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Originally published Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 4:38 PM

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Mike McGinn vs. Ed Murray: What a mayor is, and isn’t

Columnist Bruce Ramsey cuts through election grandstanding in the Seattle mayor’s race and considers the real challenges at issue.

Times editorial columnist

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn tries to stop the building of a Whole Foods store because it is nonunion. He sends out a mailer trumpeting his opposition to trains moving coal to Washington ports.

Neither is the mayor’s job. But McGinn is running for re-election in 85-percent Democratic Seattle. He wants to be seen as “the most progressive mayor in America.”

Never mind that the federal government regulates the railroads and foreign trade, and that the state controls the shorelines. And never mind that under federal law, union representation is a matter for the employee group.

Really, McGinn cannot expect to determine the outcome on either of these things. As his campaign consultant explained in regard to Whole Foods, the mayor was making a “values statement.”

Candidates do this to get the attention of voters who are bored with the real stuff of government. But suppose they talked only about the actual jobs they wanted to have. I asked the man who dropped out of the race for mayor, Councilmember Tim Burgess: What are the real issues the next mayor will face?

Most important, Burgess said, will be “selection of the new chief of police. It is the most important decision any mayor can make in any city.”

Next, streets, sidewalks and traffic signals. For the mayor, the big decision will be how high to recommend setting the new “Bridging the Gap” tax levy, and how hard to push it. “It’s crucial,” said Burgess. “Our backlog is approximately $2 billion.”

Next, land use. The big land-use decision of the past four years was the Sodo arena proposal. The big one of the next term, Burgess said, will be the central waterfront.

He mentions education. I object: Seattle Public Schools aren’t under the mayor, and in a mayoral race it is a distraction. Burgess disagreed: The mayor can use the Families and Education Levy to push for high standards.

The sleeper is the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System, which covers employees other than police and fire. As of Jan. 1, the system was only 63.5 percent funded; it was $1.1 billion in the hole.

Part of the reason is an aggressive investment strategy wasn’t executed well. Part of the reason is high benefits, which include an automatic 1.5 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment and a generous early retirement option. Fixing the problem will mean a slimmer plan for future employees.

“We’re not as bad off as Detroit or Chicago,” said Burgess, who is chairman of the pension board. “But we need to act, and act decisively. And it has been very difficult to engage the mayor on this topic.”

Burgess is supporting Ed Murray.

Murray is the leader of the Democrats in the Washington Senate. Making a pension system less generous cannot be easy for him. But in 2011, when the state’s pre-1978 pension pools faced a financial problem much like Seattle’s, Murray agreed with Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli on a bill to end the cost-of-living adjustment

Says an Olympia Republican: “Ed Murray is politically practical. Give him a problem and he cuts the best deal he can. He would be a responsible mayor.”

I hope so. Grandstanding is fun, but municipal government is a service agency, not a crusade to end income inequality and save the Earth. It exists to make sure there is water in the tap, and on your house if it catches on fire. It is about emptying the trash and stopping crazy men who shoot bus drivers. It is about licensing businesses and dogs.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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