Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"A Transit-Loving, Car-Hating, Bike-Riding, Progressive Environmentalist Who's Passionately Supporting Joe Mallahan"

Mark Fefer (Daily Weekly-Seattle Weekly:
A common perception about this year's mayor's race is that Mike McGinn is the guy with the fervent supporters. His all-volunteer campaign has been powered by a flock of righteous, genuflecting, "Mike Bikes"-emblazoned activists and bloggers who seem to view their man as the second coming of Obama.

Mallahan, meanwhile, seems to have picked up more measured support from people who support the tunnel, think McGinn is elitist, or generally find Joe the "safer" choice. He seems like he's been the fallback, and one not embraced with enthusiasm.

That's why it was so interesting to hear from Judy Lightfoot, a longtime educator, writer, and dyed-in-the-compost greenie (and also a friend of mine), who is strongly committed to Mallahan and devoting her time to his campaign. I asked her to write up the story of how she got here. It's after the jump.
by Judy Lightfoot

I cycle, walk, and ride transit so routinely it feels weird to drive the family car (average annual mileage: 4000). I adore a poem written by my husband, also a transit fan, titled "Reasons to Take the Bus" (the first reason is "Because it kneels for us all"). I conserve resources, recycle scrupulously, fret about environmental degradation, and nag politicians to halt global climate change. It would be reasonable for anyone who knows my M.O., especially anyone who also knows my love of language as a writer and a former English teacher, to think Mike McGinn would be my choice for mayor. Certainly Mike's articulateness, gained perhaps from repeated experiences as a lawyer having to make a persuasive case, appealed to me.

But ever since my first glimpses of the candidates I've been concerned about what seems to me a stubborn self-righteousness in the way Mike stands for the good things he believes in. Next to this, his grace as a public speaker shrinks in importance. Besides, it's one thing to address an audience gracefully, and another to engage in successful give-and-take with people you're working with on something delicate or complicated. We who speak well from a lectern often suck at moving a working group forward on a project, and vice-versa. It seemed to me unlikely that the give-and-take required for leading a sizeable city with multiple concerns would be the forte of someone who acts like an environmental ideologue.

For example, we need to get more people out of their cars and into mass transit, but Mike, convinced that his way was the only "right" way, threatened to block the tunnel project even though he knew that delays would drive up the costs of a viaduct solution and put public safety at risk. And when he caved on the tunnel, as my Crosscut colleague Skip Berger put it on KUOW last week, Mike should have said "Though I dislike the tunnel solution that Seattle wants, as Mayor I'll make sure we get the best, safest, most economical tunnel built as quickly as possible." It was as if Mike would rather kvetch than lead.

In sum, the tireless righteousness that has drawn like-minded people to Mike's various causes in the recent past began to seem like the wrong strength for a mayor to bring to Seattle's sometimes contentious diversity of voices and visions. An effective mayor has to be pragmatic, flexible, capable of blending and tweaking different approaches to solving problems, and willing to offer wholehearted leadership on solutions he may not have originated himself. Nor was there any reason to think that Mike would, in office, be a better friend to the environment than Joe.

So I decided to volunteer for Joe's campaign. I phone-banked a little, then offered to interview family and friends who have known him since way back, for a series on his website that the campaign dubbed "I Know Joe" (I was feeling frustrated that Seattle didn't seem to see past the suit and tie and sometimes clumsy self-presentation). I also agreed to write about Joe's tours around Seattle neighborhoods.

Watching him with other people, I've witnessed a level of engagement and a genuineness that's rare even in people not trapped in the political spotlight. There's nothing particularly smooth about his sociable moves, but he draws people into the warmth of his interest in them. Joe enjoys conversing with people in Spanish and Japanese, and Jennifer Clark, a U Chicago grad school friend of his who he worked with on last year's Obama campaign, told me Joe will try speaking any language. "His energy makes up for accuracy," she laughed. He clearly loves discussing issues with anybody wanting to engage, and I've seen him freely disagree with voters instead of pandering or making promises he might not be able to keep. I noticed, too, that his inexperience in elected public office, so like his opponent's, seemed balanced by a willingness to listen to opposing views as well as to admit that he didn't know the answers to some of the questions he was asked.

Moreover, I've learned that Joe's commitment to social justice, a concern that matters hugely to me, is neither "put on" nor shouldered as a weary burden. It's a glad, thoroughly integrated part of his character, rooted in growing up as a member of the Mallahan family. Mike Russo, an old friend of Joe's from his organizing days in Chicago, told me that Joe's parents and the nine children ate plain rice for Friday dinner so that the money saved could be donated to worthy causes. Today, three of Joe's siblings work (respectively) in Tanzania, Guatemala, and Oaxaca on behalf of the poor. According to Russo, when Joe's brother here in Seattle heard that a local bed-and-treatment facility for teen prostitutes had lost its funding, he promised a city councilmember, "I'll raise the money you need for the facility, or I'll pay for it myself." In short, taking action for social justice is in Joe's blood. Clark remembers that back in Chicago, when Joe and his wife bought their first sofa, they saved up twice the price of the one they wanted and gave half the total to charity.

So Joe's business experience feels relevant to me, but not in the narrow sense the media present. They don't quote him when he says that as a corporate insider he's committed to leading his former colleagues to take more responsibility for helping people stuck on the margins build better lives. They don't hear him say that as a public servant he hopes to use what he learned in business to increase the number of jobs that pay living wages and to use savings from more efficient city budgets and departments to enhance human services. They don't listen to his reason why we need more police officers: because staff shortages keep the police force in constant crisis mode, and more officers will mean more time for them to relax and talk peaceably with the citizens they serve. In this world of unexamined sound-bites some friends of mine shudder every time Joe uses the word "efficient," because it reminds them of his corporate background. But especially in an economy with engines flooding like the Titanic's, where will support for human services come from, if not out of savings squeezed from efficiencies? And who is more likely to squeeze more effectively than an experienced manager?

A story told by an old friend of Joe's sums up, for me, his gift for solving complicated or emotionally fraught problems. It's a combination of openness, empathy, and an intelligent detachment that lets him reframe an issue in a compelling way. Someone had told Clark's young son that Santa was a myth and that parents were the ones who bought the presents and stuffed the stockings. The boy was devastated. "If there's no Santa, then there's no Easter bunny, no tooth fairy!" he wept, and his parents could not console him. Joe, who was visiting at the time, drew him aside to talk, and after a while the parents saw their son smile again. Joe had quietly led the boy to see that he'd crossed over into the circle of people who make magic for others.

We need a mayor capable of leading us to cross over barriers of difference into a widening circle of people who will make, if not magic, a better life for others and our city. Of the two candidates, Joe seems like the man who can do this. And that's why he has my vote.

Judy Lightfoot, a former teacher, is a contributor to Crosscut. She's also a Freestyle Volunteer, meeting for weekly coffee and conversation with individuals sharing our public spaces who are socially isolated by mental illness or homelessness. Currently she's volunteering as a phone-banker and unpaid writer for the Mallahan campaign.

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