Executive Q&A: Seller in Chief

Former Governor Christine Gregoire takes on new responsibilities as CEO of Challenge Seattle.
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Since ending her term as governor of Washington in 2013, Christine Gregoire has lived a somewhat less public life taking care of grandchildren, chairing the 2015 advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and serving on the boards of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. She is coming out of semiretirement to head up a new initiative aimed at raising Seattle’s awareness of itself — and its international profile.

POST-RETIREMENT: I’d been out of office for only a few months when Brad Smith [now president of Microsoft] invited me to lunch. He wanted my takeaway from being governor. I told him I came home from overseas trips with this wonderful sense of enthusiasm about Seattle’s phenomenal reputation only to find we were unaware of our reputation internationally. We’re too shy to talk about our assets, and that’s not healthy for us. So he said, “Well, let’s get to work on that.” At the time, Phyllis Campbell was working with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Consulting Group on the question of how to make Seattle a global city. Brad asked me to help. I traveled with a group of people to San Francisco, Boston, Austin and New York to look at what they were doing. We looked back on the history of Seattle and early days of dramatic civic leadership. We realized that if we wanted to remain a globally competitive international city, we would have to step up to the challenge. 

CHALLENGE SEATTLE: Last March, Brad asked me if I would be CEO of a new entity called Challenge Seattle. It’s made up of CEOs of 17 organizations [including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]. We have dinner about three times a year. We don’t lobby. Everybody contributes what they want to, but they must commit to five years of support. What I discovered was we have a group of CEOs who don’t know [each other], so they can’t take advantage of opportunities for collaboration. These CEOs are civic minded; they want to do good. [Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO] Ray Conner called me last summer to ask what we could do about the terrible forest fires in eastern Washington. I made some calls. Within 48 hours, we had full participation of all 17 CEOs to the tune of $750,000 [to contribute to the Red Cross]. That gave us a sense of what we could do. With Challenge Seattle, we are focused on four things: education, jobs, selling Seattle and transportation.

EDUCATION: We are a major partner with the University of Washington in the creation of GIX [the Global Innovation Exchange]. It’s an 18-month master’s program with a multidisciplinary approach to learning. The CEOs might do some teaching and mentoring. In turn, they get a first look at students they might snatch up and hire. There is a development group in China that wants to co-locate an incubator next to GIX to house startups from China. We are also partnering with the Road Map Project, which encourages students to seek college educations and certifications. We’ll offer the business perspective. We’ll have CEOs talk to students in person or through videos. Ray Conner might talk about how he started as a mechanic. The CEOs can show students what they have to do to get into college and get those $80,000 Boeing or Amazon jobs.  

JOBS: We have lots of efforts to promote economic development in the region, but not a lot of coordination. The single best asset we have to attract companies to the area is our CEOs. If Seattle has Alibaba on the hook as being interested in locating here, we would have the CEO of Microsoft give them a call. When CEOs travel, we want to know where so they can visit a company we might want to attract. We tell the economic development agencies, “We’ve got the big dog in the room. You make it work and our asset is waiting there to help you out.” [Howard Schultz at] Starbucks asked us to help re-create a program they did in Chicago where they brought together unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds to meet with employers. At the end of the day, thousands were hired. We said, “Sure, we’ll do it.” We estimate there are about 10,000 young people here that fit into that category. 

SELLING SEATTLE: When the rest of the world hears “Washington,” they think you mean D.C. For [outsiders], the state of Washington is Seattle. We grow grapes, we harvest wheat, we have Microsoft. And if we want to prosper, we have to get over our humbleness a tad. We have such a track record of success, whether it’s in music, food or business. We will soon launch a domestic ad campaign showing famous Seattle personalities with the slogan “Incredible Works Here.” A campaign in China will show magazine covers featuring [famous] Seattle-area executives such as Jeff Bezos. This is not about tourism. It’s about attracting companies and talent. 

TRANSPORTATION: The people in this community will embrace growth if they believe someone is paying attention to transportation. I put together a group of experts who will come up with some metrics about what a good transportation system should look like. We also want to create a think tank of leading experts at the University of Washington that can look at the cutting edge of transportation technology. The “Good To Go” pass works for Highway 520 tolls, but it’s useless on the ferry or bus. Seriously? It ought to have a single app for everything. There ought to be a real-time system managing traffic like in London, so that if there is one accident, we can divert everybody and traffic doesn’t come to a grinding halt. We want to show how we take the driverless car and introduce it into the community. We have unique challenges. We need solutions that adapt to our uniqueness. 

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Executive Q+A: Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

He wants the city's strong-mayor system to have a more robust organizational structure.
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Under Ed Murray, Seattle has become recognized nationally for promoting progressive policies like the $15 minimum wage, but he also sees the need for more centralization in the mayor’s office to implement better controls over the city’s large bureaucracy.
 
EARLY YEARS: My father was a logger. Two of my uncles died in logging accidents. Later, Dad worked for Bethlehem Steel. He went to business school and ended up on the business side of the Port Blakely Companies and finally worked at the state Department of Natural Resources. As a large Catholic family, we sometimes struggled financially. I had paper routes, washed dishes and even picked blueberries — a job I hated — for clothes and to pay for dental work. In college, I worked full time so I could get insurance.
 
POLITICS: I’ve wanted to be in politics since I was 5, when John F. Kennedy was running for president. There was so much excitement. We stayed up later [on election night] and in the morning, we ran into my parents’ room and jumped on the bed to find out who was elected. There is this natural interest in politics among the Irish in America. I have cousins who’ve been elected mayor in the New Jersey and New York areas.
 
DRIVE: When you grow up where food doesn’t come easy, it’s almost a double fear that you will end up destitute. When you have opportunities like I’ve had in life, you absolutely want to spend every moment making it work. I’m driven and I look for people who are driven. At times, I’ve had to dial back the way I drive others. 
 
MAYOR’S OFFICE: This city has a strong-mayor system. Unlike in Boston or New York, I don’t have to [get city council approval] to raise the minimum wage or do a [child care] program. But we have a fairly small mayor’s office compared to other large cities. I’m responsible for 14,000 city employees in 28 different departments, including Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, but I have little ability to do independent oversight. We don’t have the controls that the governor’s office has with the Office of Financial Management. For the day-to-day administration, we need another level of centralization so, for example, we can build projects on time and on budget. We’re looking at ways to use statistics to measure performance. How do we monitor construction in real time to catch problems early?
 
BIG CITY: In my first two years in office, Seattle went from the 20th to the 18th largest city [in the United States]. That [growth] creates challenges. I’ve brought in some of the most innovative people in the country to work in the mayor’s office, to be directors of departments to take us to that next level. I focused on folks who’ve come from big cities because we don’t have a lot of depth when it comes to big cities.
 
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: The fact that we have been able to pass five ballot measures in two years to really catch this city up on transportation, parks and bus service. Maybe our pre-K [early learning] program will be, in the end, the most significant. If we get this right, we will radically change the outcome for those young people.
 
BUSINESS REGULATION: I worry about the impacts on the smallest businesses in the city. In a city that is rapidly changing, their situation is the most precarious. We need to do a better job on how we engage and assist them. That’s why I brought in Brian Surratt as director of the Office of Economic Development. But many of the things we have done, we have done with with business. Business was there on pre-K and transportation. If we don’t have a transit system that works, business doesn’t work. Even on minimum wage, business is not happy, but we created a model of phasing it in that has become a model around the country. With the housing levy, developers for the first time agreed with low-income-housing advocates to accept a requirement to build or pay for affordable housing in exchange for increased density in our urban villages. This has been a collaborative process. I do worry at times that some on the council don’t understand that most businesses operate on the margin. I do worry that there could be a piling-on effect without understanding the full implications of that. But business needs to do a better job of articulating what they want and not simply what they are against.
 
BUDGET: We have to be really sensitive to levy fatigue because we have a really regressive tax system that leaves us few choices other than property taxes. Having said that, the housing levy did pass by 70 percent. That was the fifth levy I had sent out in two years. I do need to add that Seattle’s tax burden is less than some of our suburban cities. Still, there are real risks here. On every budget speech I give, I remind the council that a lot of increased revenue we have received is off of construction that will ultimately slow down. We are keeping a high reserve to prepare for worse times.  
 
HOMELESSNESS: The first year I was in office was the last year of the 10-year plan to end homelessness. The city identified and built every unit it said it needed to end homelessness and yet the problem is worse. We need to be innovative about finding new ways to deal with homelessness. But the myth that Seattle can solve this problem hurts the homeless. Seattleites are pointing at each other for a problem that only the nation and state can help us solve. We’ve stepped up big time, but there is this issue of income inequality, and the massive heroin epidemic in this country while the government is retreating from its responsibilities. We are number 47 in what we spend on mental illness in this state. What disappoints me is the folks in Seattle don’t realize that towns up and down the West Coast all have homeless crises. That’s an area I have to own a failure — not being able to create a dialogue to create a bigger movement.
 
TAKE 5: GET TO KNOW ED MURRAY
 
HERO: “When I was 13 or 14 and Wes Uhlman was elected mayor at 34, I read an article in the Seattle P-I that showed a picture of him on the balcony of the old City Hall. That’s when I wanted to be mayor.
 
FAVORITE VACATION: Visiting the Washington coast with his husband, Michael Shiosaki.
 
A LIFE IN POLITICS: Murray once confided to reporter Joel Connelly: “In 18 years, I have never been on a vacation where we haven’t been interrupted by some legislative crisis or some controversy in the media.”
 
TRUTH TELLER. “The biggest myth is that we have a large tax burden. We are the 18th-largest city [in the country], but in terms of tax burden, we are something like the 50th.”
 
GO, PILOTS. Murray was born in Aberdeen in 1955 and grew up in West Seattle and Lacey. He has a sociology degree from the University of Portland.
 
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.