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Originally published Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Mike McGinn: Seattle's stumbling 'un-mayor' needs to find firmer footing

A quick look at Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's first quarter in office. The verdict: not good. The mayor needs to take stock and hit the reset button on his administration.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattleites whisper their worries around the office coffeemaker. Or at lunch, or on the bus. All around Seattle, residents ask: What is up with the new mayor? He sure is making a lot of mistakes.

Voters had to expect inexperience from a neophyte like Mike McGinn. But how did we get such a stumblebum?

Well, Seattle, we elected him and we should hope he soon rights his ship because that is the only way our city can prosper.

But while the new chief executive officer finds his way, the reviews are in for his first quarter: It stunk.

McGinn, the king of town halls and the idea of listening to others, came out like a human IED, eager to blow up numerous long-standing agreements that predated his arrival at City Hall.

Consider for a moment plans for Highway 520, the bridge to Bellevue: two general-purpose lanes in each direction and one each way for high-occupancy vehicles and transit.

I'm, the mayor. Let's change the whole thing.

And the vaunted deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

I never liked it in the first place.

A few days shy of three months in office, McGinn needs to man up to his missteps. He doesn't play well with others, particularly the City Council. In January, he offered his first major proposal, a bond measure for the sea wall — without briefing most of the council and amid a council retreat. Bad form.

If he had read the manual, he would have earned a few council supporters first and featured them at a press event. A mayor wishing to spend taxpayer money needs a few friends. It is not brilliant to hurl ideas and hope everyone tumbles to your latest spendy proposal.

From the moment he was elected, McGinn has not only expressed contempt for agreements that preceded him, he has been contemptuous of people who know city politics, though that may be changing.

A gigantic fiasco was his demotion of a widely admired top former budget official, Dwight Dively. McGinn is no budget whiz, but Dively is. County Executive Dow Constantine stole Dively away from the city. The city's loss is King County's gain

McGinn is perhaps the most immature politician I have encountered. He needs help but not the kind he might think he needs. This is so not about message control. It's about personality control.

On KCTS-TV a few weeks ago, two consultants, Republican Chris Vance and Democrat Cathy Allen, both said they would advise the mayor to pause, go dark a while, decide what he wants to accomplish, admit his lousy start and apologize.

Greg Nickels launched his first term as mayor more successfully. Nickels, a more-seasoned politician, wisely took baby steps at first to put a win or two under his belt.

He started with pothole filling. Small, perhaps, but the results were visible and satisfying.

Then you build toward bigger ideas.

McGinn has spent too long being the un-mayor. He is reluctant to consult people who know a lot about the city. He arrives at events late, dressed like a schlump (See Yiddish dictionary for messy individual). In February, he gave a non-speech as his State of the City address. It was clear he had not sufficiently prepared and sort of didn't care. Whatever.

McGinn has only been in office three months and the hope is that he turns the ship around. Every mayor gets at least six months to find his footing.

I attended one of McGinn's Youth & Family Initiative meetings earlier this week. As he delivered brief remarks to a crowd of more than 300, I sensed he really cares about this issue. I have no idea where he is going with these meetings, and perhaps neither does he. But at least he is investing time and effort in something important.

I was also pleased to hear that McGinn met with University of Washington President Mark Emmert. Jeez, he's only the head of an institution that is the city's biggest employer.

Seattleites are a forgiving bunch. They will accept some of McGinn's idiosyncrasies, as long as he doesn't embarrass the city.

My 10 cents are to lose the bull-in-the-china-shop routine and become a listener and leader who can put a few humble victories together.


Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

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