Mike McGinn has a big, barrel-chested laugh that starts as a chuckle, then quickly crescendos into a long, raucous takeover of the room. It’s almost as if he’s sharing a joke with you, although you don’t quite know all the layers of the joke, because for some reason, he’s still laughing.
Many long-term Seattleites know the sound well—including, most likely, the regular patrons at Gorditos, one of McGinn’s favorite local haunts. It’s a Mexican joint in Greenwood that’s been serving gigantic burritos since back when 85th Street was the ’burbs. I’ve met McGinn for lunch here to talk about his podcast, You, Me, Us, Now, which got rolling on KIRO this spring and has been pulling in such local change agents as civil-rights champion Bob Santos, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, activist Sarra Tekola, and Real Change founder and editor Tim Harris. The podcast is impressive, engaging, great radio—and undeniably a way for the former mayor, ousted by voters in 2013, to keep a hand in the game.
“It’s interesting, as a former mayor, trying to figure out what tools I have to influence the debate,” he says. “I’ve experimented with that in different ways over the last couple of years.”
That he’s trying to influence the debate at all runs counter to some people’s idea of proper political decorum, which dictates leaders should cede the limelight to their successors. But being proper or politically decorous was never his style. Mike McGinn might be willing to sit down, but he’s not going to shut up.
If you haven’t yet heard You, Me, Us, Now, check it out: It’s compelling, and it dives deep. While very simple—just a series of interviews, sandwiched between two songs related to the topic of the episode—it nevertheless draws on radio’s greatest strength: the intimacy of a single human voice speaking directly to you, with all the timbre and emotion of a true-life, round-the-campfire tale. Ardell Shaw, who spent a total of 17 and a half years of his life in prison, describes a home life with a mother “strung out on heroin” and how that led him to link up with guys selling drugs who’d had similar experiences. Tekola tells how she learned what “being a black person in America was”—including the time, in middle school, a white kid invited her to participate in a rap battle and she got suspended for it, while the white kid didn’t. Undocumented immigrant Maru Mora Villalpando recalls a protest she helped stage outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, with activists linking arms inside chunks of PVC pipe so it’d be harder for police to break the human chain, chanting, “You are not alone!”
McGinn’s guests are usually people he met or worked alongside while in office or activists he’s long admired. And while he tees them up and guides the conversation, they carry it; he often doesn’t do much talking at all.
Still, when he does, he goes just as far as he likes. “I’m a former mayor,” he jokes in a recent episode. “I can talk about whatever I want now.”
Indeed, no more currying favor with the City Council, no more fending off relentless “bikelash.” He’s able now to bring his views—and those of his guests—to the airwaves, unfettered. And few who know the man are surprised he’s doing this.
“McGinn is an activist, first and foremost,” says Sol Villarreal, community engagement coordinator during the McGinn administration. “ ‘Politician’ is not the top-level line on his resume, right? He is an activist who became mayor. That’s it. After he was no longer mayor, he was absolutely going to go back to being an activist.”
As a nontraditional mayor, then, McGinn is also not doing what dyed-in-the-wool politicians often do, which is bow out after their last term. Former mayor Greg Nickels, who preceded McGinn at City Hall, says that since he left office, he’s occasionally on-air with KUOW, but that’s about it in terms of local public discourse. “I’ve done a lot of speaking engagements” since leaving the mayor’s office, he says, “mostly on the East Coast, some international”—adding, with a pointed laugh, “Very little here.”
And that was “a very conscious choice,” Nickels says. “I think it’s the right thing not to try and stay in the spotlight when your successor is trying to put their agenda through. If I’m asked to participate in something locally, I certainly do, but at least for those first four years, I felt it was more appropriate to put my energy elsewhere.”
The whole idea for the podcast, McGinn says, sprang from a joke: During his mayoral exit interview on KIRO, McGinn told hosts Dave Ross and Luke Burbank that he was “thinking about being a radio talk-show host” as his next gig. “I knew that would make them laugh,” he says now.
They did laugh, but then they took him up on it; shortly after the exit interview, McGinn got a call from a KIRO producer inviting him to do a podcast. A year later, McGinn figured out his angle: “To kind of use whatever status I had as former mayor to help bring out other voices. And it would be a way for me to engage in a little advocacy myself along the way, as it turns out.”
The podcast also feels like a way for McGinn to come to terms with his mayoral tenure—the issues he struggled with, his successes, his losses. When Sawant was his guest, for instance, he compared his efforts to hers, and introduced the episode by acknowledging that “I ran for office after being an activist for years, and I brought that sense of righteousness to the job. It actually hurt me a little bit. I got beat up a little bit by my opponents and the public for being that way.” Sawant, he said, “is handling that a little better than I did.”
Or when he recited the “five A’s” of Career Bridge training, a jobs program he launched while mayor—Attitude, Attendance, Ability, Adaptability, Accountability—he added, with a self-deprecating laugh: “I remember thinking that was pretty good advice for mayor, too! As mayor, I was really good at Attendance, but I think I was working on the other four.”
Former advisor Villarreal says he detects some nostalgia for the mayor’s office in the show. Being mayor “is by far the best job that he’s ever had and that he probably will ever have,” he says. “I mean, I don’t think you could create a better job description for Mike McGinn than being mayor of Seattle. At a fundamental level, he really cares about Seattle and he wants to see it be the best city it can be. And there’s just not a single position you can have that’s going to give you the ability to do that better than being mayor.”
Today, McGinn describes his bid for mayor as “shooting the moon”—the gutsy play in the card game Hearts, in which a player risks everything he’s got to win. And the reason he went for it had everything to do with being an activist. “I remember thinking, wow, imagine what I could do as mayor,” he says. “I felt like mayor was a great elected position to try to create change from. Being a member of a legislature, you don’t have that same direct capacity.”
Some say McGinn’s legacy was less effective than it could have been, in part because he wouldn’t compromise, wouldn’t play the political game. His executive approach was more direct, like his laugh: loud, long, and in your face. “I was accused as mayor of leading with my chin too often, and I probably did,” he tells me with a shrug. “But I got into it because I was sick and tired of all the papering-over of problems. I thought, well, I’ll just stick my nose in it, and I’ll say what I think. I probably ought to have dialed back a little at times, but to me that was important.”
We’re wrapping up lunch, and McGinn’s cell phone rings. He peers at the number, then puts the phone down. “I can call Robby back,” he says, then explains, “Robby Stern is my next podcast. He was the guy on the podium with Bernie Sanders when the Black Lives Matter people took over,” not to mention “a really badass activist from back in the day. The FBI had a file on him in the ’70s.” Stern has a perspective on activism that a lot of the explosive dialogue after the BLM protests didn’t touch; “I’m really interested to hear his take on that,” McGinn says. And then he laughs—very long, and very loud.