Set Up to Fail? How to Help Make Seattle’s Leaders More Successful

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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Seattle seems to have perfected a new distinction: we elect leaders (mayors, school superintendents, UW presidents) who get tossed or jump right about the time they are getting the hang of the job or about to be hanged. Why are these seats so hot? Is there a better way to fill them?

One problem, as I see it, is that we tend to play it too safe in selecting these leaders. I recall an observation of former Congressman Joel Pritchard, who said these searches for new leaders always come down to three choices.

  1. One is the odd fit — a big success in a different line of work.
  2. The second is the number-two person, ready to move up to being chief.
  3. The third, as Pritchard put it, is “the man from Cincinnati,” performing well in the same job in a slightly smaller city.

Since the search committee wants to be blameless if things don’t work out and the first two options are risky, they usually settle on the third option, the safe but dull choice. The new leader doesn’t know the town or the job, and critics usually topple the new leader for being too weak or for inducing too much change — Seattle loves the idea of change and hates actual changes. The result is not enough time for a strong leader to settle in, and a cycle of wheel-spinning takes hold.

Another problem is that the hiring committee (voters, The Stranger endorsements, and political interest groups) don’t really agree on what is the principal broad problem to be addressed by the new leader. (Economic recovery? Seattle’s inequality? Poor basic services? Police reform?) The selection process for a new mayor then defaults to the jaded political consultants, who go looking for an electable assemblage of assets (minority cred, close to labor, novelty value such as first gay or first woman, name-identification such as a television personality, able to raise a lot of money from friends, dogged ambition).

Not surprisingly, such electable figures can get votes and reward consultants, but usually they can’t assemble a durable ruling coalition or manage a large bureaucracy. Hence Seattle’s high turnover at the top: four single-term mayors (Paul Schell, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, Jenny Durkan) since 1997.

A third problem is the structural weakness of many of these top positions. Most cities are strong-mayor (like Chicago), strong-council (like Portland), or strong-city-manager (like Bellevue). Seattle, bless us, is strong-mayor/strong-council — a recipe for friction. I remember Mayor Charles Royer (three terms!) observing that the council job is boring, but the members are highly qualified, so they all dream of being mayor and torment the incumbent. (That’s a frustrated dream since the low reputation of our city council among voters makes ascent very rare, the exception being Norm Rice, mayor from 1989-97.) 

Three problems, so how about three solutions? I label these The Search, The Bargain, and The Summit.

  1. Have a Proper Executive Search for Seattle Mayor. A reasonably sized, self-generated committee (15-20), balanced (business, labor, greens, social service agencies, age, ethnicity, new economy and old), should agree on the main qualities being sought for an effective new mayor (as opposed to policy stands), and then go interview people who meet these criteria and select two or three who ought to get the job (and might, given this endorsement, agree to run).

    Qualities sought by the committee should stress effectiveness as a mayor, not electability or ideology. These desired traits include: ability to lead or function in a large organization, honest, well-liked, trustworthy, proven effectiveness, demonstrated good judgement, passion for urbanism and the public good, strong public speaker, deeply networked in a diverse Seattle, a “broker” approach rather than and “activist” style for governance. The names of the search committee need to be public, and the chair must be independent of City Hall and major interest groups. The Searchers should be advocates for the top candidates selected, and an ongoing resource for such a candidate once elected. Voters of course make the final pick, and the Search candidates contend with all the other mayoral candidates.
  2. Craft Some Grand Bargains. There’s no Jim Ellis or Warren Magnuson or Rainier Club Establishment to do this in a fractured city, so some group (or groups) needs to convene quiet peace talk explorations to see if some big-deal, win-win proposals can be forged and presented for public debate. An example might be a new tax to build housing (such as Portland’s cheap tiny-house villages) in exchange for clearing parks of encampments. Another: “Downtowns for All,” which combines some major projects for downtown (Macy’s ground floor, moving the Jail from south downtown, or a car-free stretch of First Ave.) and funded/incentivized retail-and-arts revival for “15-minute” neighborhood business districts.

    Such high-level and broadly supported trade-offs would clear the air and create safe spaces for politicians. The bargainers need to be drawn from the major power centers in town, including the newly energized Left Left and the tech sectors of business. In fact, there are already some informal, broadly-based groups that are searching for some ways to break the polarized standoffs at City Hall. Putting forth some big solutions ahead of the political curve gives the media some proposals to cover (rather than the usual shoot-outs). And the advocates for these solutions provide a lobbying force for their adoption, as well as financial and other support for candidates who embrace the positions.
  3. Broad, Public “Summits” Led by the New Mayor. Mayor Norm Rice was elected in 1989 during an earlier crisis for the city — the initiative banning school busing had just passed. Rice ran on the promise of an Education Summit, which he proceeded to hold. Anyone could attend (about 4,000 did), and the solutions emerged from a carefully facilitated, two-weekends process. It was win-win: busing was stopped and many social-service and school-wraparound agencies were funded by a new levy (the Families and Education Levy, still going). Details are to be found in Rice’s inspiring new book, reviewed recently in Post Alley. Note the important incentive of new funding!

    These Summits, being “bottom-up,” help to counter the more top-down aspects of the Search and the Bargain. Summit gatherings are also a chance for the spirit of CHOP to turn out participants and invigorate the discussions. Some possible topics for Summits: Equitable wealth-building; Relaunching Seattle’s economy. I’d steer away from insoluble, well-worn topics like anti-racism and gentrification and police reform, where the sides are dug-in. Maybe later, if the more manageable ones succeed.

Each of these ideas is “separable,” but they are meant to reinforce each other by finding both the unifying, common-ground ideas and the effective leaders. One might start with just one of the three proposals, and then add others as the spirit of civic renewal and inducing better candidates to run catches on. If the new mayor (or maybe outgoing Mayor Durkan) were to lead the charge for this form of public engagement, so much the better. But in the meantime, the troika of Search-Bargain-Summits could help to stimulate a needed “third force” in our soggy civic weather.

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your suggestions are politically dated.
    We citizens are not ready for compromise, the issues are too polarized with too many voters 1-issue advocates. Why should we worry, if we are Democratic Socialists we are the “Chosen”. If we are the Middle-Class, we can be happy with our lives and not rock the boat too much . If we are The Rich, we can gate up etc.
    Speaking of Norm Rice, we are in fact going Back to the Future and will have to get MUCH WORSE before we are bailed out by illegal government loans to build a parking lot and subsidize a rehab of F&N.

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