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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Danny Westneat
Mayor’s race ignited as McGinn called out on Whole Foods attack

By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist

Well, there’s finally a burning issue in the Seattle mayor’s race. Even if it did come, truly, from out of left field.

Mayor Mike McGinn’s unusual attack on Whole Foods last week has become the talk of the campaign — especially now that one rival has dubbed what the mayor did “abusive” and “perhaps illegal.”

Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who does know his land-use policy, blasted McGinn for “political manipulation” of the city’s development rules.

“You can’t use the land-use codes to single out one grocery store and hold it up because you don’t like the wages they’re paying,” Steinbrueck told me in an interview. “You can’t use land-use laws to curry favor with the unions. That’s an abusive political act.

“They do this in East Coast cities, and it’s properly called ‘graft and corruption.’ ”

Yowza! Our slumbering mayor’s race is waking up!

Last week McGinn recommended the city block a major development in West Seattle, on the site of the old Huling Brothers car dealership, because he says a proposed tenant, the nonunion Whole Foods, doesn’t pay as much as unionized grocery stores.

His leverage is that the developer of the project is trying to buy a city-owned alleyway. McGinn recommended the city not sell the blighted alley unless Whole Foods first substantially raises its pay scale at the store.

Whole Foods responded that it pays on average $16 an hour to nonsupervisory employees. Which prompted the mayor to ask to review the company’s payroll — a request Whole Foods said it had never encountered before, anywhere.

I called McGinn’s move “radical” in a column last Sunday, but figured that might be the end of it. This being Seattle, the major candidates are all progressive liberals, and even at forums they can’t find much to debate because they mostly agree on everything. We’re such a one-party town we’re sometimes on the verge of becoming a no-politics town.

A few campaigns did whisper that McGinn was only bucking for the grocery-store union endorsement, which he got.

But Steinbrueck, alone, came out blazing publicly about it.

He called McGinn a hypocrite for not making these same economic-justice points when pushing through a major rezone in South Lake Union that greatly benefited Vulcan and the nonunion Amazon.

“It’s only Whole Foods that gets this scrutiny?” Steinbrueck said. “Why is that?”

Steinbrueck also questioned the larger livable-wage movement, saying the unions are rashly using the mayor’s race to “turn Seattle into a national battleground.”

Wages can’t be raised this much by government fiat without “us first having a much broader discussion, which has to include bringing businesses to the table,” he said. “It’s completely presumptuous to say we should jump all the way up to $15 an hour for the minimum wage.”

That right there qualifies as daring, courageous speech in this town.

For his part, McGinn said it isn’t just Whole Foods — he may try to force higher wages on other projects in Seattle. The biggest one coming up is the largest hotel ever proposed in the city, a 43-story conference center with more than 1,500 hotel rooms on the site of the Greyhound bus terminal.

McGinn doesn’t have a say over who gets alley vacations — the City Council does — so I doubt his recommendations can be illegal, as Steinbrueck implied. It does seem unfair, though, to single out select companies like this.

What will voters think? Personally, the whole episode seems vaguely communistic to me, with overtures of the city reviewing company payrolls to ensure wage compliance.

But stagnant, low wages are a problem, so maybe Seattle is fed up with the status quo. McGinn’s counting on it — he tweeted out Sunday’s column about his attack on Whole Foods along with this quote: “This is a statement of what our values are as a city.”

I don’t think so, but that’s up to you to decide, when you vote in two weeks. At least there’s now something hot to debate.

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


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