The Desertion of Mike McGinn

The dominoes keep falling. The base is shrinking and one-time loyalists are jumping ship. Trying times, indeed, for Mike McGinn. An ex-governor, two former Seattle mayors, the city attorney, a majority of the city council, the police guild and firefighters union, the Washington Conservation Voters, are rallying around challenger Ed Murray.

Some of the political defections were expected – but not all. McGinn, for example, took a huge and unexpected blow last month when a long list of club owners and nightlife entrepreneurs – solidly in his camp four years ago – decided to cut and run and put their money, their e-mail lists and social media connections behind the longtime state lawmaker.

It would be easy to blame the desertion on policy differences – that it’s nothing personal. Except that it is personal – especially among the council, whose relationship with the beleaguered mayor appears beyond repair.

“I just think McGinn gets under people’s skin. He doesn’t have a lot of finesse in the political world,” says Councilman Nick Licata.”He’s not in compromise mode very often.”

“He doesn’t seem to have the communication skills to reach a consensus,” adds Licata, who supported Peter Steinbrueck in the August primary. “He’s a guy who comes into a meeting, throws out a lot of good ideas, and then walks out of the room.”

Licata said he can’t remember the last time five council members – in this case, Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen and Jean Godden – publicly spurned an incumbent mayor. “You’d have to go back 40 years.”

“It’s unprecedented,” says council president Sally Clark. “And it would be dishonest to say there isn’t some personality clash.”

“I’ve had one-on-one meetings with him,” recalls Councilwoman Jean Godden, “and it has been more of a lecture than a meeting.”

Godden goes on, “It started out badly right from the beginning. Two weeks in, he had a press conference on his bike down on the waterfront to talk about funding for construction of the seawall, and he did it while the council was on a retreat.”

Council members, notes Godden, have an informal policy of not addressing the mayor’s race -- at least not telegraphing who they intend to vote for -- if they themselves are also up for reelection. If they felt so obliged to do so, however, Godden believes only one council member, Mike O’Brien, would signal his support for McGinn. “It would 8 to 1 – or maybe 7 to 2, because maybe [Richard] Conlin is behind McGinn.”

Conlin could not be reached for comment.

Godden continues, “It’s not just the council he’s not getting on well with. He’s not getting on well with the Legislature. He’s didn’t get on well with the governor (Chris Gregoire), and hasn’t gotten on well with regional leaders.”

In mid-September, after Godden became the fifth council member to desert, McGinn said, “This is great. If Ed Murray’s elected mayor, he, his big donors and the council can make all policies for the city without any public input whatsoever.”

For Councilman Tom Rasmussen, it was McGinn’s “insult of the governor” that caused him to lose all confidence in the mayor’s effectiveness.

Rasmussen is referring to a late October day in 2010 when Gov. Gregoire came to Seattle to deliver what she considered good news: Two bids to build the Highway 99 tunnel that had come in within the state’s $1.1 billion price target.

At that news conference, Gregoire vowed to veto any attempt by lawmakers to try to put Seattle taxpayers on the hook for any cost overruns on the project.

A few hours later, McGinn held his own news conference and said the bids appeared low only because the state promised to pay the winning team more than $200 million in last-minute allowances, which would cut into the tunnel project’s emergency cash reserve.

“I don’t believe we can trust the governor to keep ... promises to protect us,” McGinn said, adding: “I don’t trust the Legislature, either, to protect us from cost overruns.”

Says Rasmussen: “To insult the governor in this brash and callous way, that is not the way a polished politician works.”

Tim Ceis, known around City Hall as “The Shark” during his days on ex-Mayor Greg Nickels’ enforcer, also traces the council’s animosity back to the downtown tunnel, a project McGinn initially opposed during the 2009 campaign, then reversed himself.

“That started the adversarial tone – that, and the hard feelings that resulted [among the council] when he changed budgets directors (replacing the well-regarded Dwight Dively with Beth Goldberg),” observes Ceis.

As far as the five council members endorsing Murray, Ceis says, “This is totally self-interest. They figure they have nothing to lose since they already have a bad relationship with McGinn.”

(Ceis, by the way, predicts Murray will win by at least a dozen points.)

Dave Meinert, owner of the 5 Point Cafe, was an enthusiastic supporter of Mike McGinn four years ago, though would have voted for Murray had he decided to mount a write-in candidacy in the general election, as he seriously considered.

“This was not an easy decision [to back Murray]. We like Mike, the nightlife community does, but at the end of the day, we decided to go with the person we thought could run the city better,” says Meinert.

“McGinn blew it on a couple of things. He had an historic opportunity to reform the police department and he didn’t. Her also didn’t take on the dance tax and Murray did.”

Says Licata: “That was a real shocker, that McGinn lost the nightclubs. He was good on their issues...It’s hard to see how he pulls this through.”

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