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Originally published Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Danny Westneat

Mayor goes Eyman on Seattle

Now that the ruling system has gone to court to try to block one of his people-power initiatives from actually reaching the people, the comparison is complete: Mike McGinn is Tim Eyman.

Seattle Times staff columnist

He gets called polarizing. Bullheaded. "A walking, talking dust storm" roiling local politics.

He's kind of a know-it-all. But what he's most sure of is that it's the arrogant establishment that truly doesn't get it.

"Why are they so afraid of what the voters are going to say?" he often wonders, aloud.

And now that the ruling system has gone to court to try to block one of his people-power initiatives from actually reaching the people, the comparison is complete: Mike McGinn is Tim Eyman.

I'm serious. Seattle is being run by Tim Eyman of the left.

The dynamic these past months at City Hall — the political bomb-throwing, the solo rebel taking his anti-tunnel campaign straight to the people, only to be at least temporarily sidelined in court by a Machiavellian ruling class — reads straight from the Eyman script.

Right down to the "us against the world" rhetoric.

"The people have been completely left out of the decision-making process on this," a riled Mayor McGinn told me last month, the day he vetoed the contracts that would build a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. "This is supposed to be a democracy, remember?"

Now whatever you think of Eyman, all he does is push voter initiatives. He doesn't have a day job managing the state's largest city.

But with McGinn, the one sticking it to the man is the man.

I've brought this up to McGinn in the past, and, needless to say, he's not all that thrilled to be compared to Eyman. In fact, in his State of the City speech last month, the mayor set himself up as the anti-Tim when he called on Seattleites to keep approving taxes to pay for government services.

"Mr. Eyman, you may have talked the rest of the state into destroying what we hold dear. But we're drawing a line around the city limits," McGinn vowed.

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I think the two do share a sense that our current system of representative democracy has failed, though. That politicians are too chummy with special interests. That populist ideas — be it no-new-freeways in McGinn's world view or no-new-taxes in Eyman's — are smothered by the power structure.

So modern leadership means, by definition, going around the broken system. Straight to the people.

I'm not sure how that works when you're also the one in charge of the system.

For instance McGinn's surface-transit plan for replacing the viaduct has gained no traction. How would it, now, when all the other power brokers, such as the governor, would still have to come around to it. And they don't trust McGinn.

Recently I suggested to McGinn that Seattle's problem might be that we talk and vote too much. That we're such a slave to consensus we never get anything done. He went all Eyman on me.

"That's just wrong," he said. "What about the libraries Seattle built? What about light rail? The parks? The voters said yes to all of those and so they got built."

The Seattle dithering comes when government tries to impose projects on people they don't want, he said. People rebel, for good reason. Give them fresh alternatives — say, mass transit without new roads — and they'll back you every time.

"They aren't being asked," McGinn says. "That's the issue. The people are way ahead of the politicians. But they aren't being asked."

All this wisdom of the crowd stuff sounds appealing. It's flattering, but is it making better government? Not yet for the mayor. It's not hard to imagine how voting on the viaduct issue, again, will only get us further from doing something about it.

But maybe I still have my hangover from the monorail. When the power of we the people, wise and true, steered ourselves straight off a cliff.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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