What Just Happened?: The meaning of McGinn’s win

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Photo: Jen Nance

There is a story being told (see Grant Cogswell’s piece in The Stranger, “Late Returns”) today about what Michael McGinn’s big win means.

It goes like this: McGinn raised an army of volunteers, called them into service to reverse the defeat of the Monorail, slap passive aggressive Seattle in the face and crush the Establishment. It is a story full of sound and fury. But is it true?

I don’t think so. This story is sewn together with scraps of past resentments and frustrations at the “Seattle Way,” and the Seattle Establishment each of which we have all blamed for whatever civic ailments we find most irksome. It is a story of scores being settled. But it does have one thing correct: our city will never be the same.

The reason is that McGinn’s win is far more significant than some might think and powerful because it sets the stage for true transformation of our city. The volunteers are the cast with Michael McGinn as the leading man. But the star, I would argue, is the people of this city and the story is about the resolution of a dialectic—an argument between two small groups with divergent views of the city’s future—that has bedeviled the city for 40 years.

If only this was true . . .

If only this was true . . .

First, let us do away with the idea that Seattle has an Establishment; a room full of old white men smoking cigars and pondering the future of the city. If only such a thing existed. You would find me outside the door begging for 15 minutes to persuade them (with a power point of course) to adopt my agenda. I would wait for years, because, after all, the men inside control immense wealth, and the machinery of political power. With a shrug and a grunt they could unleash all that power to do all kinds of things like up-zone Laurelhurst, get the major development projects completed and create a new neighborhood in places like Interbay.

The Seattle Establishment?

The Seattle Establishment?

However, this idea of the Seattle Establishment is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist. Developers have failed completely to dominate the discourse in the city. Their internal divisions have rendered them essentially inoperative as a political force. During the land use battles of the last several years Vulcan and Wright Runstad feuded over incentive zoning and whose projects would be most harmed. Industrial lands consumed them as they fought over whose ox would be gored and over where the boundaries would be drawn. Incentive zoning, which they uniformly hated, was passed in spite of their efforts to stop it.

What about the business community? True they mustered forces effectively to foist Joe Mallahan, the Mayor of Tunnel City, on Seattle. It was a breathtaking performance, with the Governor and the Legislature organizing themselves into a phalanx of consistent messaging: tunnel or else. Some might point to their failure as the “death of the Establishment.” But the backward facing folks who created this critical mass are similarly divided over a broad agenda for the city. They opposed the Monorail and Sound Transit but supported the repeal of so called “head tax,” a small tax supporting bike and pedestrian infrastructure, while simultaneously urging that billions of tax dollars be spent for a tiny stretch of buried highway. The business community is really an unrepresentative group of people who are clutching on to the status quo, with no vision for the future other than complaining about taxes and wrapping their arms around the legs of Boeing and Microsoft. And they spent thousands of dollars on a losing candidate in the last election.

Business as usual . . .

Business as usual . . .

What about the NIMBYs? It is true that Seattle could field a team for the NIMBY Olympics with Jeannie Hale (Children’s Hospital is destroying Laurelhurst!), John Fox (saving Laurelhurst from Children’s will help homeless people) and Pat Murikami (Transit Oriented Development will turn Southeast Seattle into a Bombay slum) as star players. But the NIMBYs are only as good as the level of fear on City Council. More panic on the Council’s part about up-zones or new land use strategy hands the NIMBYs victories now and then, enabling them to blow up individual projects. But the NIMBYs have no vision either; they have no concept of the city’s future only their past.

NIMBYs have no vision.

NIMBYs have no vision.

No, none of these frightened backward looking groups represent the Seattle Establishment. Rather they are the groups that have shown up to stop change. And occasionally (like with TOD or Children’s) they form an axis now and then, aligning, for example, the interests of homeless people with the interests of single family gentry. But this is hardly a movement amounting to an Establishment.

So what did happen? My theory is that the people of this city are ready for a new story. They are rejecting the Forward Thrust vs. Lesser Seattle, Spy versus Spy, conflict which has defined politics in our town since the 1970s. These two parties were pretty clear, the latter focused on big capitol projects the former focused on keeping Seattle a small town dominated by fishermen and descendents of pioneers. One group supported the Nordstrom Parking Garage (remember that one) and the other opposed it, for example. The Thrusters saw the garage as supportive of growth which would create economic development and the Lessers saw it as another attempt to pretty up Seattle for Yuppies and people from out of town.

Jim Ellis: Thesis

Jim Ellis: Thesis

Emmett Watson: Antithesis

Emmett Watson: Antithesis

The old Thrusters were behind the tunnel and oddly so were many of the Lessers. The Thrusters loved all the financing and concrete because after all, concrete and financing mean progress. The Lessers saw the tunnel as a solution for capacity to prevent congestion. City’s are about cars and the city needs less congestion and more mobility. Suddenly in Joe Mallahan the two sides of Seattle’s heretofore blood enemies found common cause.

And they lost. Both the view that we will build highways to economic recovery and that we should board up Seattle’s windows and doors to new growth were soundly defeated by the McGinn campaign. Their combination gave Seattle voters a clear picture of the co-dependent grip which was holding their city hostage. So, instead of insider transitions, which would give the Lessers something to rail at and the Thrusters something to game, the McGinn transition is open source, accessible and maddeningly transparent.

Cymbals of change (from Publicola)

Cymbals of change; photo: Publicola

McGinn and his band of advocates have reset the game clock and the rules of the game. This isn’t about beating the establishment, but rather about the future. The new story is not about the internecine struggle between small, unrepresentative groups working the City process with fear and anxiety about what will happen if we do or don’t do a big project, but rather about building a common cause for a sustainable city. People believed this new story about all of us working together for a common vision of where we live, a future together not fraught with fear but with hope.

Ironically, the demolition of the old Thrust versus Less narrative elevates and weaves together the highest ideals of both sides. The Thrusters believed in taking risks on cleaning up Lake Washington and building transit even though the expensive was bourn today with benefits in the future. The Lessers were the epitome of ruggedness and community, banding together to build a city in distant, wet and tree infested land always resisting freeways and more concrete in favor of local people and neighborhoods.

So McGinn’s election is about this city and its transformation into a different place, rooted firmly in the best of its past and reaching up towards its persistent ideals of community, place and self-sufficiency. The outcome is not assured, but the momentum is going in the right direction. Anyone who was at the event at New Holly (a kind of McGinnaugural ball) last week understands what I am talking about. This is something different.

It is an end to force fed megaprojects and a step toward more transparency. It means welcoming growth and planning for it rather than pretending like growth won’t happen. It means thinking big and being innovative; think “bonds on bikes.”

Michael McGinn:Synthesis

Michael McGinn:Synthesis

Understanding what the McGinn win means is important. Seeing it as the latest in a tit for tat, us versus them, smart versus dumb battle denigrates its promise and dooms it to repeating the same old tired battles. The McGinn win is nothing less than a win for the future of our city through a synthesis of two older views of what that future should be.

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19 Responses to “What Just Happened?: The meaning of McGinn’s win”

  1. David Schraer

    Good observations on the nonexistent establishment Roger. I’ve also been thinking about Spy vs. Spy because the recent campaign was more about Progressives vs. Progressives than Progressives vs. Establishment. The tunnel was not a good litmus test for a myriad of reasons. The test on the table is whether the mayor and council can quickly make the city much more friendly to pedestrians and bicycles. To do so requires only will. More thoughts along this line at http://www.lightandair.wordpress.com.

  2. Sophia Katt

    I agree with a number of the observations you make, Roger. However, you really need either a good session with an editor or with a spell check tutor.

  3. jason c

    Here, here, Sophia. I think Roger mixed up his formers and latters.

  4. dan cortland

    When the mandate isn’t televised, the propaganda has to follow thick and fast.

  5. Alex Broner

    I was part of the McGinn team and I feel justifiably proud of what we accomplished. Joe Mallahan’s campaign spent 4 times as much money and received a lot of big endorsements. However, I would caution against reading too much into such a narrow election victory. It’s a bit too early to declare the start of a new era when a shift of around 3000 votes, or 2% of the electorate would have led to a different outcome. If McGinn leads Seattle towards smart growth over the next four years and Seattle voters reward him with a second term, then I think it would be safe to say that a new era has begun. But not before.

  6. pds

    While McGinn might be progressive, his new Deputy certainly typifies the NIMBY stench you describe here. Darryl was adamantly against Casa Latina coming to SE Seattle, despite the fact that their clients largely reside in the area. The choice of Vulcan-folk also implies a specific agenda that is certainly not “of the people”.

    You’ve implied here that being anti-establishment automatically means positive change. That’s quite a leap to make based on a couple of community meetings. Isn’t it interesting that he’s asking at those meetings, “who should I hire and how” after he’s already chosen some of the most important people?

  7. mike

    fatty lohmann!

  8. Wells

    Seattle’s most spectacular view ignored in its Establishment’s new park dedicated to obscene and insignificant sculpture. Line up a few uncomfortable and uniformly ugly orange metal chairs if anyone cares to observe the real show and become another inhumanely conspicious display of incongruity. Seattle’s establishment is cruelly twisted in so many ways they relish erecting a show of it.

  9. Sabina Pade

    I agree that Roger’s piece, above, could benefit from a careful proofreading. Nonetheless I admire Roger’s piece for its uncommonly lucid description of the forces bearing upon urbanism in Seattle.

    Many of the people wielding significant political and economic power in Seattle today are of a generation that still remembers Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle, children of the post-WWII westward migration steeped in dreams of a suburban future. The argument between Forward Thrusters and Lesser Seattleites was never over whether to dwell in a densely populated environment; neither side considered downtown suitable for human habitation. Their dispute centered over whether and how to facilitate movement to places where people earned and spent their money.

    Roger, I think, is right when he says that the strivings of Thrusters and Lessers have kept urbanism in Seattle paralysed for decades. I also think Roger is right when he says post-WWII Seattle has never had an “establishment”, those cigar-smoking white men it seems so natural to attribute behind-the-scenes policy decisions to. Not that there haven’t been cigar-smoking white men in Seattle, but rather that the wielding of political power, in a sustained manner, in Seattle has not been sufficiently lucrative from a financial or an emotional standpoint to lure a critical mass of powerful minds away from business.

    I hope Roger is right when he says that the election of McGinn signals the transformation of Seattle into a different place. It would be wonderful if Seattle could make the leap from population center to city.

  10. dan cortland

    All reports that the Rainier Club serves lunch are now inoperative.

  11. serial catowner

    Well, thank heavens we can finally discard that ‘Thruster v Lesser’ frame. As near as I can see it’s been dead for about 35 years.

    But it was real once, and anybody who doesn’t think so should bone up on the 50s and 60s and the careers of people like Wayne Larkins and Gordon Vickery in the 70s. That was bare-knuckle sexism, racism, and urban corruption bundled into one. Does Roanoke Reef ring any bells?

    The ‘Thrusters’ eventually became a succession of ‘reform’ mayors who could afford to clean up urban politics because the City Council passed the rezones they needed for their other jobs as developers. The real change agent as Mayor recently was Nickels, the first mayor in about 25 years who didn’t also become a millionaire by developing properties.

    It is interesting that McGinn is now being urged to keep Grace Cunigan, the head of Seattle Transportation Department that Nickles installed to do a little bare-knuckle housecleaning. My personal feeling is that if McGinn chooses someone else, the agency will just eat them for lunch.

    What I suspect will happen for much of Seattle is that advocates will generally face a Sisyphean task of bringing their groups demands to McGinn, and being told their input is of great value and they should go back and find out what their group wants to do. That’s what we’ve seen so far.

    As for whether there really is an ‘establishment’, just ask yourself this- How can a city with so many skyscrapers be short of tax revenue to fund schools and transit?

    McGinn is, at this moment, among the luckiest of political surfers- as a huge wave of change looms to combat global warming, McGinn appears to be a green candidate, with almost no political past or experience to sully his image. What he does with this lucky political capital will be interesting to see.

  12. Wells

    Some establishment entity pulled strings with Sound Transit’s decision to bypass Southcenter, the largest commercial district along the route which would build significant ridership and direct TOD-type development. Sound Transit boasted that the bypass shaved a whopping ‘3′ minutes off travel time between Seatac and downtown, where hoteliers and retailers would rather tourists did not find lodging elsewhere. Some establishment entity decided Link LRT should not be fareless in the downtown transit tunnel, even though this slows boarding time on free buses and risks delaying Link trains. Some establishment entity decided the Link fare should be 1-direction instead of a couple hours good in both directions which doubles fares from $2 to $4.

    These questionable decisions suggest Link ridership is being segregated, the establishment-approved tourists are to ride Link while the under-class are encouraged to ride buses. Link’s next expansion is a multi-billion dollar tunnel to UW where the cost of an ‘In Crowd’ certificate went up even further beyond the means of most of us.

    Seattle’s establishment is alive and well and perfecting their frequently seen around town ‘Seattle Snoot’ expression for fending off the underclass. Hammering Man is a blatant insult to Labor whom the upper class views as 2-dimensional, featureless flat black workers embroiled in endless, strenuous, monotonous toil in the midst of the leisure class, and who’s artistic sentiment is no more refined than a whirlygig. Have a nice day.

  13. Mike Orr

    Interesting article. The conflicts between various development interests and “establishment” factions sounds plausable, but the part about Thruster vs Lesser positions on the tunnel sounds a bit far-fetched. 2009 is not 1970. People realize that “no growth” and “no environmental improvements” are not options, and are more willing to accept changes that they wouldn’t have earlier. But at the same time many people make irrational demands for no changes in their own areas. This is not really a philosophy such as Lesser, but an inability to consider benefits beyond one’s own pocketbook and view. The viaduct tunnel will have a range of impacts, and doesn’t fit neatly into the 30-year-old categories of Thruster and Lesser.

    Wells: these comments are way off. There wasn’t some godfather ordering, “Central Link will not go to Southcenter. Link will not have a ride free zone or 2-hour transfers. Let’s build Hammering Man to snub labor.” These were all individual compromises with their own set of influences.

    1) The Link route was due to opposition from the city of Tukwila from what I’ve heard.

    2) ST asked the public a month before Link started whether to participate in the ride free area, the tradeoff being a 25c increase in all Link fares. Most people wisely said no because their daily commute fares would go up to subsidize a few people who already have alternatives for intra-downtown trips. It will make more sense when buses quit the DSTT. How does it cause a delay anyway, when Link does not have onboard fare collection?

    3) Re no Link transfers, you can also ask Link fares are distance-based rather than flat. Portland MAX, NYC subway & PATH, Chicago el, and SF Muni all charge a flat fare, which is usually the same as their buses. Only SF BART has distance-based fares, but it gives much more extensive service than Link. This was decided by ST bean counters trying to maximize revenues with no regard to how the price of the trip compared to its value, the same as the new ORCA system’s impacts, but c’est la vie. There’s no need to imagine an “establishment” conspiracy, just the blindness of bean counters.

    4) Link will be the same or cheaper than Metro after Metro’s fare increase January 1st. Downtown-Beacon Hill: $1.75 (Link)/$2 (Metro off-peak)/$2.25 (Metro 1 zone). Downtown-Rainier Valley: $2 (Link)/$2 (Metro off-peak), $2.25 (Metro 1 zone). Downtown-Tukwila: $2.50 (Link)/$2 (Metro off-peak)/$2.75 (Metro 2 zone).

    5) Link’s ridership does seem to be whiter than the buses in Rainier Valley, but that’s not ST’s fault.

    6) I have no idea what your UW comment means. Light rail must serve the largest pedestrian destination in the city, which is the UW by far.

    7) The Hammering Man comment is just conjecture. It was intended to honor the working man. What irritates me is the imitations that have the man chugging a beer.

  14. Mike Orr

    More about Southcenter. The shorter ride was clearly one of the advantages of a north-south routing, so it’s not disingenous of ST to emphasize it. Second, Southcenter fits more naturally into an east-west route. When this is built (from Burien to Renton or Bellevue), having Central Link detour to Southcenter will seem silly. The main line must go to the airport because it’s the largest pedestrian destination in the northwest.

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