Seattle and Its Mayor, Mike McGinn – Were We Ever a Civilized Part of the World?


Seattle and Its Mayor – Were We Ever a Civilized Part of the World?

Seattle, like the rest of the nation, has decided that cordiality – respect of opinion and differences – is yesterday’s practice. Several months ago a local journalist said this: “I honestly believe that Mayor Mike McGinn is the worst office holder in any major office I have ever heard of or read about in the history of the United States.” I will not mention the name of the local radio talk show host who has a national syndication since his name would enhance his “reach”. If you really want to know — Google it.

Our main Seattle newspaper, The Seattle Times, is just one rung down on the ladder of manners. Apparently you cannot tell a story without exaggerating your opinion and thereby distorting the picture or facts — we do not see the story, we see the character of the journalist — is this what we want?

Our two “underground” papers, The Stranger and The Seattle Weekly, while appearing to be crazier on their surface, are in fact a better source of balanced news. Both publications at least report on the best and the worst, and sometimes without all of the drama.

Somewhere between the schools of journalism and the actual practice of journalism there is a major disconnect. Perhaps the fact that one is managed by non-commercial interests and the other by commercial interests has something to do with the disconnect. Perhaps also the fact that newspapers used to have a separation of departments within the publication, one for reporting the other for business (advertising, etc). This was not perfect but it was an attempt to recognize the conflicting interests. Several years ago this structure collapsed at The Los Angeles Times and strengthened the deterioration nationwide. There also used to be self-imposed professional ethical standards or rules of the road, perhaps etiquette is a better term, that were taught by mentors and peers — they did not seek management’s approval. These were along the line of treat people with respect and do not malign someone as a course of doing your work.

Perhaps the drama of newspapers has come full circle. Journalists now figure that the drama sells their wares, when in fact it is doing them in.

Young people stopped reading them and the decline of readership continues. This is as it should be. We need responsible journalism that has a duty to inform the public and let the public make the judgments about the content, or keep the judgment part of the opinion section.

All of this is by way of a preface to the fact that, historically, the job of Mayor of Seattle has been shaky at best. (In 1865 the city of Seattle was incorporated, incised from King County, just thirteen years before the new territory of Washington was extricated from the Oregon Territory and became a state in 1889.)

The City of Seattle was set up to be run by five Trustees and no Mayor (there

was a top trustee). These fellows proceeded to put the first laws on the books along with some taxes:

Ordinance No. 1 – For the Prevention of Drunkenness; Indecent or Disorderly Conduct.

Ordinance No. 2 – No hogs shall be permitted to run at large within the City of Seattle at any time.

Ordinance No. 7 – That from and after the passage of this Ordinance if any person or persons shall willfully ride any horse, or drive and horse or other animal attached to any carriage, wagon, cart or other vehicle whatsoever at a reckless or immoderate gait through the streets…

It is thought that these actions, taxes being on the top of the list, led to the dissolution of the city formation and the city was promptly reabsorbed back into King County in 1867. Three years later it became a city again and this time with its present structure — a Mayor and city council.

Americans know the national structure of the political leadership — a president and the Senate and House of Representatives. Seattle’s local structure is like having the President, our Mayor, who is the chief executive in change of running things with budget responsibility, whereas the legislature is embodied in the city council, nine council persons, who are responsible for developing laws and legislature. The schools are managed by the school board, another set of seven elected individuals. These separations of power are often not understood by the public, especially when you have a Mayor who uses the bully pulpit to advocate for school reforms, for example. Add the complex schemes of local referendums and voting and it is quite a complicated affair to sort out.

Henry Atkins, a bachelor and pile driver for wharfs along the Puget Sound, was the first Seattle mayor, beginning his rule in 1869 with a city population of around 1000. Until 1890, the term for mayor was one year, later it was increased to two years, then later to four years. Atkins was a Republican and most of the mayors who held office in these years were also, with the exception of John Leary who ran on the Business Men’s ticket and served for one year drawing no salary. It should be recalled that the present understating of what a Republican is began with Abraham Lincoln in 1861, the year the party was formed, and of course the platforms and principles changed over time, but on a whole the Republicans represented business and development.

Mayor McGinn was elected in November 2009. He is a Democrat with a Bachelors Degree in economics and a law degree from the University of Washington.

He is a man who lives his convictions. He lives in a modest rancher in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle ( Reminiscent of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of Bridgeport ) and often rides his bike to work — not a trivial thing since it is eight miles one way. He is married with three young children and coaches on his daughter’s basketball team.

He grew up on Long Island, NY and matriculated at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, which is in the Northwest corner of the state bordering Vermont and Upper New York State. McGinn majored in economics. The college is set in the Berkshire Mountains, and was established in 1793. The school was established with a gift from Ephraim Williams, Jr’s estate as a result of his death — he was shot in the head in the conflict between the French and Indian allies at the Battle of Lake George in 1755. Ephraim’s condition of estate was to ensure that his bequest be part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the English legal entity established prior to the US Revolutionary War and to the formation of states.

Williams College is ranked as the top liberal arts school in the nation where tuition is presently $44,000 per year — doing the quick math — a four year degree is worth $176,000.

McGinn’s parents were both linked to education pursuits and his home life was rich in the arts as he likes to tell people. McGinn was one of six children. He is a very private person and little detail is available in public records concerning his youth and family life.

Between undergraduate and graduate school McGinn worked for Jim Weaver, the Oregon US Congressman (1974-1987) known for his liberal politics both social and environmental, and learned about the national legislative process. McGinn worked in Washington, D.C. for Weaver and later moved to Portland to do a short stint with the insurance department. McGinn had the chance to watch and learn from Weaver who was a pioneer in environmental liberalism.

While attending law school at the University of Washington he was active in the environmental community and at the same time was the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) president. Upon graduation he went to work with the Seattle law firm, Stokes Lawrence. He spent over ten years with the firm rising to partner. In this position he represented a wide array of corporate clients and helped to grow the firm’s reputation which had been anchored in communications technology — an early employee was Wayne Perry and he went on to form McCaw Cellular Communications, Inc. and used the law firm in his business dealings. At the same time that he was with Stokes, McGinn followed his personal interests in environmental activities with a focus on the Sierra Club and other local chapters of grassroots activities.

McGinn left Stokes Lawrence to head up a very small non-profit organization, Great City, that focuses on urban grass roots issues from street safety and green infrastructure, to light rail initiatives. The organization helps empower people’s initiatives as opposed to corporate initiatives.

Mayor McGinn talks about a “granular thing” that is central to his agenda and actions. It is an expression that aids in the formation of the idea that lots of small things make up the base of grassroots politics and the new way to change the political landscape is to go after the granules. While he also likes to use the phrase big ideas, he is wedded in principle and practice to the granular. The actual practice of this is foreign to American soil let alone to Seattle. We are a country of big. We like our politics and politicians to deal with the big things and we like to hear them articulate how they will solve our big problems.

This granular thinking drives everybody in Seattle nuts.

McGinn’s take on all of this is that the big things are made up of a multitude of granules and each needs discussion and movement. This led McGinn to also listen to the people through meetings and encouraged his single-minded pursuit of goals that benefited the people — this of course got him into trouble with the city power structures since he followed his agenda without much appreciation for existing power protocol. He was not PC. He has learned in the past few years to be better at being PC though (A recent filming of the city budget of 2012 shows McGinn thanking each respective city council member for their leadership and participation), especially with the media and the politicians. When McGinn took office in January 2010 the chorus began: he has no political experience, he does not know how to treat people; he ignores us, he ignores the city council, he treats the unions poorly. And so on.

McGinn’s performance is now starting to show. He has been in the trenches so to speak, working with people in town hall meetings, going to community events and yes, also working the machine. Giving alms where they are due to be PC, politically correct.

A recent video was produced that records his presentation to an audience at Williams College, his alma mater in Massachusetts, about the state of things in Seattle, especially in the context of the Occupy era. McGinn was removed from the grid of interests in Seattle and was able to talk about his job as his latest project in life, one he was really engaged in. He is very articulate and thinks on several tracks at once. His intelligence is strong. He is calm and does not normally fight for the voice nor over-talk people. He lays in the weeds a bit and takes his turn. He feels strongly about following the rules. The rules he has committed to for Seattle are very liberal, practical and comprehensive: he has an online chart to track pothole reporting and when it each gets fixed, for God’s sake. He has learned from his predecessor,Greg Nickels, since he was bounced in good part for not taking snow removal serious enough. Seattle wants its elected officials to be obsessive about its needs, especially ones that are so visible. Greg Nickels gave himself, and the city, fairly good marks for snow removal, whereas the citizens thought it was atrocious — some streets in the downtown were incapacitated for over twenty-four hours.

McGinn is very active on Facebook and Twitter. He is also active on the Seattle Channel. There is a dearth of information about him in the Seattle Times and the local news shows, most of which is negative. Not a problem since none of those mediums count. He is very connected to the city papers – The Stranger and The Seattle Weekly, both of which spend considerable time scrutinizing his actions and are adept at showing his successes and failures. Oddly though, these two publications get McGinn whereas the others do not.

I believe that many of Seattle’s reporters are true lemmings — walking, perhaps running, off the bluffs since they have shown their inability to think outside the crater of sensationalism politics presently going on in America. They have an ability to jump right off national politics and right onto local politics especially onto an individual that does not slug back but quietly goes the way he said he would and at the same time listens to his constituents.

We, the people, need more leaders who demonstrate some of the personal qualities in this newest Seattle Mayor.


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