Seattle's Dave Meinert is a nightlife entrepreneur and a political player
The Capitol Hill Block Party impresario doubles as establishment power broker. Once the provocateur poking at The Man from the outside, music promoter Meinert has learned to play from the inside, becoming an agent for change in local politics. Now he parlays his success as a businessman and campaigner to win a seat at the table inside City Hall.
A LOT OF stories told by music and nightlife promoter Dave Meinert start with the line, "So I met this guy in a bar . . . "
It's something of a running joke with Meinert, one of the driving forces behind the hugely popular Capitol Hill Block Party, happening next weekend, a string of hit nightspots and successful Seattle music acts such as Blue Scholars, the Presidents of the United States of America and Maktub.
Despite hair that's more pushed back than styled, a wardrobe heavy on T-shirts and jeans and a 5 o'clock shadow that suggests a rocker with a hangover, this 44-year-old is no idle barfly.
Meinert is, in fact, a power broker, the man who helped bring down Seattle's much-maligned Teen Dance Ordinance, quash former City Attorney Mark Sidran's mayoral-election bid and elect current City Attorney Pete Holmes.
In 2008, Seattle's music industry employed more than 11,000 people and generated $1.2 billion in revenues. That music and nightlife represent a major business force, and therefore, political force in the region is beyond question. But before Meinert, few nightlife advocates had thought to talk about the industry in terms a Chamber of Commerce president or City Council member could appreciate.
At the same time, Meinert serves a higher purpose in a city and region undergoing head-spinning change. He's a preservationist of sorts, guardian of a rumpled sensibility that screams "Seattle" but that many feel is being drowned out by our quest to become a world-class city.
Meinert's Seattle is more "Singles" than "Grey's Anatomy." His ventures are ambitious while still paying homage to a think-local attitude.
The Capitol Hill Block Party will, for the first time, run three days this year, but despite big-name national acts like MGMT and Jack White's band, The Dead Weather, its lineup still feels edgy enough to pass muster with neighborhood hipsters.
This month, Meinert, Neumos owner Jason Lajeunesse and Via Tribunali/Caffe Vita owner Mike McConnell planned to open Big Mario's New York Style pizzeria on Pike Street, in the middle of the hopping Pike/Pine corridor. Its salvaged barstools and countertops will harken back to the area's grittier past, as will the adjacent garage, which will double as al fresco seating at night.
Last year Meinert and his longtime girlfriend, Mandy Park, bought the 80-year-old 5 Point Café on Cedar Street in Belltown ("We cheat tourists and drunks," goes its motto), one of the original dive bars in a city that used to be full of them.
"There's a part of me that misses some of the radical music of the late '80s and early '90s," Meinert says one day over coffee at the 5 Point.
No surprise, then, that when Meinert thrust himself into local politics it was as a stick-it-to-The-Man agitator.
In the mid-1990s, he got a job helping book shows at the Odd Fellows Hall, an all-ages venue on Capitol Hill. The police, he says, tried to shut down the venue, citing Seattle's arcane Teen Dance Ordinance as a justification. Meinert and other nightlife advocates won a protracted fight to repeal the ordinance 10 years ago. He also joined former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and former Showbox owner Jeff Steichen in the political action group JAMPAC to give the music industry a voice in election campaigns and policy debates.
Before that, he says, "the only way we could even come close to having any impact or any political influence was by causing a scene or holding a protest. I really thought the value of music and art was as a thought leader. As I got more into it, I saw how much power the music scene and musicians can have in electoral politics."
ONCE A self-proclaimed "intellectual anarchist," Dave Meinert is a doting family man now. Park gave birth to the couple's first child, Olympia, in December.
And tellingly, the first album from his Fuzed Music label is by the band Hey Marseilles, whose world-weary songs are full of smart, wistful lyrics rather than rage.
That doesn't mean he's given up playing the role of cranky provocateur when he wants to.
In one of his frequent columns for the online news site PubliCola.net, Meinert lashes out at foes of a proposal to use private money to build a Dale Chihuly glass museum and garden next to the Space Needle at Seattle Center:
"I want to say this to critics of this plan — grow the hell up." He continues with this unlikely line: "And Seattle has to start embracing another concept — working with our community's financially successful local members."
For a legendary rabble rouser like Meinert, an existential question arises after a record of victories against the powers that be: Do you continue to fight The Man, become The Man or strike a balance somewhere between?
It seems he's settled on the third route, morphing from radical to realist.
Still, the mere mention of being an "insider" makes his feet shuffle nervously under the table as he talks.
"Being an insider worries me because you run the risk of losing that desire to be on the forward edge, and I don't want to do that," he says. "I'd rather be on the forward edge and lose than be antiquated and win."
Meinert stresses that nothing he does happens in a vacuum, that he gets lots of help from a sprawling network of associates and political allies, many of whom are personal acquaintances. But old friend James Keblas, director of the Mayor's Office of Film + Music, says his leadership in particular has shaped the way the city views the nightlife community and vice versa. Keblas' department focuses on music, and not just film as originally envisioned, largely because Meinert pushed for it eight years ago.
"He's such a straight-shooter — he doesn't let B.S. stick around too long," says Keblas, who, with Shannon Stewart and Kate Becker, created the pioneering Vera Project youth-arts center. "There's a different group of leaders because of him. He's changed the conversation in this town."
In person, Meinert manages to stay on the right side of that fine line between pointedness and petulance, at least most of the time, according to Keblas.
"I've been on both sides of Dave," he says, recalling working with Meinert on the Vera Project and other matters. "There were times when he was a real pain in the ass to deal with. He would push when I felt like I didn't need to be pushed."
But when something positive happens, like the 2008 launch of Mayor Greg Nickels' City of Music initiative, Meinert was "right there championing it."
"After you've had a great debate with him, whether you've won or lost," Keblas says, "you can still go out and have a drink with him afterward."
Perhaps that's why Meinert is still standing while JAMPAC has become a thing of the past, Novoselic has retreated to a farm in rural Washington and Nickels and Sidran have all faded from the limelight.
"He speaks authentically while having money on the line. It adds credibility to the conversation, for sure," says King County Executive Dow Constantine, a friend of Meinert's who is close enough to him that they can casually swap text messages about meeting for beers on Meinert's birthday.
Like a lot of key players in this most discreet of big cities, Meinert serves as a bridge "between people who should know each other but don't," who have "allied but not identical interests," says Constantine, himself a former KCMU-FM dj and nightlife advocate. "He seems to move with great ease between orbits and remain the same person."
Meinert is one of those people you just have to have in the mix, whether you like his style or not.
"His approach is refreshing," says Jon Scholes, policy director for the Downtown Seattle Association, whose positions on development and nightlife issues have at times clashed with Meinert's. "In this town, political positions and ideologies can be pretty predictable at times . . . Everybody gets pigeonholed and calcified into these different camps. It's hard to put Dave in a camp."
When Meinert ranted on PubliCola about possible cost overruns on the city's waterfront-tunnel project and cozy relationships between local government and business interests, Scholes challenged Meinert to debate the issue over beers at the 5 Point. But Meinert and the association both supported a stricter law against aggressive panhandling, which Mayor Mike McGinn successfully vetoed.
"He has that ability to disagree with people that, quite frankly, doesn't come naturally to most of us who were raised here," says Constantine, who enjoyed support from Meinert and the club crowd during his run for the executive's chair last fall.
Newly elected City Attorney Pete Holmes also had support from Meinert, who viewed him as more nightlife-friendly than predecessor Tom Carr, architect of the Operation Sobering Thought sting in 2007 to root out clubs violating underage-drinking laws.
Earlier this year, Holmes suggested he was a different kind of city attorney when he backed a study about introducing later closing times for establishments that serve alcohol.
The key to thorny issues that require a balance between public safety and business interests, Holmes says, is not to leave industry heavyweights like Meinert on the sidelines.
"With David's input, we're actually trying to develop a more comprehensive framework for nightlife," he says. "To his credit, David is a guy who decided to be engaged rather than be disenfranchised."
A SAN JOSE native, Meinert grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Normandy Park, south of Seattle. His dad was an executive at Boeing, and his mom was in the chorus of the Seattle Opera.
Religion dominated his daily existence, from Sunday school to midweek services to a private Christian school he attended. Every morning before school, he'd read Bible passages with his mom, and on Saturdays his pastor would personally teach him theology.
He even flirted with the idea of becoming a minister before drifting away from the church.
Meinert graduated from high school in 1984. It was an interesting time to come of age, an era of trickle-down economics and teased-up hair. He used to sneak into Squid Row Tavern on the storied but now-demolished 500 block of East Pine Street to watch local bands.
He enrolled at Western Washington University in Bellingham, studied philosophy and basically "goofed off." He became the very picture of Northwest slacker, gravitating toward groups like Pure Joy, the Walkabouts and Mudhoney and eventually managing the anarchist industrial band !Tchkung!, whose shows involved fire-eaters and the occasional riot.
But he and the region were about to get caught up in a whirlwind brought on by music and money.
"Everything changed with grunge, but then everything changed with the technology boom and then the influx of money and then the crash and then the new influx of money and people moving here," Meinert says.
A region in transition needs constants. In this light, it makes sense that Meinert and Park were eager to buy the Depression-era 5 Point Café.
"I think with the economic downturn, people have been looking for certain things that are a little more blue-collar, even if in a nicer way," he says. "It's funny, because at the same time as I've been growing my businesses and growing up personally, I've in the same way gone back and got this place. I love diners. I love diner culture, and I love dive bars."
MEINERT AND Park first met at the 5 Point about 13 years ago, but their first official date was at the Capitol Hill Block Party, then a scrappy little neighborhood festival with one stage that drew a few hundred people.
Around this time, Park introduced Meinert to current Crocodile owner Marcus Charles, who back then operated the block-party beer garden.
The two hit it off over drinks and decided it would be a cool idea to remake the event as an all-out concert festival, drawing on the city's deep well of music talent.
"We were like, 'Oh, sure, that'll be fun,' " Meinert recalls. That was that.
The revamped block party took off. It drew more than 15,000 people over two days last year.
"Like Seattle, it just keeps growing regardless," Meinert says with a laugh.
Charles says Meinert has earned a reputation in some circles as a ruthlessly ambitious promoter out to make a buck and push his own agendas, but Charles dismisses the criticism, saying Meinert is more interested in consensus and community-building. The block party, for instance, is partly a fundraiser for Vera Project, where Meinert was a board member.
Meinert says he's not out to rule the world, or even his tiny corner of it. "I don't want the responsibility," he jokes.
To get away from it all, he and family escape to a secluded lake on the back roads of Mason County where his relatives kept summer cabins during his childhood. Recently he bought a tree-studded, three-acre island in the lake where, as a kid, he used to hang out with cousins. The plan is to keep the island rustic and mostly uncluttered, in contrast to the lakeshore, which is now crowded with big, new vacation homes.
Seeing him on the island, with his daughter in tow, he seems totally at peace having preserved yet another slice of the Northwest.
He dreams of building a small tree-house-style cabin on the island, a legacy to his childhood and one more reminder that he lives in a paradise teetering, but by no means lost.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.