You’ve probably received your August primary ballot by now (don’t forget to mail it in by Aug. 18). On it, you’ll see Greenwood resident Michael McGinn as a candidate for mayor. McGinn sat down with me waaayyy back in April for an interview, and I’m ashamed to say I’m just now getting around to posting it.
McGinn has been getting a fair amount of press lately for his anti-tunnel stance and his outsider status. A long-time attorney and former chair of the local Sierra Club, McGinn most recently created the Seattle Great City Initiative, which aims to bring together diverse groups to “find common ground in the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of our city.” This spring he stepped down as executive director to concentrate on his mayoral campaign.
He said his work at the Sierra Club and the Seattle Great City Initiative was all about preparing for the future. As mayor, he could take all those things he’s worked on for so long, and move them forward “to a new level of commitment.”
A former supporter of Mayor Greg Nickels, McGinn was incensed by Nickels’ rejection of last year’s parks levy, and he fought to get it passed – which it did, after an intense grassroots campaign. He and others also used grassroots media to oppose a roads and transit initiative in 2007 because they felt too much of the money was spent on roads, and not enough on transit. McGinn says opponents raised only about $50,000 to the proponents’ $5 million, but still defeated it, then fought hard to pass the 2008 transit levy.
“Neighborhood blogs have changed neighborhood organizing,” he said. “Regular people were better informed and knew more.”
It’s that neighborhood organizing that he says shows that the city has ignored its neighborhoods – or at least most of them. People are fed up, and they’re acting out.
He says the city needs to be better about reaching out to people who don’t have access to government. While providing online tools for communicating, city officials also need to have feet on the street.
“Someone once asked Cesar Chavez how you organize and he said, ‘First you talk to one person, then you talk to another person and then another,’” McGinn said. “There’s no substitute for that.” It’s a philosophy McGinn is taking to heart, meeting with neighbors in living rooms across the city.
“We live in pretty uncertain and challenging times,” he said. “Our city’s pretty nice in a lot of ways; we’re pretty fortunate. We’ve been a magnet for new jobs in the past.” However, we can’t rest on our past successes. “We need to prepare for the future and make the right choices.”
He’s seen as an underdog, which seems to suit him just fine. And he’s racking up some endorsements from mainstream and non-mainstream groups alike. The Stranger recently declared that McGinn is “our only chance for an actual debate.” “McGinn doesn’t have the name recognition that other candidates do, but he’s the city’s only chance for an awesome mayor’s race. Our only chance for a showdown of ideas.”
Publicola, an online independent news site, also endorsed McGinn. “PubliCola wants McGinn to make it through to the general election, where we hope he’ll expand on his already well-calibrated campaign theme of greening the city’s priorities and fixing our public schools.”
Friends of Seattle chose McGinn as a “courageous voice of change.” And McGinn shared an endorsement from the 34th District Democrats with Nickels.
McGinn feels that it’s Seattle’s neighborhoods that make this truly a great city. As a long-time neighborhood activist, he’s been working on the nitty-gritty issues of density, traffic and new sidewalks for years. “I think that’s a very real grounding for this job,” he said. “I quit my job as a lawyer and founded Great City because I thought neighborhood politics – politics generally – in this town is broken.”
He thinks government agencies are arranged so that they don’t talk to each other effectively, and different interest groups don’t share information and strategies, so they’re not finding their common ground. “I guess over time people kind of put their head down and just focus on the issue in front of them and lose sight of how they’re connected to other issues,” he said.
He thinks agencies such as Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Parks Department and Department of Planning & Development are all taking actions that affect the same people and places, but they’re not working together to make sure it’s being done efficiently. He’d like to see each department open up their budgets to each other early in the budgeting process, to see where they might be duplicating efforts and how they can work together better.
He’s especially concerned that the Seattle School District and the city seem disconnected from each other, when they should be working much more closely. He wants to work with parents, teachers, administrators and the community to focus more city resources on schools, because turning out good students will benefit the city in numerous ways.
“Greg Nickels should be down in Olympia stumping as hard for city school money as he’s stumping for money for a tunnel. I think that’s what mayors are supposed to do,” McGinn said. While some people are critical of cities taking over school districts, McGinn says cities are ultimately responsible for all its citizens. “That’s what a mayor is supposed to do, to mobilize a community around what the community wants.”
As the parent of three children at Salmon Bay, McGinn said, “The goal is a strong school system.” While he says he’d try other avenues to make the school district strong before considering taking them over, “I’m quite serious about going there if that’s what it takes.”
McGinn also can’t fathom why Nickels – and every other mayoral candidate – supports the deep-bore tunnel to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. He says the tunnel is prohibitively expensive, and will likely cost much more than the projected $4.2 billion, with taxpayers on the hook for overruns.
While talking about regional transit issues, McGinn cautions not to overlook local transit service. “If you have a great local transit system, where people can have frequent, local, and nice service, that can be really great for local businesses.” For example, the city needs to make it more feasible to get from Greenwood to the Ballard Farmer’s Market, without having to transfer to, and wait for, numerous buses. “If you have a great local bus system, you save money for people. Investing in cars and oil is not a good long-term investment for a city, and we have a chance to change that direction right now,” McGinn said.
Speaking of transit, he bikes to work every day, except in really terrible weather. During the December snowstorm, he did his Christmas shopping at Greenwood Hardware. “It really, in a lot of ways, brought out the best in the community. I think it reminded a lot of people about how important local neighborhoods are and how important local businesses are to community.”
One of his other major campaign points is a city-provided broadband Internet infrastructure, instead of relying on the private sector to provide it. He says it’s just as important as freeways and other avenues of getting goods and services moving. “This is where commerce and ideas and information is going to flow in the future.” He envisions this as a public utility that would not be free, but would be not-for-profit, and available to every home and business. That way everyone would have a choice between the public utility and the private sector provider.
“We have such smart, creative and caring people in this town, and we are so innovative in so many areas, but we don’t have a government that taps into that,” McGinn said. “You can do amazing things if you engage people in the mission of what a city should be. If we engage people in creativity, there will be more ideas and more action than you or I can imagine.”