Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thinking of Mitchell Baker

Isaac Baker, left, with President Obama
A friend sent along an email with a photo attached on election day, 2012. The photo is of a young man named Isaac Baker standing next to President Obama and it looks like it is taken backstage, prior to an event.  I’m assuming it is an event in Ohio, because Baker worked on the campaign and later the staff of former Governor Ted Strickland and he was also communications director for Senator Hilary Clinton during the 2008 Ohio Democratic Primary. 

After she left the race, the Obama campaign hired him.  He now works for David Axelrod’s political consulting firm and I’m assuming he was using his Ohio expertise that day before this election to make sure the state fell to his candidate one more time.
This is a young man near the top of the biggest political game.  Though his life and ours are so different and we don’t connect that often, we work hard at being so very proud of him, because his father, our friend, can’t.  Mitchell Baker died while Isaac was a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with Isaac's interesting life almost completely ahead of him.

Mitch died in 1999 before the Internet provided so much information about people and made it so convenient to find them.  All you find about Mitchell today is his listing as an author on Amazon, of something called “The New Neighborhood at Sand Point”, a 26 page plan to accomplish the city of Seattle’s vision of how a piece of US Navy surplus property would be developed.  The document shows how we would transfer the land from the feds to the city of Seattle and our ideas for the development options of the property.  It’s mistakenly listed as a book and, Amazon reports, the “binding is unknown.”  It’s the plan Mitchell and I worked on together and the reason we met, giving new purpose to a 20 acre radio transmitter site used by the US Navy to support Sand Point Naval Air Station during World War II.  At the same time, the early stages of the sensational Warren G.  Magnuson Park were coming together nearby.
I hate it when wonderful people with many different accomplishments are missing in action on the Internet.  One of the reasons I write this blog is that I want to bring people who are Internet dead to greater awareness in cyberspace.  And I also miss Mitchell Baker, something I share with many of his other friends who worked with him and who wish he could have been at the event we had earlier this month, celebrating a victory we feared we would not see.

When I met Mitch, he was working in the city of Seattle’s Department of Community Development as a neighborhood planner and he was bored there, thinking that his skills were underused.  He was also a new father of this boy, Isaac.  Mitch saw a job we had posted internally and said he was interested in applying.  The Mayor’s Office was looking for someone to work full-time on the Sand Point project, particularly after The Community Development department showed so little enthusiasm about our ideas for affordable housing, associated day care and energy efficiency.
I read Mitch’s note and we arranged to meet.  He was on the outs with the administration of his department, run by a cerebral, articulate guy we had hired, likely because he was cerebral and articulate.  Mitchell was interested in leaving the city, but hesitated because he loved public service.  He yearned for a bigger role.  He wanted to make things happen.  And nothing much was happening for him.

Mitchell was the strongest candidate because he clearly understood that this development wasn’t a carpenter’s job, but a politician’s kind of work.  This would be the first low income housing in the largely white North end of Seattle and the neighborhood was thick with activists who were, at that time, not liking growth very much and sharpening their considerable community expertise by killing freeway projects and making sure they got what they wanted in the brand new Warren Magnuson Park. We didn’t need a grant writer, we needed a person who could survey the field and make both subtle and not so subtle judgments about what we could do and should do.

I knew intuitively that Mitch was the right one, but I was concerned that his negative views about his work in the city meant that he was likely to leave shortly, even if he had such a cool job as this exciting project.

So, I scheduled another time to talk, this time at the Lockspot Tavern, a regular guy kind of tavern in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, a place once known as the Scandinavian neighborhood, but now known more for its Scandinavian history and the fertility of the young people who have taken it over.  A few days ago, at Ballard's Firehouse Tavern, a fine place for an after movie dinner, the place was packed with kids eating its Sunday night fried chicken special, $15 bucks for several pieces of chicken, a biscuit that could pass for a Volkswagen, a pile of carrots and pan gravy. 

Ballard was once the only place in Seattle you could buy Lutafisk, the gelatinous goo soaked in lye to preserve fish, usually a cod, though it worked with other fish.  I knew all about Lutafisk.  I represented the Mayor, my brother, at all five of the Lutafisk eating contests held in Ballard while I worked for him.  They were staged outside in a small park in Ballard’s downtown with a Ballard elder doing play-by-play.  The Seafair princess always gagged and shrieked and the council member stared straight ahead while the stuff was dumped on his paper plate.  I smiled, ate the stuff and pretended to be a good soldier. 

I love neighborhoods during Seafair, when each unique Seattle neighborhood celebrated its heritage with a locally organized celebration, nearly all with a parade, this one burdened only by the forced ingestion of Lutefisk.

Sometimes Ballard High School cheerleaders would be at the park and chant the school's famous cheer:

“Lutafisk, Lutafisk, Lefsa, Lefsa.”
“Do we like Ballard?”
“Ya, Sure! You Betcha!”

At the Lockspot, over more than one beer, Mitchell told me about his family, his journey from eastern Pennsylvania to Seattle and his Jewish faith, described aptly by the Rabbi who officiated at his funeral:

“Let’s face it, Mitchell was not a familiar presence at Temple.”

By the end of the evening conversation at the Lockspot, Mitchell had a new job and a new friend to go along with it.

We cemented the friendship during the complicated process of transferring property under the ownership of the Department of Defense to the city.  Despite the considerable help of United States Senator Warren Magnuson, the federal to locality land transfer is a treacherous process.  We had nearly buttoned up the transfer when hoards of soccer field interests descended on us and then on the City Council. Fortunately, the only thing that the neighbors disliked more than new housing were soccer fields and their lights, traffic and noise. 

Burke Gilman Place
Google Earth
Burke Gilman Place, we called it, referring to the old rail line that was converted to one of the country's first rails-to-trails projects.  It ran right next to the property we started calling ours.  

Once the land was in our hands, however, we had to find money to put homes on it.  That required two different sources of money because we had promised the neighbors that Sand Point would be a mixed income development.  The Seattle Housing Authority was a very willing participant for the low income part, but getting the market rate housing was tougher.  Then Mitch came in one day and described the problems an office building developer was having because he wanted to tear down an old apartment complex to make room for his building.  This required him to build replacement, affordable housing and the boom in Seattle’s center city was then so big he could not find property downtown.

Mitchell had written up a little proposal he thought we should take to the developer, assuring him of support for his project if he put the replacement housing units he was obligated to build into Burke Gilman Place.   “That’s a stroke of good luck,” I gushed to Mitch.  “Let’s do it.”  

Taking back the letter, he left scowling and I later understood why.  The luck was Mitchell.  He had greased it with the council, the neighborhood activists who had passed the replacement housing ordinance and the Law Department.  He had made it possible to make good on the mixed-income pledge.

Two things conspired to dramatically affect Mitch’s future while he was working on Burke Gilman Place.  One was the sudden death of Senator Henry M.  Jackson and the second was the near collapse of Washington State’s oldest and biggest bank, Seattle First National Bank, then known as Seafirst.
Henry M.  Jackson
When Senator Henry Jackson died of a ruptured artery in his heart on September 1, 1983, just two weeks before the primary election, I was no longer working for the Mayor.  But there’s an old saying, “once staff, always staff” and I got a call soon enough from my brother.  He wanted to talk about offering his name in the special election that would replace the Senator and, by the way, he had offered my name as someone who would drop everything and help him.  He knew he was right.
A special primary was scheduled for October 11, 1983 with a general election to take place on the regular general election day in November.  It was a dash of a few weeks played out in an open primary where voters could choose between a collection of Republicans and Democrats -- former Republican Governor and interim Senator Dan Evans, Democratic Congressman Mike Lowry, conservative television commentator Lloyd Cooney and Mayor Royer, whose office is non-partisan though everyone knew he was a Democrat.
The mayor finished fourth in that scramble, taking just over 15%, and it stung.  Particularly galling was finishing behind Cooney, a right wing blowhard with a Harley Davidson and an ego that would just barely fit inside Mount Rainier. It turned out that Evans went on to defeat Lowry in the general election and replace Senator Jackson.  

In the ruins of the Mayor’s defeat, he recognized a serious threat to his ability to continue being mayor, a job he loved.  In the middle of his second term, it was clear that a big piece of the constituency that gave him 65% two years before was thinking that he wanted to be somewhere else.  To top it off, he had been elected President of the National League of Cities, a role that involved a lot of travel.  He was the subject of many political cartoons with air travel themes.  In one he’s buckling into his Mayor’s Office chair.  In another, he’s entering the council chambers, his boarding pass in hand. 
Mayor Charles Royer, 1982
City of Seattle Archives

Charley told HistoryLink, the on-line encyclopedia of Washington State, that the loss woke him up. "I hadn’t been paying attention to my political base. Nothing like a hanging to focus a guy, and I got hanged.”

In short order, he hired Mike Lowry’s campaign manager to be his Director of Community Development and brought Mitch Baker into the Mayor’s Office to fix his political base. There was a lot to fix and some real urgency. Norm Rice, a popular councilmember who would later become Mayor, was getting ready to run for the office in 1985, originally assuming that Mayor Royer would not seek a third term and then deciding to run anyway when the Mayor said he would run for a third term.

By the time the election came around, Mitchell had worked his magic again. Two intense years of community work and a locally focused Mayor paid off with a 2-1 victory for Mayor Royer over Councilmember Rice.

Shell Oil Company

The Alaska Pipeline was very good to Seattle, the great supply barges staging in Elliott Bay and dashing up the Inside Passage to the North Slope oilfields when the weather stabilized. All during the 1970s there was this feeling that Seattle was once again a frontier town for some activity in Alaska that was very valuable and needed supporting.

Bill Jenkins, the Chairman of Seafirst, the state’s premier bank, would watch this tableau everyday for years -- the barges filling up with houses, trucks, cranes, 48’ steel tubes, the tugs standing off smartly, ready for another run. Seafirst did what came naturally, providing loans in Alaska for exploration. As the cost of oil ran up during the seventies, Seafirst got into oil exploration loans deeper and deeper. In the Alaska oil rush, two volatile personalities with too little maturity and too much money met and the combustion nearly brought down Seafirst and a few other banks around the country.

Bill Patterson, right, with his Lawyer

Bill Patterson was a wild and crazy guy from Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City who sometimes came to work in a Mickey Mouse hat and sometimes in an SS Uniform. He ran the energy department at Penn Square, was a graduate of Texas Tech and was fond of shaking up his north of Mason Dixon Line clients by drinking beer from his boot.

John Boyd was the one man energy department at Seafirst and soon was having a hell of a good time with Patterson and also doing a lot of business, running up $1.2 billion in energy loans, $400 million of them from Penn Square. Many of those loans, according to subsequent lawsuits, were a mess. In the end, $800 million of the Seafirst energy loans went sour.

At the beginning of the 80s, oil had dropped from $40/barrel to $10 and Seafirst losses started piling up. By 1982, Penn Square Bank had been closed by the government but the losses continued to mount at Seafirst, $300 million over the three years between 1981 and 1983. The leadership of Seafirst was sacked, including Jenkins, who was allowed to retire early. A lawsuit was settled with the five former leaders of the bank agreeing to a judgment of $110 million with the condition that the only money to be collected from the judgment would be what the insurance companies would ultimately pay. It was a little bit of accountability, but from today's vantage, not very much.  Reading the settlement today causes me to get up and walk around the kitchen, where I am writing this.  Although, among my thoughts is the fact that Jenkins was an explosives guy in the US Army, one of the first to crawl out of the sea at Omaha Beach.  This accountability stuff is not as easy as it seems.
Richard Cooley
Bank of America

Dick Cooley, a banker from California, was hired as Chairman at Seafirst to figure out what it would take to keep the bank alive. Ultimately, he agreed to its hat-in-hand sale to Bank of America that brought in enough cash to keep the bank standing and the regulators from locking up the front door of Seattle’s biggest bank.

Cooley stabilized the bank after a couple of years and the bank began to focus less on survival and more on profits, performance and solving a host of old problems that the regal Jenkins felt beneath him. Cooley’s second-in-command, bank president Luke Helms, found himself doing some community work with Mitch Baker on an issue about the Seattle Center, Seattle's World's Fair site. Helms was impressed and saw an excellent negotiator in Mitch.  Turns out Helms was looking for a negotiator.

Long before Cooley and Helms were working at Seafirst, many administrative and technical employees at the bank voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers and Jenkins, true to form, handed the problem to the lawyers. Now, twelve years later, it appeared that the Seafirst lawyers might lose what was likely the last appeal.

So, Helms hired Mitchell as Vice-President of Labor Relations and, of course, Mitch found a path that got to yes.

Mitchell steadily rose at Seafirst. He handled the charitable giving, intergovernmental relations and many other things. Mitch was a homer. He loved local art.  Seafirst began collecting it.  Even when the bank’s name was changed to Bank of America, he got something out of it. Bank of America became the naming sponsor of the newly remodeled basketball stadium at the University of Washington.

One day in 1999 Mitchell called me up and said he wanted to have coffee. Mitchell was a fine base toucher and list maker and was up to something. He told me and his friends that after many tests, doctors had found the problem that was disturbing his sleep and making him tired. A tumor had wound itself around one of his kidneys and the cure was removal of the kidney. It was a serious, though not an earth shattering procedure. He was going into the hospital in a couple of weeks and his wife, Sandy, would give everyone a call when he came out of the operating room.

She called. Mitchell was laughing and joking in post-op and would be delighted to see his friends in a couple of days when he got detached from all the medical bells and whistles.

She called. After the move from post-op, Mitch’s heart had stopped. He had been moved to a regular hospital room and the fact that no oxygen was going to his brain was not detected for at least a half hour. She had to make the call whether he would be detached from the ventilator.

After the service, many who had worked for Mayor Royer with Mitch went to a bar on Lake Washington, but there wasn’t enough air in that room. Mitch was just 50 years old.  We just stood there, trying to say something that had meaning or gave context to what had happened.  But there was no context.  It was just a bummer deal.  There was so much fun in Mitch -- plenty of dark as well -- but he was a talented guy whom we loved and thought there was so much more accomplishment to come, for him and with us.  Hoping to toast Mitchell, we just went home, defeated.

Mitchell would have been delighted about the election and nearly all the other political events of November, 2012 and be especially proud that his son, who grew up in the Seattle Mayor’s Office, was there to claim Ohio when Karl Rove could not.