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October 03, 2005

Who the Heck is Al Runte?

Al Runte, candidate for mayor of Seattle, still believes it is possible for a city to plan for the future and to get individuals and neighborhoods involved in the process of governance. He is an unlikely candidate, this former professor who is running for mayor against Greg Nickels. He hasn’t run for office before or served on city boards. Instead he’s been teaching and writing and thinking about how cities should work, about the lessons we can draw from European cities, about how to create a robust infrastructure that will take us through an upcoming time of scarcity.

I think Al got deeply angry that this beautiful city where he has lived for so many years doesn’t work well anymore and he wants to change that and he thinks he knows how to do that. It’s that simple. In interviewing him I felt a bit touched by the fairy dust of belief myself. Maybe we can take back our city on our way to reclaiming our democracy nationally and rebuilding our can-do attitude in this state.

The interview with Al Runte is below the fold.

Interview with Al Runte

What prompted you to make this run? 

AR: My neighbors have urged me to do this for years. They have said that a well-spoken and articulate person who wants to make government work as I do should go into politics.  They’ve said it’s good that I’m a writer and a thinker.  That’s what we need. 

I live in a wonderful neighborhood - Wedgewood. We know each other. We hang out and talk occasionally as we’re working in the garden or taking a walk.

I decided to run for mayor because of what wasn’t happening in my neighborhood that should have been. There were a couple of important issues that came up.  

First a letter went out from the Seattle Transportation Department about redoing streets after many years of neglect in the spring of 2003. They said we’re going to repave streets and update utilities. Mothing happened. Later, a part of the street collapsed on 35th Ave. N.E.near where I live. The city barricaded the hole and closed off one lane of the street, making traffic more difficult than before. I wrote to them, saying it needed to be fixed. They wrote back saying it would be fixed as part of a big project. Nothing happened. We found out it had been taken out of that big project. Instead they tried to fill it in but just didn’t wind up taking care of the problem at all. 

This is not the way to run a city. I had the same difficulty with the Police Department. There are only three cars for a very large portion of north Seattle. In discussing the issues with individual police officers, they knew we needed more police cars patrolling but that they weren’t getting support from the mayor or the police chief.

So, I finally decided to raise these issues by running for mayor. Government needs to have good people run. I jumped into the race in July. People said I should have started a year ago but here I am.

I’m glad I threw my hat in the ring. I’ve noticed that issues are getting raised more often in the city council now.

Speaking of the city council, why didn’t you run for city council first?

AR: People have asked me that. But that’s not where the need for leadership is.  It’s in the mayor’s office.

Why would the people of Seattle want to vote for you?

AR: Well, I’ll be a better mayor. I’ll listen to people; I’ll protect and nurture neighborhoods; I’ll deal with the issues of infrastructure, thorny as they may be. The current mayor wants to postpone these things. He wants the development plans that just leave Seattle with the issues of supporting that development afterwards. It’s nuts.

People say, “But developers won’t build these things if there are too many restrictions.” I say, “Good. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” People say we won’t have an economy if we don’t coddle them. Nonsense. What we have in Seattle is invaluable and irreplaceable. We have a population that is innovative, creative and environmentally thoughtful. Developers should be standing in line to build in Seattle. 

What we have in our city now is plutocracy. Nickels sounds more like Reagan with his trickle-down wealth idea. It’s not what any traditional progressive would do.

What makes you think you’d be better than Greg Nickels?

AR: I’m talking about administrative, not character. Nickels is not a bad man. This is about confidence and education. I’m a person who’s spent all my life with smart people. I would surround myself with people who make me think. I think Nickels surrounds himself with people just like him. He fired Jim Diers, who was the Director of Neighborhoods. People say that Jim was too talented; he would have stood up to Nickels’ in cutting neighborhoods budgets. Diers is the kind of person I’d want – highly educated, someone who would challenge me.

The mayor doesn’t even show up to neighborhood meetings. He stays away because he knows people are angry.

If I had to make a tough decision, I’d go to the neighborhoods and talk with the folks in the effected area about the issue and explain why I did what I did. I think a lot of people retreat from the job itself. I wouldn’t do that.

What are the Key Issues that Seattle has to deal with?

AR: The biggest issue that all American cities have to deal with is recognizing that cities are organic; they are constantly changing. Cities have to maintain themselves. For the past 20-25 years, Seattle has not built infrastructure.  The longer we wait, the harder it is to get it back. We have to start thinking like Europeans. We are in a time in history when we won’t have the money to keep doing it over and over again.  There are fewer natural resources; fuel costs are soaring. We have to face up to that. We are playing with fire here.

As a nation, we have let ourselves slide for a long time. There are lots of expenses ahead. Every man, woman and child owes the federal government $145, 000. We can’t afford to pay our share. There is no way that we can cover this. That figure was only about $65,000 when Clinton took office. That wasn’t good but it was manageable.

I know you’ve been out campaigning pretty consistently the last few months. What have you learned?

AR: The one word that describes people in Seattle’s neighborhoods is “angry”. People feel ignored, betrayed, walked away from. At a Phinney Ridge meeting on the zoo on Saturday, after listening to the folks at the meeting, I turned to a friend and said, “It’s lucky that these people don’t have tar and feathers.” People are sick and tired of the argument that we’ve had a terrible recession.

It’s nonsense; the budget of Seattle has gone up every year even in this recession. In 2003, the budget for the city was $651 million. In 2004 it went up to $665 million and then to $685 million in 2005. It will be about $698 million for 2006. So the budget has been increasing about 2-3% a year. But I calculated, using figures from the same general budget, that service to the neighborhoods, things like parks upkeep, street upkeep, library open times - has gone down 22%, adjusted for inflation, in the same four years.

The budget has been going up by 2-3% and services to the neighborhoods and the mayor has cut services to the neighborhoods by 2-3%. We did not lose revenue in city of Seattle, just in the neighborhoods.

What else should people in the city of Seattle know to make the decision to vote for you?

AR: If the public wants progressive cities, we have to insure that the people who benefit from the city pay their share. When people benefit and yet don’t pay much in the way of taxes, they are ignoring the real needs of the city. And so are we. For example, Paul Allen should pay his share. We’ve been made to feel embarrassed to ask these questions. Warren Buffett understands this. I admire that. Buffett knows that corporate welfare is not good for the community.

People at the top are not entitled to special consideration. I would run Seattle as a true progressive city. That might mean slowing down development for awhile. That’s okay. Seattle needs to hear that we need to recognize that just because we have a beautiful setting doesn’t mean we always do things the right way. We’ve made some mistakes.

Everything about the future is going to be about scarcity. We are going to have to live within our means. We need a good infrastructure and good plans in order to be ready. We saw what happened in
New Orleans when they let their infrastructure slide. We could get hit here with a pandemic flu epidemic. We need to have our infrastructure in good shape and we need to have plans in place.

What do you say to people who say you lack direct governmental experience?

AR: I don’t want a politicians’ experience. The professional politicians are trying to protect their sinecures. I’ve run many projects as part of a team. I’ve influenced the lives of students. I’ve written books, kept projects afloat over many years, gotten people involved and kept them involved.

A good mayor appoints good people and lets them do them the job. A good mayor provides leadership and puts plans in motion. We get ourselves in trouble leaving it to professional politicians. Citizens have a lot of talent. We need to put it to use.

Besides Nickels didn’t have any direct executive experience before he became mayor. And he totally ignored the day-to-day needs of the city.

Now the big question on everyone’s mind – What would you do about the monorail?

AR: I would have made sure that engineers make the designs, not politicians. I wouldn’t presume to do things I didn’t have expertise on.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on October 3, 2005 at 11:15 PM in Interviews | Permalink


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Many thanks for posting that interview! Alas, I work in, but live outside of Seattle; but, I learned a lot about what is not working in the city government.

Posted by: darryl | Oct 4, 2005 2:21:40 AM

Well, that was a bit of a non answer on the monorail.

Posted by: Christian Gloddy | Oct 4, 2005 10:39:44 AM

I have a friend who says he feels that no person can be a mayor without administrative experience. But Al's answer to that, stressing the fact that he has headed projects, and that Mayor Nickels had no executive experience prior to his current job, should convince most people that Al can, indeed, do the job and do it well.
Down in Portland, Oregon, when the citizens of that city were tired of typical politicians, they elected a bartender mayor: "Bud" Clark. He had a rocky start but ended up doing all right by the voters.
My hunch is Al Runte would have everyone, save what the late Hunter Thompson called "greedheads," feeling pretty good in short order. If we get another term with Greg Nickels, there goes our quality of life.

Posted by: Terry Parkhurst | Oct 4, 2005 7:10:15 PM

Christian - what answer would you have preferred on the monorail?

Posted by: Ben Schiendelman | Oct 5, 2005 10:04:53 AM

He had my vote before this, just because I hate fatboy Greg Nickels, but now Al has my enthusiastic support.

Posted by: hrc | Oct 5, 2005 3:02:11 PM

Al Runte is a communist! All good Republicans will happily support our local Emperor, Mayor Greg Nickels

Posted by: transitsux | Oct 12, 2005 7:32:27 PM

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