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Controversial Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn tells his side of the story

By Maria Saporta

The Atlanta LINK delegation was predisposed to believe Seattle’s mayor was out of step with the community.

But when Mike McGinn shared his view of the world and his city at a dinner Wednesday night — and all of a sudden, it was a lot harder to make judgments on who was right or wrong.

In some ways, McGinn is an accidental mayor. He entered the civic arena as an environmentalist, a cyclist, an urban advocate.

McGinn championed an effort opposing a transportation sales tax that split the investment 50/50 between roads and transit. That referendum failed. Then McGinn championed the effort supporting a transportation sales tax when all the money would be invested in transit and light rail. That referendum passed.

With little money, McGinn ran for mayor challenging incumbent Greg Nickels, someone he had formerly endorsed. And McGinn won — largely on a platform opposing spending $4.2 billion on a tunnel that would replace the structurally unsound viaduct that mars the city’s skyline and waterfront views.

As an avid bicyclist, McGinn is committed to a city with bike lanes, sidewalks, transit and a great quality of life. It’s those amenities that continue attracting a younger and creative generation that launch great companies.

Throw in a vibrant downtown, a commitment to historic preservation, parks and green space along with an active music and cultural scene, and one has all the ingredients needed to foster a “creative community.”

McGinn explained that the massive tunnel project appeals to those who favor expensive and expansive infrastructure projects. He went on to say that the deal the local leadership cut with the state stipulated that any cost over-runs would have to be paid for by the City of Seattle.

But for McGinn, it’s more a question of the kind of city Seattle wants to be 30 years from now — a city that has invested in a tunnel to move cars or a city that has invested in streets with sidewalks, bike lanes and transit.

A meeting of the mayors — Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn visits with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed during LINK trip (Photo: Maria Saporta)

“Where the process goes wrong is not bringing in the public,” said McGinn, who rode his bicycle to the dinner at Canlis Restaurant. “Opinion leaders, business leaders, elected leaders align around something, but the people don’t align around it. The product was not in line with the region’s plans for new transit.”

Later McGinn added that a lot of leaders “are out of touch.”

Since becoming mayor, McGinn has drawn lots of critics. When asked why community leaders have turned on him, McGinn answered: “’Turning on you’ would make the suggestion that they were ever with me in the first place.”

McGinn certainly does not seem to mind being a non-conformist leader who is willing to take on the establishment. He told the Atlanta group how much he enjoys meeting with diverse constituencies and creating a grass-roots relationship between neighborhoods and city government.

He obviously believes that his mission as mayor is to represent the general populous and implement policies that will create a stronger city decades from now.

“I have loved being mayor,” McGinn said. “It is the most challenging, rewarding work I’ve ever undertaken. You have to be fit and ready and focused on the future…. I find it such a gift that I wake up everyday and try to make this city a better place.”

After McGinn spoke, members of the Atlanta delegation began to wonder whether Seattle’s mayor did make sense after all.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. a transit fan May 5, 2011 12:26 pm

    This is a learning trip, right? Is there any chance Reed will lobby to revise the adopted funding guidelines for our proposed transportation tax? Mike McGinn might have some good advice.Report

  2. Seattle Resident May 5, 2011 3:01 pm

    How about getting educated on the most recent poll numbers for McSchwinn? Most people can’t stand him and think that he hasn’t done much in his tenure other than to try and obstruct something he said he wouldn’t do during his campaign.Report

  3. Seattle Area Resident May 5, 2011 4:13 pm

    I wouldn’t advise anyone to take advice from Mayor McOne-term. The only reason he got elected was because he lied to the voters. The electorate was unsure about him and the other candidate, another political neophyte. So McOne-term lied and told them that although he opposes the tunnel, he wouldn’t stand in its way. Since taking office, that is all that he has done — try to block the tunnel. The City Council supports the tunnel 8 – 1, the County Council and Executive support it and the state legislature approved it. The business community supports it as do many environmental advocates, who want to get rid of the dangerous urban blight called the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Once the viaduct is gone, much of that land will become open space.

    Our mayor is in way over his head and has absolutely no clue what he is doing.Report

  4. Another Seattle Resident May 5, 2011 4:30 pm

    Only the most ardent McGinn zealot (and there are very few of them) would believe what is being portrayed in this article about him. Your delegation would be better served seeking a different model to emulate. The “Seattle Process” is widely recognized in Seattle as an interminable, expensive, and divisive waste of time, energy and resources. It is often couched as a populist approach, but instead is an endless passive-aggressive onslaught by a minority of interest groups who have failed to get their way. Their solution is to refuse to accept defeat and keep the debate going and going and going until nothing ever gets done. Beware.Report

  5. Yet Another Seattle Resident May 6, 2011 12:06 pm

    Atlantans: The only controversy about McGinn is that he’s always asking questions … he’s a striking albeit a little unconventional leader who is committed to making our city a better place.Report

  6. Seattle Guy May 6, 2011 12:32 pm

    This article ignores the reality of Seattle’s current Mayor – in the running for worst Mayor in the history of any major American city.

    McGinn has no viable alternatives to the things he opposes. He has failed to use the Mayor’s office to actually accomplish anything – apparently mistaking words with action.

    He picks fights with business. Progressives are running from him because he’s bad for the causes he champions.

    Seattle is a liberal city. It is also a city that expects leading politicians to accomplish things. McGinn has turned out to be a huge waste of time.

    People get it. He is enormously unpopular in Seattle.Report

  7. SpaceyG on Twitter May 8, 2011 6:42 pm

    Mayor Reed is no Mayor McGinn. His water-toting for GA Rs regarding SHEP is a prime example. SHEP will only produce more surface/road/trafffic chaos than we currently are unable to deal with here in Atlanta.Report

  8. Fifth Generation Seattleite May 10, 2011 11:45 pm

    I have to take issue with the following statement:

    “And McGinn won — largely on a platform opposing spending $4.2 billion on a tunnel that would replace the structurally unsound viaduct that mars the city’s skyline and waterfront views.”

    In fact, right before the election and after the city council voted to adopt the deep bore tunnel as the replacement for the SR 99 Viaduct, McGinn reversed himself and said he wouldn’t stand in the way of the tunnel. After that, his poll numbers rose and the consensus is that he won the election by reversing his tunnel stand.

    Since being elected, he has shamelessly done everything he can to stop the tunnel. Many of us here in Seattle think of him as a bald-faced liar and certain one-term mayor.Report


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