning dollars for expansion of the Streetcar Network, and we also obtained planning dollars to begin planning for the next Sound Transit ballot measure. I would have liked to be a part of the next steps of making sure that we fund those and get them through whatever political or bureaucratic obstacles there are.
We made new transit investments the highest priority – not highway investments. I’m proud of that.
And I think that we’re making progress on restoring trust between the police department and the communities.
We weren’t making enough progress on homeless issues and supporting immigrant and refugee communities. That was a challenge when I took office because we had a really huge budget deficit. When I first took office, you could tell my priorities by what I didn’t cut, but it’s nicer to be in a place where you can invest in places that need it.
Were there things that you wanted to get done, and could have if it weren’t for City Council working against you?
They definitely slowed down the Transit Master Plan.
If I remember correctly, there was something that you did right away that upset them.
It was the tunnel. From day one, they were all for it, except for O’Brian. Both the tunnel and the 520 Bridge. The council was very much in support of larger projects rather than projects that would focus on transit. And we were very much at odds with that.
What we see is that the amount of driving nation-wide, regionally, and locally, is declining, and people’s need for transit is growing. I think that they were all anchored in the past, not in the future.
Look at Capitol Hill. Even if you want to drive, where do you find parking?
It’s just not practical.
This is a transition that a lot of cities are going through, and I think that that council was behind the curve on that transition.
So, the highway-versus-transit one is probably the most significant place where we were at odds. I was even told flat out by one of them, “We can’t put a transit measure on the ballot because you might use it to say that it’s an alternative to the tunnel, and we’re for the tunnel.”
Seriously. Welcome to politics.
Are there things that you were able to get good traction on that you’re nervous that Mayor Murray will undo?
I have a deep interest in many of the things that I got started, and I’m hopeful that the mayor will… during the campaign I don’t think he identified anything that I was doing that he wouldn’t do, so I hope that he fulfils his promises on those things.
Where do you and Mayor Murray differ most politically?
Let me think about that.
I thought that this would be an easy question after all of the debates!
Well, he said that he was for many of the positions that I was for, but he also, you know, straddled a lot of those issues. He said himself “It’s not about issues, it’s about effectiveness,” and that’s what he ran on.
We’ll find out; I guess that’s my best answer. I really do think that we’ll find out as we move forward.
A lot of what I see happen in national politics, good or bad, particularly the bad, we point to whichever president is in office and blame him for it, even if it’s not his fault. As mayor, did you feel like the city’s scapegoat?
The thing is, any mayor is probably the closest elected official to a citizen in terms of their ability to make a difference. City Councilmembers, State Legislators, governors, presidents, congressmen, senate – all of them are much further removed. I mean, City Councilmembers are close, but even they’re one of nine, whereas the mayor is the mayor, and because of that, you get blamed for things that you shouldn’t get blamed for, and you get credit for things that you shouldn’t get credit for; it goes both ways.
Look at what the city controls: streets, libraries, parks, police, fire, utilities. If the garbage doesn’t get picked up, it’s going to be your fault. And if there’s crime in your neighborhood, it’s your fault. It’s the mayor’s fault; the mayor needs to do something about it. That’s not true of any other elected official.
Did campaigning take away from what you were able to get done?
I ran to get stuff done. During the midst of the campaign there’s such a huge focus on the issues, and there are councilmembers who are running, too, so it gets harder to bring up new things. It’s inevitable, policy-making slows down a bit during the campaign, but we kept pushing for what we were pushing for. My attitude was always “just do what I want to do, do what’s important, do what’s right, and let the chips fall where they may.”
We put together the Bike Master Plan and introduced it during the middle of the campaign, even though bikes were very controversial. We have a cycle track up here on Capitol Hill. It looks great. Getting a cycle-track network like the Broadway one, getting those through Downtown, would be huge. That was the next thing.
The momentum for the new infrastructure is there, and the new mayor will discover what I discovered – what every mayor has discovered – which is that they’re very controversial, and there will be very vocal opponents. People take sides on these projects, and, ultimately, what I learned as mayor is that it’s not like you can just have an opinion and say, “ Well, I wish that so-and-so would have done that better.” That’s part of the accountability.
Broadway was a design that was reviewed with the community, and I approved it, but I don’t recall there being any controversy or different choices. But you do get situations where you get different constituency groups saying, “We want this,” or “We want that.” And, ultimately, the mayor has to make the call. There may be a middle ground that satisfies some or most people, but you’re never going to get 100 percent.
Were there parts of the job that you didn’t know about or expect coming into it?
The level of media attention was something that I wasn’t fully expecting.
When I took office I was resisting the idea that the city owned every part of me. I thought, “No, there’s some place that’s mine and my family’s, where I get to draw the line.” And it wasn’t so.
Not even with your family – what do you mean?
Well, you know, when I’m at my house with my family having dinner, that’s our time, but it happened that TV crews came knocking at our door.
I remember, I wasn’t home one time, and my quote at the time was “I think that I would prefer it if you would schedule my media interviews through my press spokesman than through my wife.” I thought that it was a funny line, but I was then staked out at another event by a TV station – I was meeting with a bunch of kids – and their thing was, “Are you refusing to speak to the media?” It was silly.
I want to be really clear, I’m not complaining, because the value of being mayor, I got so much more out of it than any of the negatives. I know that this sounds crazy, but I grew to love it. But to love it I first needed to accept that “that’s just the way it is,” and live in that world, and not have a different expectation about it.
These days, do you feel like a recent college graduate now that everyone’s asking you what you’re going to do next?
Yes! That is exactly what it feels like. Except the difference was that as a college graduate, there was a lot of anxiety about what you’re going to do next, and there’s less now. There’s some anxiety, I do need to make a living and send my kids to college, but, at the same time, I have been very fortunate that I have gotten the opportunity to work and earn a living on things that I really like doing, so I’m counting on that happening again. I’m not quite sure what that is, but I’m going to figure that out.
Is there a certain amount of time that you can not think about it?
I’m trying not to answer that question, because if I look closely at it, it would be really short.
Ha, let’s drop the topic, then. Interview over.
I was just starting to relax, and now you bring up my finances.