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Originally published Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:44 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's first year: a study in the politics of chaos

A few local bloggers are high-fiving Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, especially regarding his efforts on the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. They have got to be kidding.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

As 2010 draws to a close, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn may be taking comfort from a few local bloggers who say he wrapped up his first year in office as the victor of city politics — well ahead of the City Council.

To which I say, really small comfort, because it's all fantasy. These people have to be living in a pretty narrow slice of lefty Seattle.

The alleged example for the mayor's success is the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the aging, dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct. These writers say the mayor controlled the agenda. Potential cost overruns are the project's best-known feature. McGinn has forced the council to defend a risky plan. Triumph!

Yet back down on the third planet from the sun, more careful analysis says, no, the mayor is not beating the council. This council has had to coalesce like no other in recent memory. It has had to perform as the grown-up on regional transportation matters, especially on a new Highway 520.

On the tunnel project, McGinn insulted Gov. Chris Gregoire, essentially calling her a liar. She now contacts Council President Richard Conlin on important Seattle business.

Since first taking office, McGinn has been a polarizing figure. He seems happiest when battling business, the governor, the council and anyone who gets in his way. The mayor has alienated more people in a year than most politicians manage in a lifetime.

McGinn's first year in office was a study in the politics of chaos. The mayor is a walking, talking dust storm: Kick up enough sand and hope the tunnel project comes undone.

At a recent event featuring five former Seattle mayors — OK, Paul Schell stayed home — former Mayor Charles Royer was overheard telling McGinn, "You have to be mayor of all of the people, even those who didn't vote for you."

In reality, McGinn is not even a leader for voters who bought his October 2009 campaign line in which he proclaimed that even though he opposed the tunnel, he would not stand in its way. McGinn has done everything possible to torpedo the tunnel.

If the mayor was just asking questions, as he loves to say, what would his actions actually look like? A mayor who inherited a decision on the tunnel, as he did, but was trying to make things work would talk to his pal, House Speaker Frank Chopp, who controls much of Olympia and who insisted on goofy, possibly unenforceable language in tunnel legislation.

That clause says Seattle-area property owners who benefit from the project would be on the hook for overruns.

McGinn should work with Chopp to get rid of the language. Lawmakers write and rewrite legislation all the time — when they want to.

But his goal is not forward motion, it's ensuring the surface-transit option, a euphemism for gridlock, becomes the replacement for the viaduct.

If McGinn had said during the campaign, "Look, I hate this project and I will do everything in my power to stop it," at least he would be fulfilling a promise.

McGinn's first year in office has been tarnished by his single-minded efforts to block the tunnel and failure to take the right steps on safety and civility on Seattle streets. Just this week, he released a survey showing a majority of respondents want to extend bar service hours past 2 a.m. That's a terrible idea.

McGinn may be a one-term mayor because he has lost contact with the silent middle in Seattle.

In fairness, the mayor didn't botch everything. He made a wise choice hiring Police Chief John Diaz, a solid pick despite current troubles in the department.

McGinn handled himself admirably during the first snowstorm, trying his darndest to keep traffic flowing, then admitting with refreshing candor that the storm got away from him.

McGinn made a good call on Seattle Center: a Chihuly glass art exhibition, a new home for innovative nonprofit KEXP radio and a new children's playground — something for a lot of visitors and Center finances.

But his first year in office feels more like three. McGinn has time to turn things around, but the one-time Sierra Club leader never moved out of environmental-activist mode. He would need to decaffeinate quite a bit to become a leader for all of Seattle.

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

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