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Originally published Friday, December 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM


What's next for Peter Steinbrueck?

Peter Steinbrueck, known for his impassioned speeches and contentious nature, plans to remain an activist when his term on the Seattle City Council expires Monday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Even for a politician, Peter Steinbrueck is prone to giving speeches. They're impassioned, principled, often a little long, and delivered in a tone fit for the Roman Senate.

He warns that Seattle is in danger of losing itself. He implores his City Council colleagues to do more for the city's less fortunate. He exclaims "outrage" at the mayor over and over, and over again.

When he joked at his final council meeting that he would come back as a City Hall protester, other members said that, like all citizens who testify, he would be subject to a time limit. "We will finally have only two minutes of Peter Steinbrueck," Council President Nick Licata said.

Raging against the machine is a Steinbrueck family tradition. Victor Steinbrueck, Peter's father, is best known for waging an eight-year war to save Pike Place Market from demolition. As a council member, Peter shaped downtown development and blasted any and every suggestion that the old Alaskan Way Viaduct be replaced by a new one.

Now that he is leaving the council, what will Peter Steinbrueck rage against?

Many assume he's preparing a run for mayor. He says it's not in his immediate plans, but Steinbrueck has been Mayor Greg Nickels' most pointed council critic.

After a decade at City Hall, Steinbrueck, 50, decided not to run for council again, saying he wants time for his family and interests outside of politics. In January, the architect will teach an urban-sustainability class at the University of Washington College of Architecture and Urban Planning, where his late father taught. Afterward, he plans to work as a public-affairs consultant, combining his experience as an architect and council member.

During an interview about the future, he searched for the right words, then paraphrased Dante's "Inferno": "Midway through the journey of our life, I came upon a twisted road not knowing where it will go."

Bridging old and new

With his family name, Steinbrueck has bridged old and new Seattle.

As a citizen activist in the 1980s, he helped lead an initiative, called CAP, to limit downtown building heights. By 2006, he had circled around, supporting Nickels' proposal to raise height limits — but only if developers paid more money toward affordable housing.

In a madly driven final year, Steinbrueck convinced the council to preserve industrial land and consider 38 buildings for historic protection. He also worked on turning the block across from City Hall into the largest public plaza downtown.


Elected and re-elected twice by wide margins, Steinbrueck has been willing to go out on a limb whether or not he has the council votes. In 2000, he said the city should spend $15 million of a budget surplus to serve homeless people, and ended up getting $4 million. Last year, during budget deliberations, he suggested hiring 200 more police officers. He didn't get 200, but the council and mayor eventually added 105 officers.

By asking for a lot, he usually got something.

Steinbrueck, whose term ends Monday, made local government more open. He instituted public-comment periods at each council meeting. He called out two members of the Seattle Planning Commission for conflicts of interest because they worked for developers who would have been affected by zoning issues the commission was considering. Both members resigned.

He says he's proud of protecting the Cedar River watershed from logging, putting human services first in city budgets and encouraging sustainable urban design.

Along the way, even some opponents came to admire him, including developer Martin Selig, whose plans were constrained by Steinbrueck's work on the CAP initiative. Selig called him "the best of the best."

John Fox, an affordable-housing advocate who hopes Steinbrueck will run for mayor, said if he had one criticism, it would be Steinbrueck's stubbornness.

"He was very hard to influence. He would go off in a particular direction," Fox said. "He would let his sense of how it should be done [guide him], not his sense of where the community was."

Steinbrueck considers himself a collaborative leader and accuses the mayor of not working cooperatively with the council. The two are not far apart on issues, and they have worked together on issues such as industrial lands.

But Nickels proposes legislation without first consulting council, Steinbrueck says, which means he can either accept it, reject it (as he did with the mayor's proposal for a red-light district in Sodo) or work to change it (which he did much of the time).

"My goal is not to be out there criticizing the mayor on every goal, and it's not personal," Steinbrueck said. "My goal is to further my objectives and to use every tool available."

Nickels' office did not return several calls for comment.

Steinbrueck criticized Nickels' predecessor, too.

Paul Schell, though, recalls Steinbrueck as "a delight" to work with.

"He can be contentious," the former mayor said. "But he was there as a public servant, and he saw himself that way. That is increasingly rare."

Many complain that Steinbrueck is sanctimonious. Steinbrueck says they should have met his dad.

"He was a great moralist and humanitarian," said Steinbrueck, who called it a lifelong challenge for him and his three siblings to live up to, or reject, his father's standards.

"Lying, deceit, greed, selfishness" were his dad's circles of hell, Steinbrueck said, alluding again to Dante. "Those are the things that were imprinted on all of us."

Steinbrueck's parents divorced when he was young, and tagging along to protests was the only chance he had to see his father. He said he grew up working-class, living with his mother in a run-down house in Denny Blaine. One grandfather was a Boeing clerk, the other ran an auto-repair shop.

After going to Harrison Elementary in Madison Valley, he went to Lakeside on a scholarship. He graduated from Bowdoin College, a small liberal-arts school in Maine, and received a master's degree in architecture from the UW.

He now lives with his wife, Marilyn Taylor, an attorney at the state Court of Appeals, and his sons in Pinehurst. At his City Hall farewell party, the boys hung a banner: "Welcome Back Dad." Benjamin, 12, played "Für Elise" on the piano. Mason, 14, played the tenor sax with his band, Jazz Against the Machine.

Campaigns and battles

While many council members leave office and retreat to private life, Steinbrueck said he will remain an activist. "My life has been a series of campaigns and battles, and that continues."

Running for office, he says, is something he does not plan to think about for a year. Congress could be in the more distant future. He says people tell him on a daily basis he should run for mayor.

He's noncommittal, but thinks he would be a good one. "I have the capacity to manage the affairs of the city effectively and advance good public policy and protect what we value with a vision for a future," he said.

For now, "Positive change is my ambition."

King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who runs a poker game with Steinbrueck called Pete and Re-Pete, said leaving office doesn't diminish his chances for higher office. "In chess games, you don't go back and forth, you go sideways and eventually score," said von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way.

Steinbrueck's next campaign is the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He was the first politician to rally supporters around the idea of a surface-road replacement for the elevated highway, an idea the mayor and even Gov. Christine Gregoire seem to have grudgingly accepted as an option worth studying.

"Leadership is about convincing people in the community that things need to change," he said, building up to a recitation of his moral code: "Leadership, not followship." "Don't betray your conscience." "Greater good before special interests."

At his final, 450th council meeting last week, Steinbrueck kept his comments brief. He compared his time on the council to the water park Wild Waves.

Then he quoted Shakespeare.

"All's well that ends well."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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