Mike McGinn's Bush Moment

Why a toxic mayor should follow the example of a toxic former president.

Mike McGinn assumed the office of mayor two years ago pledging to revolutionize Seattle's transportation culture. Yet having now had his ass handed to him at the ballot box not once, but twice, it's high time McGinn rethought things. And he could do a lot worse than to follow the lame-duck lead of President George W. Bush.

Late in his last term, Bush, faced with approval ratings in the low 30s (i.e., higher than McGinn's), did something uniquely selfless: He all but disappeared. He did this for the good of his party and, arguably, the country, faced with the hard reality that the American people had so soured on his agenda that it was time to make way for others' agendas. Bush was toxic and he knew it—major self-awareness points there.

Unlike Bush at that juncture, McGinn maintains the option of running for a second term. But like Bush, McGinn has reached such a level of toxicity that his being the public face of a given cause pretty much dooms it to failure—Exhibit A being voters' overwhelming rebuke of his effort to stop the Alaskan Way Viaduct from being replaced by a tunnel. There are signs that he's finally coming to terms with his Kryptonite effect, however, notes longtime Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth, referring to the success of the Families & Education Levy.

"He did a really good job energizing the planning process for the family-and-schools levy, but once he began to see what his poll numbers were, I think he very wisely stayed away from doing very much in the public eye," says Butterworth. "You didn't see McGinn going around at day-care centers with the press saying 'This is what the family-and-schools levy is going to fund.' "

Unfortunately, this knack for Bushian invisibility didn't extend to the mayor's signature issue: transportation. After the McGinn-backed streets-and-transit measure went down 60–40 last week, the mayor had the audacity to suggest that it might have done better had it included more funding for transit—in other words, had it been something closer to the $80 car-tab fee he'd originally proposed, rather than the $60 fee that voters spat back in the city's face.

"I personally believe that if we had a stronger transit component in the ballot measure, that would be appealing to voters," he told The Seattle Times.

In fairness, the car-tab measure likely would have gone down with or without McGinn's backing. "There were two things that led to its demise," explains Butterworth. "I think that in terms of how people feel about the economy and the families-and-schools levy, it was just unfortunate timing. Education has always been the priority in Seattle. And secondly, it was like a Grandma Moses painting: You had a little bit here, a little bit there, and a little bit more over there. There was no core message to it. It was a little bit of money for a lot of different things, and I think a lot of people felt very little would get done. It was like filling half a pothole and building a third of a sidewalk. He [McGinn] could have put in a slightly larger transit [component], but I don't think it would have helped. The city had to make some choices and sell it that way. But trying to sell a hodgepodge of transportation choices, we'll process it to death, and in the end nothing will get done. That's just the way it is here. That's why we love to hate it."

As for Butterworth's general impression of the mayor midway through his first (and likely only) term: "He's toxic; he's a dead man walking. You fuck up, that's what happens. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and he's a classic example of not understanding that. He can go join the ex-mayors of Seattle."

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