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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Straight From Zimbabwe: Seattle’s New Power Couple

You may not have heard of them yet, but two fresh players in  Seattle’s civic arena may right now be busy establishing themselves as Seattle’s newest power couple.

Their names are…  Sam and Jess Zimbabwe.

Recently arrived SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe hasn’t (yet) achieved the household name recognition in Seattle that his predecessor, Scott Kubly, attained, but given his talent and prior accomplishments, it’s a good bet he might. Jess Zimbabwe, Sam’s wife, a licensed architect and city planner, is no slouch either, having done serious duty with the National League of Cities and as an innovator in public leadership training. 

Now, they still have some dues to pay to reach the power couple pantheon. How can you not like, though, a couple with enough pizzazz to invent and adopt their own singular and original last name, clothing themselves and kids in fresh personalized remnant right from the get-go?  Aren’t we justifiably curious what kind of portmanteau Zimbabwe is, if it’s a portmanteau at all?  Besides, they may be Seattle’s first power couple with a social media presence that includes their own team website

The Zimbabwe family website

So, first, how did they get here?

Mayors, like big league baseball and basketball owners, hire from the free agent market knowing that hopes and disappointments will only prove out across a full season or more.  So it is, for example, at the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Mayor Ed Murray played a hunch hiring complete stranger Scott Kubly to take on Mission Impossible: the Seattle long brewing transportation mess.  Kubly arrived in 2014 to take the reins of a beleaguered SDOT, which had been dragged for years behind a City Council bent on underfunding basic needs and questing for ribbon cuttings for every bight shiny object a crow would pick from an untended sewing basket.  

Murray wanted fresh thinking on transportation issues and Kubly provided that.  What vetting didn’t turn up was something even Kubly fans at SDOT, and there were some, quickly came to understand. Soon enough, everyone else soon saw, too: Kubly had a bull in a china shop management style and no gift for nurturing internal or external personal constituencies. As a result, his tenure at SDOT didn’t turn out well, despite some fresh thinking that indeed had more merit than he ever got credit for.   

When Mayor Durkan took office and Kubly exited the stage, she sought an experienced, accomplished replacement who would bring operational stability to the agency. That turned out to be Sam Zimbabwe.

Mayor Durkan introducing Sam Zimbabwe.
Photo: SCC Insight

Sam grew up in Speaker Tip O’Neill territory in North Cambridge, Mass. He has a top New England prep school pedigree, hard come by for a day student townie, and followed that up with Cornell and Berkeley degrees. In his professional career, Zimbabwe has navigated the highly charged scooter wars (pretty well, to my eye) in the Washington D.C. Department of Transportation.

So far Zimbabwe has moved very cautiously and as nimbly as possible through the local transportation minefield. He’s quietly re-building SDOT senior leadership from inside and outside the existing organization. He’ll survive the inherited imbroglio of the 35th Avenue NE paving/street redesign mess. With Cascade Bicycle Club’s political ascendancy in an appreciable but perhaps temporary wane, he has a bit more leeway for broader-based solutions than the “all ages, all abilities” transportation salvation offered by two-wheeled evangelists.  The Move Seattle levy miscalculations and campaign over-hyping weren’t on his watch, so he and others at SDOT (along with Mayor Durkan) who are trying to glue together a useful program from the broken pieces, have nowhere to go but up.

Sam may turn out to be an accomplished and inspired choice, and Jess has a lot to offer our civic conversation in her own right. Start with her own sterling  resume, a killer personal website, and a lively Twitter feed with 3800 followers.  

Yet hold on: she self-describes as an “urbanist.” In Seattle, that term means many different things to many different people, and so I’m left with an image of a white board begging for you and your dry-erase markers to tell us who you really are.  Are you one of those bad urbanists, Jess?  You know, the ones who are ideologically rigid zealots with no actual feel for Seattle’s unique culture and the lived experience in our neighborhoods.  Oh, spare us, please don’t turn out to be another one of those. 

Or one of those good urbanists?  The ones who are trying to steeer us to higher density solutions without wholesale gentrification and displacement.  Bring ‘em on. Right now, we need even more and better.  Answer our questions, Jess, and define thyself:  We are eager panelists in a modern revival of What’s My Line

Seattle’s public life knows no shortage of power couple players.  There is, of course, Anne Fennessy, who once would have been called – but it’s disappeared from the argot, happily on every count – head chef in the Mayor’s kitchen cabinet; and her husband David Moseley, our Deputy Mayor.  There’s Charlie Royer, widely esteemed elder statesman; and his wife Lynn Claudon, longtime “go to” public affairs consultant.   There’s Jerry Hillis, land use lawyer mover/shaker; and Diana Gale, who at one time or another ran almost anything and everything.  There’s Martha Kongsgaard, environmentalist and philanthropist; and Peter Goldman, forest practices tiger.  Hardly anyone matched Doug and Maggie Walker, who did all so much of everything that Doug’s tragic climbing death still levees a gaping void.

The Zimbabwe resumes indicate a bit of career bi-coastal jumping about. So how long they’ll be in Seattle, and whether they’ll realize their full power couple potential, is not yet known. But my sense is this: they are going to be fun for Seattle to get to know. I’m just getting started on that myself, but what I’ve seen so far makes me happy that they and their kids wanted to relocate here.  In a couple of years, perhaps we’ll  have some interesting answers. 

Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald
Doug MacDonald has served as chief executive in infrastructure agencies in Massachusetts (Greater Boston drinking water/wastewater) and Washington State (Secretary of Transportation, 2001-2007). His best job was fifty years ago as a rural extension agent in the Peace Corps in Malawi in southern Africa. He has written on the environment, transportation and politics for professional and general publications for many years.

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