Saturday, September 19, 2009

Crosscut's David Brewster: The tone test for the mayor's race

I agree with David Brewster in comparison of tone of the two candidates for Mayor of Seattle. One is snarky, the other is B-O-R-I-N-G.

First, the context, here is the McGinn light rail proposal as reported in the Seattle Times (Seattle's only daily metro newspaper):
Mike McGinn pledged this morning to bring a plan before voters within two years to expand light rail to more neighborhoods within Seattle.

Neighborhoods that could be connected, he said: West Seattle, Ballard, Fremont, Queen Anne and Belltown.

"Seattle's values on these things just couldn't be clearer," McGinn said, at a news conference at the Columbia City light-rail station.

McGinn mentioned the possibility of funding the light-rail extensions with car-tab taxes, sales taxes or other taxes.

Sound Transit has a plan to ask voters in 2016 for neighborhood extensions, and a build-out to Everett and Tacoma. McGinn, though, is proposing to hold a Seattle vote sooner on light-rail within the city.
Seattle Times: Mike McGinn wants more light rail in Seattle, vote within two years

I have no idea how Mike McGinn, an attorney, will kill the deep bore tunnel, a state highway, and then go back to the state to get car-tab taxing authority (details, details). The legislature already loves Seattle, I am sure killing the tunnel, and then demand tax authority to make the tunnel's death possible is exactly what the state really wants to have happen, or not.

Anyway, back to David Brewster's point on tone.
Today's [9/16/2009] example was a tiff over a proposal from Mike McGinn for hurry-up transit to the unserved neighborhoods. Joe Mallahan riposted quickly:
“Light rail is a critical service that not only gets people out of their cars and off the roads, moving more quickly, but also promotes economic development along its lines. We need more mass transit investments but light rail is a regional transportation system and all additions need to be integrated into our existing transit network.

“When someone proposes a plan of this size, the responsible thing to do is let voters know how much it will cost and how he’s going to pay for it. Mike McGinn won’t be honest with voters about how much his proposal will cost and suggests putting this haphazard measure on the ballot the same year Seattle’s Family and Education Levy is up for renewal. I think the last thing we should do is pit kids against mass transit solutions.

“Voters approved a Sound Transit package last year that included studies for expanding mass transit options in other parts of the city. I will advocate for expediting those plans and work with Sound Transit to move forward in a responsible manner.”

To which McGinn quickly returned fire:
"In his response criticizing my light rail expansion proposal, Joe Mallahan made the accusation that we would be pitting 'kids against transit.'

"Mr. Mallahan's comment is uninformed. Seattle voters routinely pass multiple measures on the same ballot. Two recent examples include:

"Nov. 2008 - Seattle voters passed the Parks Levy (59% Yes), the Pike Place Market Levy (61% Yes) and Sound Transit 2 (70% yes in Seattle) at the same time with large majorities.

"Nov. 2006 - Seattle voters passed the Bridging the Gap Levy (53% Yes) plus King County's Transit Now (69% Yes in Seattle).

"My question for Mr. Mallahan is would he vote for a good light rail package and an education measure if they were on the same ballot?

"I also find it somewhat ironic that Mr. Mallahan is trying to raise concern about the Families and Education Levy (passed with a 62% Yes vote) as an excuse to not move forward on light rail. County voting records indicate that Mr. Mallahan has missed ten important elections since he moved to Seattle nine years ago including the last Families and Education Levy in 2004."

The difference in tone is apparent, with McGinn heavier on the sarcasm and the gratuitous insults, as well as the punchy data. This lawyer knows how to address a jury and score points. Mallahan, meanwhile, is trying (aided by his grave tone) to plant in voters' minds that McGinn is flaky, a sound-bite politician versus the stay-with-the-program manner of Steady Joe. If McGinn risks getting whistled for low blows, Mallahan flirts with B-O-R-I-N-G.

Underlying this positioning is the question whether voters, stunned by the Town Hell events and "You lie!" taunts, will find McGinn's snarky manner off-putting or refreshing.
Crosscut's David Brewster: The tone test for the mayor's race

Mr. Brewster is right, message intent projects a tone. That tone is a product of the person, and how they express their ideas.

McGinn put the light rail idea out there as if we have to go it alone, like the monorail, and streetcars (not that we have to, but his message form could imply it).
McGinn compares the publics willingness to vote for $149 million for parks with a new light rail vote of 10x the tax cost is a bit of a reach. Comparing people voting for parks or even the the Seattle Library vote ten years ago, that spreads the pain and gain all over the city, is simply not the same as a multi-jurisdiction vote for Sound Transit light rail (ST). The project's larger scale spreads the pain and gain broader. Many hands make light (rail) work.

What I think most people in Seattle want to avoid are mass transit projects that can be compared with the failed monorail, $130 car tabs for nothing is still in living memory for the vast majority of citizens. While I am at here, the monorail mode of transportation is tainted with civic failure, and will take more time to pass before revisiting more monorail as anything more than an aspiration.

There is a point where too much tax is just that, concentrating too much gain, or pain, is unacceptable on its face. Proposing to vote on a formless and expensive proposal in two years is a socially dumb proposal, no matter how good the idea is behind it.

McGinn's proposal does look a little flaky, flacky, or simplistic. He put the idea out there as a proposal (to have a vote in two years). Proposal messages demand a finer level of information than aspirations. It has been my experience that proposals that demand money are expected by the person getting the message to have finite facts with which to agree to a reasonable solution with.

You can see the lack of specitivity in how people, in general, react (such as Mr. Brewster's story referenced above). 10% unemployment will have that effect on the masses. Call it mass transit consumer confidence, if you like.

This messaging failure could also say that McGinn is out of touch with the maturity of his broader message, or with the depth of understanding of the transportation issues with the masses. This is not a transportation wonktocracy.

My simple advice for Mike McGinn is to propose things that happen in the future in more open terms; civic aspiration, and an alternative idea to stopping the tunnel, should have been that message.

Joe Mallahan's response was spot-on, but uninspiring. In Mallahan's transportation messaging, and his direct response to McGinn's proposal, he has to express the broader ST transportation message, couched in perspective that would directly benefit McGinn's proposal. More simply, reduce McGinn to a subject matter expert voicing a poorly formed proposal. Mallahan should have taken the proposal's positive attributes and placed them into broader policy, being the policy maker. That's what a mayor does do, after all.

Mr. Mallahan's response was to fight the rough edges of McGinn's slightly ham-handed proposal, it should have been aspirational, placed into the ST context of win-win pain-gain spreading. Place the idea in the appropriate broader scale. For a guy espousing project management skills he, quite frankly, choked on that answer. Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, and managing resources to bring about the successful completion of specific project goals and objectives.. The resources are tax payers that need meaningful transportation solutions. The project scope is big, and pitting it against resources for children, as Mallahan did, failed to provide a right-sized policy solution.

The more inspiring massage both missed was that by working with ST the western parts of Seattle could, and should, start thinking about light rail in ways that Bellevue and Redmond currently are. In Two years we should know where we want to have light rail progress in Seattle, and what it will take to make that happen for the citizens of Seattle.

There, a little ST, mention the broader ST idea, how do we fit in and play along, and an aspiration for Seattle.
Realistic and inclusive aspirations are what this election, and many others, are about.
Honestly, it is not that hard to express the direction you want to go in open terms that are inclusive and realistic to the broadest number of voters.

Have a great day,
Mike Baker

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