Mike McGinn is the former Mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2013. Inheriting the office in the wake of the 2007 recession, McGinn fought to balance the budget and increase revenue to the city. An avid proponent of reducing car ridership and increasing bicycling, McGinn was widely known for riding his bike to and from work. (He even road his bike to our interview. See below photo.)
Before his time in politics McGinn worked as an attorney at the Seattle firm Stokes Lawrence where he became a partner. In 2005, McGinn left the firm to start a non-profit advocacy group called Great City Initiative. Today McGinn still lives in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle where he continues his time as an activist, dad and Host of the podcast You, Me Us, Now: a podcast about people who try to change things. He is currently writing a book.
In this interview, Tyler and Phil ask Mayor McGinn a collection of questions submitted by listeners. The below BOLD text are the questions we asked. For your convenience, we've broken the interview audio files up for easy navigation of each topic. See below.
Politics is supposed to be defined as the art of compromise. Neither party seems inclined to work towards bipartisan solutions or compromise. It seems as though we treat compromise as weakness, when it is in fact strength and most Americans fall somewhere more in the middle (where a compromise might satisfy) what are your thoughts and is there still room for bi-partisan action?
What we’re seeing is politicians reflecting the continuing polarization within the electorate. They’re reflecting it and feeding it as well. Look at the way Republicans blocked the supreme court seat for over a year. These types of actions are unprecedented and we see it on both sides.
Public pressure is likely the only way we will see this trend change. The public needs to find a way to find common ground and then demand it from the elected officials.
One helpful tactic in bridging the gap is to find common ground on policy issues. As an example, no one finds adding sidewalks to a neighborhood to be a highly partisan issue. So starting where agreement is found can be one way to lead to discussion on areas of disagreement.
Not all conflict and tension is bad. Tension can lead to great achievement and progress. The Black Lives Matter movement raising issue with police brutality and institutional racism is a bit uncomfortable for others but has lead to real change.
President Trump recently issued an executive order banning incoming non-U.S. citizen travelers from 7 predominantly Muslim countries. Is this simply about national security or is it truly a ban targeting Muslims or a ‘Muslim ban?’
Trump called for a Muslim ban while campaigning for president so this so-called ‘travel ban’ is his attempt to institute a Muslim ban legally. This executive order goes against everything our country stands for.
We are at a constitutional crisis. At this point, it’s unclear if customs officials and others are even following the executive order. We are also not hearing much from members of congress regarding if they agree or disagree with the order.
In addition to travelers into the U.S., the ban affects refugees fleeing their war-torn country. What is Seattle’s history as a landing place for refugees?
Seattle has a long-standing history of welcoming refugees into our city. Refugees from Somalia, east Africa, Sudan, Cambodia, Bhutan, Burma, Ukraine and more. Many of our communities in Seattle are made up of refugee families and communities who came here under duress. In fact, Mayor McGinn recently attended a 40th anniversary celebration for the first arrival of Vietnamese refugees. 40 years ago, these refugees fled Vietnam War. The governor of California said their state didn’t have room and Seattle extended a warm welcome.
Many of the Iraqi translators who helped U.S. soldiers in the Iraq War are currently affected by the ban. These are individuals who have directly helped the U.S. and are now not allowed into the country.
Extremism is definitely at stake as a result of targeting Muslims.
What does it mean for Seattle to be a Sanctuary City? How can we offer support and influence nearby cities like Tacoma and Everett to follow suit?
Essentially, Sanctuary City status means city officials and law enforcement will not be in the business of deciding who federal authorities should deport. Even though the Feds request certain information from city and county officials regarding individuals who are incarcerated, Seattle has decided to not share that information. It doesn’t make sense to send contributors to our society back to their home country.
What is your take on individuals who are not “contributors” to society?
I think we can all imagine situations where there are individuals who shouldn’t be allowed into our country. Although some individuals should be deported, many of the cases in our past are examples of tearing families apart and creating even more vulnerable communities ripe for exploitation.
Trump’s order threatened to remove federal funding for Sanctuary Cities. Is this correct and how does it work?
Yes, under the executive order Sanctuary Cities would potentially lose their federal funding. Much of that money helps with the operation of city government and infrastructure. This removal of funding would likely be fought in court but it’s a potential outcome. It may be beyond the law for Trump to remove funding, but congress has never been a fan of cities and they may decide to shift money away from cities.
Seattle receives around $70 million from the federal government. Mayor McGinn had to remove $60 million from the budget during the recession of 2010. This was extremely painful and difficult but they achieved it at the cost of police, social services, etc. So Seattle could survive losing $70 million in funding but it would be painful.
When can a city or state choose to break federal law?
It’s a great question with no clear answer. In our state’s past, medical marijuana was an issue the city and state decided to take lightly despite federal law prohibiting the practice. Seattle decided to make enforcing medical marijuana it’s lowest priority for police officers. The law is not always black and white and transition times are not always easy. States are often viewed as incubators for new laws or changes to laws.
Homelessness is a big issue and seems to be getting worse all the time in Seattle. There probably is no simple solution. When we see the city’s response, it involves adding affordable housing. When we talk to Jeff Lilley of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission it involves caring for drug addiction and mental health. What’s a healthy balance and what can citizens do themselves?
It's not legal to camp in parks. It's an ordinance, it's in the rules. But it turns out it's also unconstitutional to tell somebody, "there's no place for you to sleep. If you don't have a home, tough luck you can't sleep on our sidewalks and parks." What's the practical solution to that? The practical solution is to provide shelter. We're not providing enough shelter to enforce the rules in our parks. You can say that's the law, but practically speaking and legally speaking a place where you make people walk around all night because you're not providing them anywhere to sleep, turns out to be something that can be challenged in court besides being really immoral.
I think it's multiple causes. I do think providing housing and shelter is a base-line start to helping people get to the next level. And we make it really hard for someone to get a roof over their head in this city. I was an advocate for the regulated encampments as Mayor. We should be figuring out how to out people under roofs where there possessions are safe, where they're not leaving a shelter at 5:30am trying to figure out what to do all day until they can get into a shelter again or sleeping in a tent underneath I5. I believe we really need to accelerate the amount of shelter and inexpensive housing of any type whether we pay for it or we encourage the private sector to get more on the market. Whatever we can take to put roofs over people's heads I'm for, recognizing that there will be a population that has really severe mental health issues or addiction problems that makes them resistant to housing or difficult to work with.
Another battle going on right now is with Governor Inslee’s budget and the court mandate to fully fund education in Washington. What do you see happening there and what’s at stake for Seattle schools if education isn’t fully funded?
I can't give you chapter and verse on education funding. We worked really hard on it when I was Mayor and we really dramatically increased the Families and Ed Levy. I don't know the ends and outs of the state policies, but everyone knows we're underfunded. My view is that it would have been nice to have seen Greg War and Inslee try to figure out how to go over the heads of a gridlock legislature and go to the public for education funding. That's not an easy thing to do, to ask the state to come with a new tax source for education funding, as well as make some reforms that speak to people.
Inslee has introduced a tax that looks at capital gains tax as well as a carbon tax. Everybody looks at that says, "it will never get through the legislature". Well that may be true. This would be my hope. Are they really taking a close look at, "Is this something that they could bring to the public and win public support and say this is a good thing, the legislature wont do it, your turn public."
We've done a lot state-wide on the ballot that's been good and we've done some bad things. It would be nice to see us go to the public with a strong proposal for education funding, because I do think the legislature hasn't been able to find it's way towards a fair resolution. The anti-tax sentiment of the Republican side is high enough they also want to make changes that the Democrats don't want to make changes to. And I think the Democrats are mostly right on that, but there's probably some changes you could make. Having said that, that's been a recipe for gridlock.
During your mayorship, you advocated replacing the Alaskan Way tunnel with a road rather than a tunnel. As we all know the tunnel project went through and has seen multiple delays and cost Seattle taxpayers more and more money. How do you feel about the current status of that project?
People forget this but we know that there were more things you could do to change I-5. If you got rid of a couple of downtown exits, you could actually get one additional lane each way under the convention center. Which frankly, would have done a lot more for traffic in the city than on the waterfront. But I was up against a pretty powerful coalition that believed the tunnel was the best idea. I don’t think [the tunnel] is going to solve our traffic problems. That’ll open up and it’ll be two lanes each way, no downtown exits and they’ll want to charge a toll. So unless they get rid of the tolls, we’re talking about 50-60 thousand cars a day using that tunnel. That’s like as many cars that use the Ballard Bridge every day. We don’t even know the cost [of the tunnel] – 3 or 4 billion dollars. It’s a lot of money, it won’t solve our traffic problems, it’s money we could have put into improving I-5, advancing transit years ago. Imagine if in 2001, we put our money into rail to West Seattle and Ballard. We’d be pretty close to opening those rail lines now. That’s a real transportation solution.
On the sonics and an NBA arena. What the heck is going on with the current obsession over remodelling Key Arena? What do you see happening between Key Arena or the SODO arena. And most importantly...will we be able to attend a Sonics game any time soon?
I don’t know what’s going to happen. There are a lot of moving parts. It’s clear that Ed Murray, my successor, abandoned the SODO site. It wasn’t his priority. There’s an open question to whether he’s adamantly opposed to it. It feels that way. We’ve got a Seattle guy, Chris Hanson who wants to invest in a team. He’s said he can put his own money toward it, he won’t even need to borrow money from the city (which he would have paid back.) It would have been an unbelievable deal any city has ever gotten or an arena. So having had that vote from the city council to deny the street vacation really going back on the deal that made Chris Hanson, that puts the Hanson Group in a tough place. So now we see the Key Arena one coming forward but there’s not an ownership group coming forward yet. There’s traffic issues and neighbors and all of the things you have to go through to build something in this city. We’re just at the starting line. Companies are more interesting in creating a concert venue that could support a NBA team but they are not owner groups themselves. The maritime unions and the port put on a full court press. And Ed picked a side. Is it purely politics? I hate to say it but too often in politics, money follows power not rationality. The tunnel – money followed power there.
We are the 13th biggest market. The NBA is doing great, they are talking about expansion. The pieces could and should come together but it takes people working here wanting to make them to come together for it to happen. So keep up the pressure!
You’re a Greenwood advocate which is in North Seattle. I (Tyler) am a North Seattle resident and can’t stand going for my morning run and dodging traffic as I run through the streets without sidewalks. What’s your take on the lack of sidewalks? Do you ever foresee North Seattle getting fitted with new sidewalks? What are some tangible things North Seattleites could do get sidewalks?
Seattle Greenways, which organizes locally, is a great organization. Money follows power but there’s another type of power – people who organize together to make their voices heard. That was always how I got to where I going. There’s power in words, too. The city is always prioritizing what spending is needed and is not needed. There are ways to get in there. I wish I had worked on lower cost ways of sharing the roads better that didn’t involve the full engineered curb and sidewalk. SDOT’s got to loosen up on that one.
When you look to the future of our city, what are your greatest hopes and greatest fears?
Cities historically have been a place where people could land and start anew. That was tur e for my dad’s parents and grandparents. It’s true in Seattle. Not just internationally but within the country, too. They came here and made jazz music and rock and roll and come work in the factory. They can come reinvent themselves. My greatest fear is that in our love of our place we say “we like it just the way it is.” They say “Oh, we don’t want to see a backyard cottage or apartment buildings or affordable housing. We don’t want to change things, we want to keep things the way it is.” But in cities, you don’t get to just keep things the way they are. If you try to do that, you lose what they have always been which is that place where people can come and reinvent themselves. My greatest fear for Seattle is that it becomes a place where only people of means can come and reinvent themselves. And that’s on us. We can point to Trump, Republicans, elected officials. But we’ve got to look at ourselves and we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to make this ap lace that people could move here and rent, own work and be who they want to be most of all and we’ve got to adopt that and welcome that. And that may mean a few more cars parked on our streets, a few more people waiting at the bus stop. We may need to invest more in parks and open space to make our city livable and gracious. But we’ll have more people to pay for it if we invite them in, we can all shoulder the burden. That’s what the future is going to hold if we’re open to it. I have always believed in Seattle. I think we can get there.
What is your key takeaway of being a Mayor of a major city?
I can’t even describe to you how diverse this city is. I’ve learned so much from the people. We can be awfully congratulatory about our progressive values here and in so doing keep below the surface those real differences that we have to surface and address. We feel really good about having respect for people of all origins but we’re turning our back on so many homeless people. We can’t seem to find the money. The politicians have an interest in not letting the bad issues surface. In a one-party town (which we are) there’s a real interest in that one party in suppressing discussion of difficult issues because it’ll make them look bad. They might not get re-elected. Having said that, being very outspoken as a Mayor isn’t necessarily the best path to reelection but it felt appropriate for the time.