Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Mike McGinn, Mayor of Seattle

  • By Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 6/11/2023
  • Essay 22736
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Mike McGinn (b. 1959) served as Mayor of Seattle from 2009 to 2013. In this 2022 interview with HistoryLink's Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott, McGinn discusses his early political influences, his views on how to build sustainable infrastructure, and how he came to oppose the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's central waterfront. 

Activism, Greenwood, Green Seattle              

Mike McGinn: Well, I wouldn't say I was terribly politically active in high school and through college, but I worked for a congressman from Eugene, Oregon, Jim Weaver, and he was really a very progressive guy. Fought for wilderness, fought for organic farming, tried to stop overfishing of our waters, removed pesticides from the national forests, stoped road building, and he fought the nuclear power plants. He fought the Whoops, nuclear power plants, and he failed in that fight, and they were built and then there was the largest municipal bond default in our history. So that was very influential on me, watching the way politics worked in DC, and I went to law school, probably in part because I wanted to credential myself to do more good work.

I noticed lawyers got paid better than other people and at that time in my career it seemed like a good idea, and then I ended up working in a law firm. At the U-Dub I did become president of the Graduate and Professional Students Senate and that represented the eight and a half thousand graduate professional students within that university ecosystem. More than half of which were teaching assistants or research assistants and it was a paid gig too, which was awesome. So I got through law school without too much debt, but we fought to preserve the Commodore Duchess as apartments rather than housing. They were tearing down old housing to build campus and we got them to invest in new housing. We raised issues around sexual harassment of grad students by professors, things like that. Health benefits for TAs and RAs, we won that.

And then I went to work at a law firm, as I said, and I at first dedicated myself to making sure I kept that job. It seemed pretty important, particularly with the family, but then I started volunteering within the Sierra Club. Started on those types of wilderness and natural-land issues, natural-resource issues. It was the timber wars; it was right after the Gingrich Revolution in which the congressional delegation of Washington state flipped over to Republicans primarily. So I gravitated toward the political campaigns as well, and started overseeing the Sierra Club's endorsement process and included trying to bring those efforts around Congress to state legislative races.

Somewhere in there I moved to Greenwood, and Greenwood didn't have sidewalks. We were past the old city line, and I couldn't walk two blocks to the neighborhood store with my kids without it being really scary. The roads were really wide, the cars cut through the side streets at very high speeds and there were no sidewalks. So I started organizing my neighborhood around that. It was neighborhood planning, it was the Paul Schell era. So we led Paul Schell and Jim Diers on walks through the neighborhood and we pushed for it ... 

I was repeatedly told, "Well, there's no money for sidewalks." I said, "What do you mean there's no money for sidewalks? We're a big city." He's like, "No, we don't even have money to maintain our arterials, Mike." I remember the SDOT people telling me, "We don't have money to build sidewalks on side streets. We can't even take care of our major streets." At the time, I believed that can't be true, and I can report to you that is even true today. The city does not have sufficient money in its tax base and regular taxing to do the regular street maintenance that you would want to do to keep your roads in good condition, period. Much less build new infrastructure. So that was pretty influential to me. So that pulled me into, well, how do you get money for sidewalks?

So I started getting pulled into various stakeholder committees at the city level, on sidewalks and transportation stuff, and I was also working on redevelopment issues in my neighborhood. What do you do with all these auto-dominated business areas? How do you deal with that? And then with the Sierra Club now, I was pushing then Mayor Greg Nichols to take a stronger role on climate because that was emerging as the most important issue. And he did, he launched the Mayor's Climate Protection Initiative. And I'd been earlier appointed to something called the Urban Sustainability Advisory Panel, a city committee that advised the mayor, met some great people, learned a lot. And by this time I was now highly, highly motivated on climate. It was a disaster coming for us, and it was very clear. The evidence was super clear.

And I was appointed then to what was called the Green Ribbon Commission, to come up with the city's first climate action plan, and that only deepened my feelings. We had a scientist come in and brief us. And warmer weather would mean that our western forests, which are normally wet, would dry out, and they would start to burn like the eastern forests do, east of the Cascade Crest, I mean. The storms that came in would be stronger and harder than before because the way in which warming climate loads up the atmosphere with more moisture, and a lot more of that would fall as rain, not as snow, because our snowpack would be melting and temperatures would be higher.

So this was in the mid 2000s we're getting these briefings, 2004, 2005. And if you looked at Seattle, we had water power. So we didn't have the problem that other places had, which was they were powered by coal. If we were going to reduce our emissions, we had to look at what the real sources were, and our single largest source was transportation at 40 percent. And so I was like, "Well, this is all coming together now. The sidewalks, the transit, the housing compact, walkable communities connected by transit, that's how you get off of oil. That's how we make Seattle a leader on climate." Which is what we said we were. But what's going on is everybody's saying the words, but they're still building the highways. They're still building the highways. There's billions and millions of highways, and there's literally, "Mike, there's no money for sidewalks. You have to understand there's no money for sidewalks." And that was it, man. So that's it. That's the whole story right there.

After the Earthquake

Dominic Black: So I'm going to ask you a very obvious question as a follow up, which is, what was your point of view, post 2001, post the earthquake, as you started to see the public discourse take shape around what should be done?

MM: Right. Well, the debate immediately went to, how do we replace the highway? How do we continue moving the same number of vehicles? And that wasn't the right question. The right question was, how do you support the needs of the community? And you could support the needs of the community in multiple ways. You could build transit, you could build more urban housing, you could build more bike lanes and sidewalks, that is in fact part of the solution. But the immediate answer that I saw was that there's no process, it was just kind of delivered from on high. There's no analysis of what was needed. And not surprising, when you now look at internal politics here, the biggest political interest in a city are its downtown commercial interests, and its business interests more broadly. And they wanted to get rid of the highway, but you had a big chunk of the business interest, the Port, Boeing, et cetera, Microsoft, they believed in highways.

So you kind of get an alliance between the downtown interests who want to enhance their property values and the other interests who want the highway capacity because they're trapped in this 1950s and '60s thinking that it's actually helpful. And that's that. So a mayor comes out for a tunnel, and the state is like, "Why are we going to build gold-plated infrastructure for the city, and you get a new elevated?" But neither the city nor the state asked, "What's the best way to actually deal with the transportation needs of the city, given what we're trying to do?" And meanwhile, also, Gregoire and Nickels are both out there saying they're leaders on climate, but it was just simply not part of their discussion.

DB: I guess they have a different way of characterizing meeting the needs of the city, right?

MM: Oh. Yeah, no, Gregoire told me in person, I was trying to destroy the city. The city would fall apart without those cars driving through it underground. Yeah. No, and of course she would characterize it differently. But come on, you've got your downtown business interests, you got the King County Labor Council and the construction trades and the State Labor Council, you've got the Port businesses, you've got your state's biggest employers. These are all the people that pay for elections. This is the coalition that pushes through highways regardless of their costs. And that's really powerful. These are the people that finance both the Democratic side and the Republican side of elections. But you don't run for office usually without either business support or labor support. That just doesn't happen. And they're aligned around highway construction as a solution.

Why Run for Office?

DB: So as this is sort of taking shape and these discussions are happening, why did you decide to step up? Because lots of people probably had similar views but didn't do that. So what was it that made you think ... 

MM: Oh, there was an intermediate step here. So in this process of becoming more motivated about climate, and as I saw my neighborhood work and my climate work and my environmental work cohering, and political work, I started a nonprofit in the city of Seattle that was focused on sustainable cities, basically. And transportation was a big piece of it. So we worked on parks and open space, we worked on transportation issues, we helped get complete streets legislation passed, with partners. And we also advocated for more housing to be built in the city, so people wouldn't have to drive long distances to get to the places they wanted to go, more mixed-use neighborhoods. And I was very disappointed by that point in the incumbent, and through the Sierra Club, we had led a campaign to stop the roads and transit campaign, the ballot measure. They had said, "If you want more light rail, you have to build highways." They literally stuck them together.

And we ran a campaign and it felt like we were just running to send a message first. But we attracted really good, talented people to the campaign. And then we realized we could beat it. And we did. It started polling at 56 percent. And by election day, I think it was down to 44 percent. And I think the proponents had spent $5 million, huge quantities of money from labor and the business communities I mentioned earlier. I think we spent around $50,000 to $75,000, and we beat it with a great earned media campaign. So that was going on, the tunnel debate was going on as well. And the Sierra Club joined forces with the People's Waterfront Coalition and supported their effort for an alternative. And again, it was all motivated by, let's build the things that help us deal with climate, which by the way, are also great for health, reduce pollution, great for equity, who drives more, and who needs transit? Great for economic vitality. It turns out to be far better investments in a place than highways.

That's why the downtown business property owners don't want a highway on the waterfront, it's bad for property values to have highways next to you. So I was doing all of that, and I had no intention of running for office at that point. I had three kids. I knew people ran for office, but I was like, "That's too hard. It's too speculative. It's really challenging." People had approached me to run for city council. I'd been named as a potential candidate a few times because I had something of a profile locally, not a high profile, but a profile of the type of person who might run. And I'd always turned it down. It's like, "No, I got a great gig. I've got my nonprofit. I'm working on stuff I believe in. I'm growing this."

But I was looking at the mayor's race, and it's like, "Well, who's going to run against them? Who's going to run against him, who really believes in the stuff I believe in, has those values? Or who's going to run against him who might not have those values, but at least they might be close?" And what became really apparent was Greg Nickels, whom, by the way, I like and respect to this day, I just want to say that. And he's always been a real gentleman in all of his interactions with me, and was really a longtime public servant as well, and still a public servant. He had all the endorsements, he had the money, so nobody was taking a run at him. It was pretty clear nobody was going to emerge.

And one day, a light bulb went off. I was encouraging people to run. I was trying to recruit my friend, Mike O'Brien to run. And I said to him, "Mike, look, I could beat this guy." And I left the conversation with Mike going, "Yeah, I could beat this guy." So the path was open for a community advocate who knew how to run grassroots campaigns, who had a strong message, because I thought Greg was vulnerable and everybody thought he was invulnerable. And it turned out I had the values of someone I was looking for. So I went to all the political folks I'd been working with. And at first they kind of blew me off, but they thought about it too and they went, "Yeah, you could win. Are you serious?" And I was. And we launched.

We were going to do the right thing on climate. We were going to do the right thing on the future. We weren't just going to cave and make believe all that stuff wasn't true. We weren't going to do that. Man. Look, I was going to meetings, Al Gore was coming to town. Gregoire stands up, "Oh, we're for all of this." I grabbed Al Gore as he's walking up the aisle, and I go, "Al, could you tell Governor Gregoire to stop backing all the highways?" And he said to me, "You tell her." So I was like, okay, next time I see her, I'll say, "Al Gore told me to tell you to stop building all the highways."

But anyway, I mean, I was going to event after event where they're all grandstanding on climate, and they're for roads in transit. They're for a bigger 520. They're for pushing 509 through black and brown community south of SeaTac. They're for the North Spokane Highway, and they're for billions and billions of dollars for a new highway when we don't even have sidewalks in the city. What the eff? That's what was motivating me, it was as simple as that. It's like, "We can beat these guys and we'll do the right thing. And we beat them on roads in transit, and we stopped that tunnel once with the no and no debate. We'll just go in and we'll stop it again."

Choosing a Post-Highway Vision

Jennifer Ott: I was thinking as you were talking about spending money on highways, that doesn't even get questioned. That's a pretty massive change that would've had to happen in the timeframe that it was expected we would need to replace the viaduct. There's a lot of things that go into that being a hard change for people to think more broadly.

MM: Sure. But San Francisco had torn down the Embarcadero and not replaced it with a highway. And New York City's West Side Highway had disappeared. It didn't disappear, it fell down, and they replaced it with a boulevard. And Congress of New Urbanism had their Highways to Boulevards program they were running. So while it may have seemed completely unlikely, it seemed like a thing. And today, President Biden and us, DOT Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, have launched a reconnecting communities program to fund cities to remove highways. So in politics, things seem like they can't move, and then they start to move and then they move all at once. So it's certainly easy for me as well as others to sit at this point and say, "How the hell are we going to beat him?" In fact, people ask me that all the time, "How the hell are we going to beat him?" But they asked the same question when we said we were going to beat the roads and transit ballot measure, and we beat it, and other cities were doing it.

And I think we have to remember something else I haven't said yet, Seattle holds itself out as one of the most progressive cities in the nation. In fact, I think it believes it's the most progressive city in the nation. So if there was any place that could really start to show that leadership, it seemed like Seattle was a place that could do it. And so I felt like that's what I was doing with Great City. I quit my job as a lawyer because I believed we could change culture and investments. And I still believe it could have happened if other leadership was prepared to do the job of leadership, which was to tell the public about the threat over the horizon and help mobilize them to create change. I mean, like I said, more cities are doing it now than ever before. So I think that was possible for us to do, given the things that had already happened and now things we see happening other places. There are real choices made by people in this process.

Funding, Taxes, Transportation, Jobs

JO: So another question that's come up that I haven't quite sussed out all the moving parts to it, but tracing back to how transportation funding can and can't be used depending on its source and its path through government, and the effect of [Tim] Eyman's initiatives limiting new funding sources, de facto limiting. Did you ever wrestle with that in your mind about, where the actual revenue streams could come from for a streets and transit solution?

MM: Sure. Absolutely. And so has the state legislature. You notice that Sound Transit has very substantial funding sources. So they have found funding sources for transit when they want to change the laws, right? Like, the buckets, it turns out that most of the buckets are in fact made by the legislature, but there's also more permeability between buckets than people want to tell you. So for example, the state gas tax can be used for highway purposes only. Well, go look up what highway purposes means, it's right in the statue, it can be used for any roadway purpose. It could be used to build sidewalks, it could be used to build a bike lane, it could be used to support bus improvements. Cities are starved of revenue to fund things, and that's a state legislative choice as well – they give us certain choices. And you mentioned Eyman, so ... the amount that property taxes can increase per year is limited by Eyman, and well below the rate of inflation, so that's a problem, a major one. And over the years, what it means is that there are more and more special levies.

So I was involved in a stakeholder group that helped bring the first Bridging The Gap Levy, a city transportation levy to the public, and argued – was part of the discussion, an internal argument – about what portion goes to what function. But cities can raise property taxes, and they do. There's nothing that prohibits the state from sending gas taxes straight to the city. In fact, they do send a portion of the gas tax straight to cities. So that's what I mean by permeability between buckets. So it's not like, "Oh my God, we must build highways at all costs, otherwise the money will evaporate and we have nothing to do with it." Not at all. I mean, the maintenance backlog on the state highway system is through the roof, yet they go out and buy new all the time. Right?

So they burden the next legislature with the interest costs of the debt on the other new highways, which are also decaying over time and need maintenance. So when the recession hits, you still got to pay all your interest debts on new infrastructure with your current tax sources. So why is there no money for sidewalks or maintaining the streets? That's why. It's a mismanagement of the existing funds, and by choosing to privilege new construction over everything else.

But that's the political dynamic. That enables the business leaders, the labor leaders – four billion dollars – and you can pick your number, you can make it 3.1 billion or four billion, whatever it is. That's a lot of money. And there are a lot of people at the receiving end of that money, and they will fight to keep that money going. So really the best way to understand transportation spending in the state of Washington, to some degree nationally, it's not about, "Oh, how do we best use this money for the proper outcome?" It's there's an ecosystem of economic actors who are entirely dependent on those dollars. And it's the job of the legislature to, on a regular basis in the state of Washington, come up with another five or six or $10 billion to keep that ecosystem of actors alive because they don't do other things in the same way.

And that's what drives this. And that's one of the things that makes it so hard to switch the dynamic. We're not addicted to driving. Americans easily switch to other modes when those modes are built and provided, and people do. But the economic actors that rely on those subsidies in which taxes are collected and funneled towards them – they're addicted to the dollars. They don't know what to do if they don't get them. So every few years on a regular basis, we get a bunch of money for things that we've always wanted to build, and the maintenance backlogs gets worse, people get asthma, the climate gets hotter, but we're getting our money.

DB: Can I ask you then ...

MM: Honestly, being that close to the system and seeing how it actually worked, I was not as outspoken as probably before. I tend to see the best in people, I tend to be very idealistic, but I just saw ... you know ... what's that Sinclair Lewis line? It's hard to argue with somebody about the benefits of something when his income depends on believing the opposite.

DB: Well, that sort of brings me to my next question, which was really about how much of this ecosystem was visible to you when you were elected mayor?

MM: Oh, highly visible. Highly visible. Here, I'll tell you one story. I told you I wanted municipal broadband, right? And so I went into the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce PAC interview, endorsement interview, and I think I had 30 minutes, which wasn't a lot for an endorsement interview, but they were never going to endorse me anyway. But I remember 20 of the 30 minutes were spent by the representative of Comcast lecturing me about why municipal broadband was a horrible idea. 

So the chair of the chamber then was a lawyer at the firm that floated the bonds for the WSDOT projects, you know? And municipal broadband would be awesome for businesses. Imagine if all the small businesses of Seattle could have access to municipal broadband, kind of in the same way we get municipal electricity, right? Seattle City Light. Or we have a port that's a municipal port, rather than letting there be a monopoly on access to the waterfront. That's why we have a port. You can read about it on HistoryLink, right? That's why we have it.

Well, what if we had that same gateway to the internet, that it was low-cost, public good available to everybody? But Comcast needs that money, and Comcast is on the board. So the interests of the business community writ large are subordinate to the interests of the big companies that drive the chamber. Same is true on the transit and highways type of stuff. Yeah, so I saw it all the time and there was no way ... I'll give you two more examples:

We used to talk about it. I could not get businesspeople to support me in that 2009 race, and it was very clear. People would say, "Yeah, Mike, I like you, but I'm getting a lot of pressure from all of my business colleagues. There's no way I can support you." And I, ultimately, in the general, got endorsements from a few service-worker unions, and they had interviews where you were in front of the service workers. So it was pretty clear that I was the better candidate than the corporate executive I was facing. And by the way, I like Joe [Mallahan] too. Joe was a real person who had real reasons for running.

But the service workers came up to me, and they said, "Yeah, the staff of all the construction sites told us we can't endorse you, because he opposes the tunnel, and we want that tunnel for our construction jobs. And so we're taking a big risk." You know, they needed to impress upon me the risk they were taking and how important it was, what they were doing. And Washington Environmental Council never endorsed me, Washington Conservation Voters, even though I was the environmentalist in the race, because their board was the wealthy. Their donors were the wealthy people who had their vision of a magnificent waterfront. So here I was running on the climate, and I couldn't get their endorsement because of donor power from really wealthy people in the city. I'm sure some of them are donors to HistoryLink too.

DB: That does get to ...

MM: I saw it. I saw it all, man. I saw it all.

DB: But that thing about the construction sites, I mean, that gets to the ... I mean, we're getting off the tunnel here, but this is actually pretty crucial to the decision-making around the tunnel and the viaduct replacement, right? What's your answer to that?

MM: Well, and there are studies out there on this, Smart Growth America cites to them, Transportation for America cites to them. They did studies on federal infrastructure funding. Money for sidewalk and biking and transit improvements all create more jobs per dollar than highway dollars do. Transportation, if you have to depend on an automobile to get around, is the second-highest household expense after housing itself, high as 20 percent. So you could reduce costs for all employees, right? The costs of buying, maintaining can run up as high as 20 percent of your ... Well, it depends on your income bracket, et cetera, but much, much more expensive.

So you can run a place more economically on walking, biking, and transit with abundant housing close to destinations than you can on sprawl and highways, et cetera. That's why we can't afford it, and why we're getting traffic jams, before we even get to the externalities of climate change and asthma and other health effects. So it's much better, but that's not a persuasive argument to these unions, because there's a bill in the legislature for three billion or four billion or whatever, and when ground is broken on that, someone's going to call me up for a job, and everything else sounds further away and more speculative as to whether I get the job. So as a union, we're for that bill and those dollars.

Now, they'll go down there and be for Sound Transit too. But all of those granular, sidewalk building and street-repair jobs, that might not be their union. In fact, some of that might be a non-union job. It shouldn't be, but it might not be. It might be a city employee, building crews doing it. It might be a small contractor doing it. It's not their job. So I don't know if you've ever heard this line about labor: they'd build their own gallows if it was a union job. And there's a certain, which has been told to me by labor leaders, there's a certain grim reality to that with the highway construction and climate change.

The Council and Cost Overruns  

DB: So on day one as mayor, once you're over the euphoria ...

MM: I'm not sure if there was a euphoria or not, but I think day one of being sworn in, the euphoria had passed by then. There's a transition. There is a transition between election night ...

DB: I know it's not the next morning, but one of the things I remember from living there was that there was this discussion about the City of Seattle being on the hook for cost overruns. What were you, and where was that information coming from?

MM: I'm sorry. The bill that was passed by the legislature said that anything over 3.1 billion would be paid for by us. I mean, that was what the legislature said. I mean, everybody liked to make believe it wasn't a real thing, but the only way the bill got through the legislature and got enough votes was by adding that provision. So that's what the bill said. It was in the law, and nobody wanted to try and change it. In fact, people would say to me, if we went and tried to change it, it would kill the project, they would say to me, as if that was evidence that it was a good provision or it was necessary to not challenge it. So they were kind of engaged in this double talk on it. It's not real, but we can't change it, because that's real: if we tried to change it, they'd kill the project.

DB: So once you were in office, what was your strategy for actually managing to halt the project and find time to implement an alternative?

MM: Really, the strategy was to demonstrate that there was enough risk and enough challenge to get the city council to change their minds. But what became very clear was that they had no intention of changing their minds, and then of course there was an effort to try to get that decision to the ballot, which became a very crabbed and cramped issue, right? It wasn't very clear what it was. And by that point, I think there was exhaustion on the issue with the public. They felt like they didn't really have any other choice at that point.

So that was the strategy. So, you know, we worked to take the seawall off the table, because everybody was saying it was about the seawall. And it's like, "Well, let's fix that. We'll send a bond proposal down to the city council right now. We should fund a seawall. We're ready to fund it right now. So we don't have any opposition to the seawall." And we retained an expert to analyze the risks, Tom Neff, and it's really worth reading his report, because he pretty much called every piece of it in his report. Like, his report wasn't a prediction, it was an analysis of risk, but it almost reads like a prediction, because he pointed out the varied soils, the challenges of a machine that was larger than one that had ever been built before, and he also pointed to the confusion about how who was in charge of what and how things would work, which turned out to be actually a pretty significant ... You know, in a big project like that, it turns out getting the lines of communication and lines of authority clear and decision-making clear is something that goes on.

Now, mind you, it wasn't necessarily that hard a prediction for him to make. There's a researcher who researches mega-projects, whose name I forget but I certainly cited him a lot at the time, who talks about, I think the phrase he used was strategic misrepresentation. So even today, today they're going to the legislature to bail out the tolling. I mean, that $400 million number they came up on tolling, they were going to raise $400 million, that was just made up. I believe, based on documents we saw at the time, that that number was proposed by their consultants – not their engineering or traffic consultants, their communications consultants, as to how they were going to get from ...

Let me just back up a little bit.

The state had committed 2.4 billion, and it was being advertised as it would only cost 3.1. So they came up with 300 million from the port. So how do we get from 2.7 now to 3.1? Saying, "Oh, tolling. We'll raise 400 million from tolling." So the 400 million was backed into. It wasn’t ... there was no analysis that suggested that that facility could support 400 million. Um. And it doesn't, which anybody could have told them and did. But they said, "We've got this covered, there will be no cost overruns. That's an imaginary law. Even though it's written into law, it's imaginary, it isn't really a law. Don't worry, everything's going to be fine. Pay no attention, despite the change." All of these things. The coalition was so immense and so powerful, it really was. It really was. So I couldn't budge the council.

Relationship with the City Council

MM: They were sad. It turned out that they were ... I mean, you're refreshing my recollection, as we'd say in the legal field. It was sad. They were, "Oh my god." Well, I'm busy running a race. I'm busy running a race for mayor, and I'm catching on, right? And it's clear to me we're catching on. In fact, it was kind of one of the pivotal parts of the campaign, was when labor and business put together a big press conference to denounce me and Mike O'Brien, and I remember as soon as they did that press conference in the campaign, it's like, "Yeah, we got them," right? "We got them now." This is what the race is going to be about. Because they'd been ignoring me until then.

So I'm running the race, it's a tight race, and here are two examples of how things were set. One was I'd actually, Ron Judd, Ron Judd who worked for Gregoire, actually met me privately on Phinney Ridge at the 74th Street Alehouse, I think. It might've been Prost, but I think it was 74th Street Alehouse. And yes, he assured me Gregoire was not going to get in the race, and it was kind of this back-channel communication about, you know, he's trying to feel me out and report back to his boss. And I got a phone call from Ron Judd one night saying, "Hey, just want to give you a heads-up. There's this video simulation of what would happen to the viaduct in an earthquake, and it's going to be on the news tonight at 10. So I just want to give you a heads-up." Right? This is kind of a courtesy thing that elected officials do, and politicians do for each other, so that you're not completely taken by surprise when a reporter calls. You call up your other side and they know.

So this is like an hour before. I said, "Can you send me a copy of the video?" And he also explains to me that, "Hey, we weren't trying to get this out there. I just need to know that there was a Freedom of Information Act request." Well, we later learned that the Freedom ... that was the first time I'd ever heard of where a Freedom of Information Act request was provided directly to a TV station. Like, it wasn't given by the person who requested it.

And so that was part of the campaign, that I didn't care about safety, because I was standing – their analysis was I was standing in the way of the project that would protect the public from the viaduct falling down. And it was my position, "Well, if it's that unsafe, close it. Just close it." But their response to that was, no, driving on it is more important than safety. So once again, we have to take care of all the cars.

The other thing that happened in the election was about – it was a very big event in the campaign. It was actually a very big event on the campaign. The city council passed – really just out of the blue, there was no particular reason for them to take this vote other than the election was coming up – they took a vote to confirm that the tunnel was their preferred choice of a solution. There was no other triggering event, like WSDOT didn't need something from them. There was no contract to be signed or anything.

And, you know, through Public Disclosure Act requests that were done by others into interference in the campaign, it was really clear that the, you know, Ron Judd, there were emails from Ron Judd to the transportation head and to Gregoire saying, "Our tunnel is under threat," after I won the primary, "so we have to defend our tunnel against McGinn." So there was very clearly a working relationship occurring between the governor, governor's staff, city council around, "We need to remove the threat that McGinn poses." And so the video was released to the TV station, the vote was taken, and I had to respond to those things in the campaign. And so at that point, I said, "Look, I understand this is council's choice. I'm going to try to change their mind, but it's the council's choice. But I'm going to keep fighting on cost overruns, because we shouldn't get cost overruns." And they tried to portray that as a flip flop, but it was an actual statement of the situation at the time, right?

I mean, I didn't have the authority to do something different than what the city council voted on. That's just not the way separation of powers works in city government. And despite their portrayal of me as a bad man, it wasn't like I was going to just break the law. I was a lawyer, and I actually believed in the rule of law, and I believed that you have to follow laws. But that they didn't view it that way. They didn't view it that way. I mean, they were using government resources on a campaign. They were doing all sorts of things like that. But I certainly did.

City Council Overrides the Mayor’s Veto

MM: You know, so, recollection, you have to, again, replay the tape to make sure you have exact dates and times. There was an agreement that had to be entered into between the city and the state to cover all sorts of contingencies and risks, and so we had a multi-agency team on that. I had my mayor's office staff person Carl Marquardt working on that, overseeing the team, because we needed to coordinate amongst the various departments and be very clear about what our position was. And I wrote a letter to the governor. I wrote a letter to the governor. Do you have that letter?

I wrote a letter to the governor at that time, which kind of just laid out my position and included some of the things I just said. And I said, "Here are the risks," and that we were going to work to ... we were asking the governor to put into the agreement that we would not have to pay cost overruns, that they would. So that's what we used as one of the important provisions. And we put that together, and the council – I forget the exact mechanism by which it happened – but the council rejected that. I'm trying to remember whether O'Brien actually made them vote on it or not. Council rejected that provision and then signed an agreement that did not include the change in the cost-overrun provision. And I vetoed it, because I didn't agree with it, and I knew I'd get overridden, but I vetoed it.

And it was overridden at that point, at which point people went out to collect signatures, and I supported that effort, the people that wanted to oppose the tunnel. I definitely supported that effort to collect signatures and give the public a chance to vote. We're now getting into some real Pete Holmes territory here, because Pete Holmes was ... I don't even know where to start with Pete but, Pete was clearly, by that time, a tunnel proponent, and he did his damnedest to try to prevent a ... well, he tried to prevent any vote at all, and did succeed in preventing any type of clear vote on, clean vote on, up or down vote on the tunnel.

DB: How did he succeed in preventing that? I'm not clear on that.

MM: Well, there were a couple of pieces, and it might not have been him alone, but one of the things that Pete did was he brought a lawsuit. I've not gone back and thought about this in a while, but I do recall this. We got wind that he was going to bring a lawsuit saying that even if people collected signatures, that was meaningless, because this was not the type of thing that could be put to a public vote. So there is in fact a body of law as to what actions of the city council can be put to a public vote and which cannot, and I forget the exact contours of that law, but normally, oftentimes, it's brought after the suit, after the vote, right? It's like, "Oh, that's not properly subject. The vote doesn't count."

In his case, he was bringing it early. And we got wind of it, and I actually called up Pete. I remember I was at the sideline of one of my kids' ultimate frisbee games down in South Park, and I said, "Pete, Pete, look, I don't think you're right about the law, and before you do anything, we should meet. Can we meet on Monday morning and take a look at this and talk about it before you do it? And I am one of your clients, Pete. I am the mayor, right? So I think you should talk to me before you file this."

And I arrived Monday morning to work to learn that a lawsuit had been filed to block it. He told me he would, and then he didn't, but whatever. So I arrived to discover that the ballot measure proponents then brought a lawsuit saying Pete doesn't have a client, right? Because the city attorney, it's kind of basic that the attorney represents the interests of their client, not the interests of him or herself. So who's your client, Pete? Did the city council ask you to do this? Or did the mayor ask you to do this? And the court concluded that Pete did not have a client, so they switched him to a defendant in the case, and they substituted in, I think WSDOT as the plaintiffs.

So that was that story. And so then the court, I don't remember all the details here, the court, though, looked at each of the different, looked at it and said, "Well, actually, only a narrow piece of the agreement is subject to a public vote, and these other pieces are not." So it was all ... I don't know that if we'd gotten a clean vote at that stage that we would've won it. I'm not going to claim that. I think that there was a lot of decision fatigue at that point, and a fair political analysis was that I was past my ability to win at that point, because I just hadn't moved enough of the public. It is worth saying ... And it hurt me. It hurt me politically, there's no question about it, and I had to build back from that after that vote, and built back quite substantially, but not all the way.

Up Against the Establishment

DB: You know, what comes across is that you feel that you were very much up against a very broad establishment on every front. How does that feel as a human being?

MM: You know ... what a wonderful question. What a wonderful question. I probably spent a lot of time with that question. I probably spent a lot of time with that question. And obviously it's a number of years post-office – I've integrated that experience into my life experiences quite a bit at this point. So I have a much deeper understanding and acceptance of it now. That's why I say being in office radicalized me a little bit is like, "Holy cow, like facts and reason have no power with this group right here. They are so hellbent on doing this thing."

I was a lawyer, so I understood how people can convince themselves of the rightness of their cause. I don't think any of them think that they were saying the wrong thing, right? Like, I'm sure they've convinced themselves that they were fighting for the right thing, and obviously, I've convinced myself I was fighting for the right thing, but at that point this was not a matter that was subject to reason, right? Of what's the best way to spend money to do things. I mean, look at this thing. It's moving what? 40,000 cars a day. I think that's less than the Ballard Bridge. That's like two or three bus lines. It's just a waste of money, even on their terms, it's terrible, right?

DB: Well that brings me to the question about your post-office now, quite long period. How do you see the solution that has come about? I mean, you've mentioned it several times, it’s quite clear what you think about it – I need a clear statement from you about it. So without me talking over you ...

MM: Yeah, yeah. You were asking me how I felt about it, and I kind of just diverged into an area. I know you want to talk about it, but it was really hard. It was really hard, actually. It was actually very frustrating to see the number of people that were silenced that may have wanted to weigh in. People that I knew really believed in a better environmental future. People that had funded my nonprofit who felt like they couldn't act because of the consequences for their business or their status in the community if they acted, I could see all of that.

But at the same time, I had won a couple of very unlikely victories beating the roads in transit ballot measure, getting elected. So I felt like I could just win another unlikely one. I'll just keep rolling the dice. So there may be a technical term for that, and I believe is hubris. So I had a little too much of a belief in my ability to do that, and just upon reflection and looking back, it was like, "Well, man, that was a tough bunch." But at the time, honestly, it made me angry. It really made me angry that they couldn't see the threat of climate change. They couldn't see the inequities inherent in this. They couldn't see the health effects.

It still makes me angry, honestly. That's still what fuels my advocacy, is that sense of injustice. But, you know, it's not just a game. That's the thing. It's not just a game, and it's not just winners and losers. There are real people affected at the end of the day. So I still feel that, and how do I feel? I'm actually really proud that I fought for the right thing. I'm proud I didn't go to the ribbon cutting for that tunnel machine. It would've been the thing to, "Hey, I've made up with everybody and woohoo, the tunnel's great." No it isn't. No, it isn't, man. My kids are growing up in this. Your kids are growing up in this. California's flooding and the forest fires are burning just like everyone told us they would. You guys feel good because you got a beautiful waterfront? Like you could have had the beautiful waterfront without a tunnel – that was always available.

We could have a beautiful waterfront with transit running on it and bike lanes and sidewalks and small businesses. Hey, they even could have municipal broadband. We can do all of that. None of that required the tunnel. None of that required the tunnel, and that was only just feeding, like I said, this kind of economic beast.

And – you added this other element, which were the donor class, the elites, the economic elites of the city. This was their monument to themselves. They were going to deliver this beautiful waterfront that was a physical monument that they delivered, much like patrons of the arts, or those that build great cathedrals somewhere, or the pharaohs building the pyramids. This is their physical marker of their time on earth. But they're going to build this beautiful physical edifice for others to wonder upon and thank them for their vision.

People don't give a shit about that. Come on, they want a bus that gets them to work. They want a living-wage job. They want their kids to go to a good school and they don't want the planet overheating, and they don't want their kids getting asthma from air pollution. Like – how did this become the highest priority for our city leaders? Who are they serving? Who are they serving? By the way, you can go take a look right now – outfit called "Bisnow" running a conference on the waterfront, "How you can get in on the economic development potential of the new waterfront, meet the movers and shakers, understand all the latest trends."

It's literally how they're advertising it. You know?

So how did we arrive at this place as a country? Let's not even talk about Seattle. How are we where we are today? Starkest inequality. The state of Washington is the most regressive state in local tax system in the nation. How about income tax as their monument to the future? All of these things. Segregation's worse than it's ever been. Our public schools have been re-segregated, essentially. Kids can't afford a place to live. Go try to buy a house in Seattle, right? But the magnificent waterfront is our priority. Hey, let's raise a few hundred million more for that.

Yeah, that's what’s going on. Their priorities are being met. The elite's priorities are being met at the downtown. Business owners’ priorities are being met. Boeing and Microsoft's priorities are being met. The public is shit out of luck.

And it doesn't even serve transportation very well. 40,000 cars a day. Give me a break, man. $4 billion, do you know how many bus lines we can build? Rapid ride system. There are seven rapid rides under development. 326 million. Carry 47,000 passengers. That's more than go through the tunnel right now for 10% of the cost. Take people at 10-minute intervals to and from neighborhoods to downtown, which is where the jobs are. Instead of a bypass tunnel for people who live in single family homes far from downtown. Who's served? And who isn’t? So yeah, they feel pretty good about themselves, I'm sure. They're going to celebrate. They'll be more ribbon cuttings, but they haven't solved anything. How do I really feel, Mike? You got it, baby. You got it.

DB: Don’t hold back, Mike.

MM: No, no. Don't hold back. Hey, come on. Look who Gregoire works for now. She's paid for, she worked for the biggest corporations in the state. Her bosses are the CEOs of the biggest corporations in the state. That's who she works for now.

DB: The anger is palpable.

MM: Yeah. They're sticking it to people and acting like they're doing us all a favor. Yeah, my anger is palpable, and that's why I ran. I was angry then too. You're just bringing it all back. You're just bringing it all back.

DB: You can thank me later.

MM: I got three beautiful kids, man. I got three beautiful kids, and my daughter says to me, "I don't even know what I'm saving for. I don't know what I'm saving for. What's going to be out there for me, dad?" These are the conversations we hold. What type of dad would I be? "Hey, don't worry, you got a beautiful waterfront, Miyo. There's a tunnel of waterfront for you." Made global warming worse. That'll feel good. Next time, you contemplate the future of the planet. You plan to spend the next 60 to 80 years on?

DB: I don't have a response to that.

MM: Nobody does. That's why they hate me. That's why they hate me. They don't have a response for that.

DB: Do they hate you? I mean, do they hate you?

MM: Some of them do. Some of them do. Some of them, they just think, "Ah, what the fuck McGinn?" But some of them really did. They were so mad at me. They were so mad at me. They were spitting mad, literally. Yeah.

DB: Did you hate any of them?

MM: No, no. No, and they probably don't hate me. That was political. That's why they hated me politically. That's why they hated me politically. It's like sports hate to them. I can hate the other team in basketball without really hating them. I don't think they really hated me, but they hated me in that sense. "Got to get rid of him, man. He's stopping up the works." Yeah.

A Generational Shift

MM: Really interesting to look at generational divides on these things. If you look at opinion polls about – Oh, you can go to the Miracle Walks blog, my mayoral reflections on 2022, and I pulled up some polling. Like, there's a generational shift that's occurring there. If you asked my daughter's generation, they'd have no problem. "No, just remove it. Remove all the cars from the waterfront. You don't need it there." To older generations and these decision makers – and these aren't just decision makers that are older, these are decision makers who drive – so this kind of seeing the world through their eyes, "You need the auto capacity." That's how people get around because that's how they get around.

So they just don't really see, they just don't have that experience of the Somali community down in Tukwila or SeaTac or Kent, which really would love some better bus service. They just don't see that. That's not their lived experience. So that's that phrase, lived experience jumping in you. And it does take a mind shift, but it's happening with the younger generations. And you know, now transportation emissions I think are 60 percent of the emissions in Seattle – and if you go to any European city, they got a pedestrian core. Really at this point of the day, we should really be thinking about, "What's Seattle’s pedestrian core?" We got a block or two here and there. We got Occidental Square. We had Pine Street for a few years there. But you could imagine that we could really .. .what if 1st Avenue were a streetcar line and walking and biking? What if Westlake was just transit walking and biking from downtown to the city core? Those are choices. Take a look at a city like Paris making huge strides in the last few years to stop being a driving city. These are all choices.

And I think that's one of the things that … we sometimes want to blame the public for this and the public certainly plays deeply in this, right? But this to me is the failure of leadership here in the region. This is the failure in the region's leadership, to not recognize that their ability to help shape and move public opinion is actually quite strong. I saw it. I experienced it. I was this bike-riding- Sierra-Club-neighborhood guy who was the most divisive figure who can't work with anybody. That was the media campaign they wanted to run, and that's the campaign they did run.

And like, that's not who I am as a person. I'm a passionate believer in what the future ought to be, and always built great teams and worked with other people and built coalitions, et cetera. But they needed to discredit me as an individual in this fight to win, and they did. They spent a lot of money on it. They succeeded in that. Imagine if they put that work to convincing the public that we could have a city that had this vision for the future. Imagine if they put that effort there. "Hey, but we'll have a beautiful waterfront. We'll have a beautiful waterfront, man."

DB: You're quite an idealist, Mike.

MM: I am an idealist. I'm an idealist. So I have this mix of idealism and righteous indignation at injustice. That's who I am. And – I'm older. I'm a little more mellow. You brought a little bit of it out in me, but why else participate in the civics sphere? Why else? What do we got left at the end of the day? I can't take money with me. All we got is kindness to each other, is doing good things for each other. That's all we got at the end of the day. Why not be an idealist? Lot more fun. You know?

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