Mike McGinn: Grass-roots style paid off in recent campaigns
Mike McGinn won the primary for Seattle mayor with an unconventional approach. He had no paid campaign staff, rode his bicycle to events...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Occupation: Executive director, Great City, January 2006-April 2009
Civic experience: Founder and director, Seattle Great City Initiative; co-chairman, 2008 Seattle Parks for All campaign; former chairman and political chairman, Sierra Club Cascade Chapter; past president, Greenwood Community Council
Education: University of Washington School of Law; bachelor's degree in economics, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
Key endorsements: United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 21; Cascade Bicycle Club; five Seattle Democratic District organizations
Main campaign issues: Stopping plans for an Alaskan Way tunnel; creating a citywide broadband utility; improving schools and bus service.
Campaign Web site: mcginnformayor.com
Mike McGinn won the primary for Seattle mayor with an unconventional approach. He had no paid campaign staff, rode his bicycle to events and insisted it wasn't too late to undo plans for an Alaskan Way tunnel — a deal state and city leaders worked on for eight years.
It's the same formula he used as a community activist: a low-budget, populist approach that helped pass a parks levy last year and defeat a transit proposal in 2007. The method has earned him a following of devoted volunteers who call him a strategic visionary. He's also drawn criticism from those who think he lacks management skills.
On the parks-levy campaign, members of the Seattle City Council were so alarmed by what they saw as a disorganized, ragtag campaign that they installed Seattle Parks Foundation Executive Director Karen Daubert as co-chair to help McGinn raise money.
"I was this guy that they didn't know whether I could run a strong campaign or not," McGinn said. "So they were really nervous about whether I had the capacity to pull this off."
Critics — including City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen — say Daubert saved the day. But from McGinn's perspective, his grass-roots campaign was key to the levy's success.
Boosting Sierra Club's clout
McGinn grew up on New York's Long Island, the son of educators in a family of eight. After law school at the University of Washington, he made partner at Stokes Lawrence, a downtown Seattle law firm.
McGinn entered environmental politics by joining the Sierra Club in 1994, the year Republicans took over the U.S. House and Senate.
Locally, the political committee of the local Sierra Club branch was "moribund," McGinn said.
He took over as the political chairman just a few months after he started attending meetings; no one else wanted the job.
McGinn mentored volunteers and pushed them to become more active, changing the organization from a group of dues-paying members to a real political force.
"It was just a case of stating objectives and going after them," McGinn said. "Volunteers go where the action is."
For Earth Day 2000, the group decided to have McGinn row a historic-replica longboat across Lake Washington to the Highway 520 bridge. The boat carried a giant "Tell Slade No" sign — part of the group's campaign against U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
"Michael sort of elevated the chapter's focus on local races, state races, how to take better advantage of the fact that we have a really sort of sizable membership," said Bill Arthur, who led the Sierra Club's Northwest region for years and is now a national club leader.
As chapter chairman from 1996 to 1999, McGinn combined the regional office with the Cascade Chapter office and whittled the chapter's focus to transportation, clean energy and global warming. The group gained momentum.
"Since 2002, 2003 to now, we've probably gone from five to 10 active leaders in King County to more than 50 top-level leaders," said Brady Montz, director of the Sierra Club Seattle group.
The real test of the Sierra Club's clout came with the 2007 roads-and-transit ballot measure.
The Sierra Club had been working alongside other transportation and environmental groups to reduce the number of road and highway projects in the multibillion-dollar regional package. Conservationists didn't want a bunch of new roads, but most believed that transit — including a costly light-rail expansion — could never pass alone.
Other groups stuck by the roads-and-transit plan. The Sierra Club did not.
McGinn found himself in the familiar role of underdog. The Sierra Club took on Mayor Greg Nickels, the Transportation Choices Coalition and other allies, as well as unions and business. They were outspent by $3 million.
Eventually, then-King County Executive Ron Sims came out in opposition to the package, and anti-tax groups were on their side. Voters rejected roads and transit, and a year later decisively approved a transit-only package.
"He has a knack for always being right," Montz said.
It was a huge political victory that proved McGinn's cheap, populist campaign style could work. That might have been a good moment for McGinn to seek political office, but he chose to expand his influence another way.
Tackling problems together
In 2006, he launched the nonprofit Seattle Great City Initiative. (It is now called Great City.) He quit his law firm in 2007 to run the nonprofit full-time.
Great City allowed McGinn to spread his ideals beyond the environmental movement. He invited neighborhood, business, government and union leaders, developers and urban-design experts to try to solve problems together.
The Cascade Land Conservancy helped fund Great City. But McGinn also sought thousands of dollars from people and groups who had been on the opposite end of his political efforts.
Among the 75 or so donors to Great City are such varied entities as international architecture firm Mithun, the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, The Bullitt Foundation, Puget Sound Energy and the Cascade Bicycle Club.
"He did have some credibility in bringing people together," said Phil Fujii, senior community-relations manager for Vulcan, which has given about $10,000 a year to Great City for the past four years. The development company endorsed Nickels in the primary but hasn't made an endorsement in the general election.
Fujii had worked with McGinn in 2000, when Fujii was with the city's Department of Neighborhoods and McGinn was a Greenwood neighborhood leader. He thought McGinn understood development issues, and he'd seen McGinn work well with different groups of people.
"He's very open and communicative," Fujii said.
As executive director, McGinn made $60,000 and led a volunteer board. The nonprofit's budget was $140,000 in 2008.
McGinn is sometimes criticized as a meetings junkie, and Great City hosts a lot of meetings. But people who attended them said they were productive.
One of Great City's first projects was its Neighborhood Assistance Program, which connects experts with neighborhood leaders.
For example, in 2008, landscape architects helped Maple Leaf residents design a new park, and community organizers helped with a strategy to fight crowding in Northeast Seattle schools.
Great City also formed a coalition of neighborhood leaders, developers and businesses in neighborhoods looking at zoning changes.
Instead of individually approaching City Council members, the coalition has written letters and lobbied for zoning as a group.
Bruce Wynn, executive director of the Interbay Neighborhood Association, said his group worked for four years to get a zoning change to allow more residential development. "We basically had hit a wall," he said.
Wynn said he sat in on meetings with other neighborhood leaders and developers. McGinn helped him lobby the City Council. The zoning Wynn sought passed in November. He credits Great City's work.
Culture clash on parks levy
The parks levy was perhaps Great City's biggest undertaking, the one that thrust the new nonprofit into the political limelight.
The levy was backed by the City Council but opposed by Nickels, who thought there were too many tax proposals on the 2008 ballot.
"There wouldn't have been a parks levy on the ballot ... without Mike McGinn's leadership," said Brice Maryman, a landscape architect and member of the parks-levy steering committee.
Maryman said there was definitely a culture clash on the parks campaign.
City Councilmember Rasmussen said it went further than that.
At the end of the summer, the campaign had raised only $5,000, though its budget was $300,000.
It was "faltering," Rasmussen said. "It was not moving forward."
McGinn said it was making progress.
When Rasmussen and others expressed concern about strategy, McGinn "got blustery and defensive and acted as though he resented the questions," Rasmussen said.
McGinn said he spelled out his campaign plan, Daubert took on fundraising, and things went well from then on.
After the campaign added Daubert as co-chair, Parks for All raised $250,000.
Daubert won't comment on politics or the levy campaign, but she sits on the advisory committee for McGinn's opponent, Joe Mallahan.
The levy-campaign meetings sometimes grew contentious, McGinn said. City Council members believed he was too focused on field work.
But McGinn, who built a career on talking things through, grew impatient with the endless discussion.
"You don't have time in the three-month campaign to spend too much time working out all the different ways you might actually do the campaign," he said. "You have to set out in a direction. ... We didn't have the luxury of endlessly debating how we're going to do it."
The levy passed with 59 percent of the vote.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.