Four years after defeat, McGinn seeks another chance at city’s helm

Mike McGinn has — in his words — “mellowed.”

“And when I say I’ve mellowed, part of the mellowing is really understanding that the depth of intensity and passion that comes at you,” he said. “You’ve got to meet that with listening and as much understanding as you can get, and try to work the issue from there.”

Four years removed from his term as Seattle’s mayor, the 57-year old is hoping voters are willing to give the long-time neighborhood advocate and ex-Sierra Club state chair a second chance in the mayor’s office, to replace the person that defeated him in 2013: Ed Murray.

Not since the Great Depression has Seattle sent a mayor back to city hall for a non-consecutive second term, so, why try to be the first one since?

“I feel like I’ve got something to offer, and I really loved doing the job,” he said. “Why not do it again?”

In particular, he’s grown concerned with rising rents and housing prices, and the response of continued regressive taxation on those impacted by the city’s growth.

“I’ve always been motivated by civic growth, so that’s not new,” he said. “But it felt to me like there was an opportunity here to try and bring my experience in dealing with budgets and taxes and community and policies and all the things I worked on; it felt like the door was being opened wide by a mayor and a power structure that was not really looking out for middle class and lower income people.”

McGinn is quick to acknowledge how dramatically the landscape has changed in the city since he was elected in 2009, with few cranes dotting the skyline, and tens of millions in cuts needed to the city’s budget at the time.

“Now the issue is we have so many cranes and so many jobs, how do we deal with those impacts,” he said.

Before seeking to raise more revenue, McGinn said he wants to revisit the approach from the start of his term, and review the city’s spending in line with its priorities.

If additional revenue is needed, he said, the city could look at adjusting the business and occupation (B&O) tax and increase the rate on large companies, while also increasing the current exemption so more small businesses don’t have to pay. The employee head tax, which was repealed by the council in 2009 and raised about $5 million per year, could be another avenue.

Another piece of the budget puzzle for McGinn is funneling revenue into the “basics,” like community center maintenance. As an example, he refers to the tens of millions the city is taking in from real estate excise taxes, a revenue stream that takes a substantial hit when the economy struggles.

“We’re starting to see the city talk about, ‘Well, let’s build more infrastructure. Let’s build more bridges. Let’s build a magnificent waterfront.’ They have all these other ideas about how to spend the new money, let’s build a $160 million precinct,’” he said. “And so, the next time revenues drop again, we’re still going to have the maintenance problem, but now we won’t have the revenues. So let’s focus on basics and maintenance.”

McGinn is also interested in bringing broader perspectives to the housing and affordability conversation, instead of a top-down approach.

“Renters live in neighborhoods, builders live in neighborhoods, everybody lives in neighborhoods pretty much, and there’s a huge diversity of opinion about how do we solve this,” he said. “Let’s get all of that diversity of opinion into the room instead of it being a top-down thing, which has been alienating and divisive. We need to have a dialogue that includes people from every community.”

While the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (or HALA) effort to get people from various backgrounds was well-intentioned, it also created a divisive situation where many felt left out. And once the recommendations are wrapped up, McGinn said the need will still remain to return to the issue of housing affordability for further discussion.

“Young people in this town are saying, ‘Where’s my home? Where’s my house? Where’s my place to live?,’” he said. “That voice needs to be heard in that discussion as loudly as the voice of people saying, ‘Hey, I’m concerned about the rapid change occurring to my neighborhood.’ Both sides of this discussion have valid concerns, but we’ve got to find a way to speak to the middle of the electorate, and not just have the people on the edges of the dialogue yelling at each other.”

After working with investor Chris Hansen to broker a deal for a new sports arena in SODO, McGinn believes the city should approve the street vacation requested, but also continue to vet the proposals for KeyArena. However, he’s concerned about the current timeline for choosing a plan for Seattle Center. 

“To me, the idea that the mayor’s going to pick somebody in June and close the deal within six months, it’s risky from the perspective of the city budget and risky from actually having a good proposal where those guys can go with some level of confidence to the NBA,” he said.

McGinn also touched on the failure of Pronto, the city’s bike-share system that shut down earlier this year. While there was a, “cavalcade of errors,” and poor management, the ex-mayor said the fundamental issue is the difficulty of riding on city streets, and the need to build infrastructure.

“The idea that more casual bikers are going to launch themselves out into the middle of rush hour traffic in downtown Seattle is not realistic,” he said.

He’s intrigued by the interest expressed by several private market players that believe they can operate a system without city involvement.

As the only candidate in the field to hold the position before, he also has his share of things he would have handled differently. He regrets saying during his first campaign that he would fire 200 strategic advisors, and that it made employees doing good work feel like there was a bullseye on their backs. He also wishes the First Hill Streetcar didn’t run in mixed traffic, and that he had questioned that decision further.

But, the experience also comes with its share of benefits, he said.

“Everybody will tell you, ‘I’m going to listen to the public, I’m going to listen to the agencies, I’m going to make smart decisions,’” he said, “but the actual fact of doing it for four years, you get a depth of understanding of what it means to really listen, and I would say that that was true for me.”

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