Mike Mcginn's EcoTrip
Mike McGinn has a habit of pausing before he speaks. Whether he’s responding to a question or about to address a large group, he will take a moment that is a bit too long, squint his blue eyes slightly and stare. It can seem as if McGinn is an alien intelligence, wondering whether to take pity on an inferior life form. Or maybe just crush it.
This tends to freak people out.
McGinn, Seattle’s mayor since January, has been an unnerving presence for some ever since he announced his unlikely challenge to two-term incumbent Greg Nickels in March 2009. An attorney and former Sierra Club leader, McGinn jumped into the race largely because he felt betrayed by Nickels’ environmental policies. Nickels was known as one of the greenest mayors in the country, having launched an initiative to have cities around the globe voluntarily try to meet the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases (and getting lots of publicity for it in national magazines like Vanity Fair).
But McGinn was disappointed that Nickels chose to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel. McGinn favored knocking down the elevated expressway along Seattle’s waterfront and dispersing traffic among downtown surface streets. In a city and a region where many people identify themselves as being green, McGinn forces the issue. Just how green are you? Big Green Monster green or cute Kermit the Frog green?
For McGinn, lofty talk about fighting global warming is one thing. Making difficult, transformative choices about things like how people get from point A to point B is another. McGinn believes dependence on the automobile must be reduced and people should be pushed toward walking, biking or taking buses and light rail. That is why, in addition to the viaduct tunnel replacement, he opposes the state’s preferred six-lane option for replacing the current four-lane State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington. When policymakers are presented with the opportunity to cut automobile use, McGinn believes they should take it. And he’s not afraid to say so.
“We now have a state goal of reducing global-warming emissions,” the mayor says. “We have state goals of cleaning up Puget Sound—automobile exhaust is the leading cause of pollution in Puget Sound. We have a state goal of reducing the amount of driving. We have state goals around growth management. I think it’s time for the state to start getting more deeply into the transit business and away from the road business.”
Quite a few people love McGinn for being so out front on environmental issues—he’s the type of leader they’ve been waiting for. Others simply can’t stand him. And probably the biggest chunk of Seattle voters still isn’t sure what to think.
“He does seem to be exposing some fault lines in Seattle politics,” local pollster Stuart Elway observes.
The fact that McGinn has been calling out as hypocrites some state and local leaders—dutiful Democrats all, who say the right things about the environment and fighting the good fight when it comes to global warming—has made him about as popular with the political establishment as a biker at a debutante ball. At public events, some officials are visibly bothered by him.
To them, the mayor is a dangerous ideologue who has failed to make the transition from outside