Michael McKay is John McCain’s man in Seattle
Published in 2008 Washington Super Lawyers magazine
on June 6, 2008
Updated on July 2, 2019
Tanned and handsome, Michael and John McKay stand behind tandem podiums at a 2008 Legal Foundation of Washington luncheon. Fifty members of their extended family, several current and former state Supreme Court justices, retired Sen. Slade Gorton, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, William H. Gates II, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan and many more VIPs have turned out to fete the brothers as they receive the Charles A. Goldmark Distinguished Service Award.
Honored for their efforts to expand access to the justice system, the McKays deliver a back-and-forth acceptance speech leavened with sibling banter and slides of friends and family. The crowd is with them until the face of Vice President Dick Cheney fills a pair of screens.
You can hear a feather drop. Mike McKay had been acknowledging Republican politicos who advocated for funding civil legal aid for the poor. He lets the silence fill the room for a beat longer than a novice speaker could tolerate, then says, “I bet you didn’t think you’d see him here today.” Relieved laughter fills the hall. He’s got a room full of Seattleites sitting down for kind words about the veep. No mean feat.
The oldest sibling in an opinionated, civic-minded family of 12 and a conservative trial lawyer living in the Impeach Bush! stronghold of Wallingford, McKay holds his own in most situations. He’s a tireless GOP campaigner in the mold of former Gov. Dan Evans, managing to be liked and respected by opponents even in these polarized times. He’s the go-to guy for commissions requiring impeccable integrity and a fixer for private citizens who “get sideways” with government. A former U.S. attorney for Western Washington, now in private practice, he has more than once butted heads with officials he helped put in office.
This year, McKay will be working the levers of political power as a key state player in Sen. John McCain’s run for the White House. He’ll also don the mantle of trustworthy truth-seeker as the lead in a high-profile internal investigation into the controversy-riddled Port of Seattle. Both jobs will take all the Irish charm and elbow grease he can muster.
To understand how McKay became the civic, political and legal paragon he is today, you have to begin with his family, which began, in a way, at an autopsy. His parents, John Larkin McKay (a doctor) and Kathleen Tierney McKay (a nurse) met over a body while students at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Nebraska.
“When we were kids, we thought it was cool to come up with appropriate pickup lines that you could employ in an autopsy,” McKay says. “You know, ‘Do you come here often? You want to go out for a cold one after this?’”
The couple settled on Capitol Hill and, like the good Irish Catholics they were, had many children. Six boys and six girls in all, a balance McKay describes as “the closest my parents ever came to ‘planned parenthood.’” The qualities you often associate with an oldest child—loyalty, responsibility, compassion and wisdom—define McKay 57 years on.
“We called him Uncle Mike,” says John McKay, an adjunct professor at Seattle University Law School, who is five years Mike’s junior. “He was almost like another parent”—stern but dependable, hardworking and generous.
“He always seemed to be at least dressed up in a buttoned-down shirt,” remembers Tricia McKay, 10th born and the youngest daughter. She’s the executive director of the Medina Foundation. “He was always going to meetings and involved in political campaigns.” Years later, when she felt overwhelmed working for Sen. Dan Evans in the 1980s, she relied on her brother’s encouragement, smarts and sense of humor to see her through.
Politics and public service were woven into the fabric of life at the McKays’, especially at dinnertime. The family ate together at a large round table that took up an entire room. (For five years, 14 people lived under the same roof.)
“My dad would bring up a topic, and he might call on you,” Tricia McKay says. The kids were expected to comment on anything from international affairs to community issues. “I thought all families did this: learned how to debate an issue and back up your opinion. It was very direct and spirited, but my mom was sure to keep it civil.” Lessons Mike McKay took to heart.
Meeting with him for the first time at his office in One Union Square, we ask about the characterization of his family as sort of Republican Kennedys (something Jeffrey Toobin wrote in a New Yorker story about the unsolved murder of assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Wales). Mike McKay certainly looks the part. It is the Presidents Day holiday, and he looks old-school preppy in a crisp, red plaid cotton shirt, khaki shorts and dark loafers. He says the Toobin story was the first time he’d seen the Kennedy comparison. But there’s no denying the McKays, like that other high-profile Irish Catholic family, have left a big footprint in politics, government and community.
“The idea of public service, helping people wherever we could, was drilled into us when we were kids,” McKay says. And though he didn’t know many lawyers, he claims he knew in grade school that he wanted to major in political science and get a law degree. “I remember talking to adults about those things, and amazingly, I stuck to that plan.”
As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, he worked for Congressman Tom Pelly (a 10-term representative for the 1st District) and John Spellman, the first King County executive. “I saw a lot of folks whose destinies seemed to hinge on whether their boss got reelected,” McKay says. “And I thought it was pretty important that I have a law degree so I had something to fall back on.”
He saw the wisdom of his ways after working on Spellman’s run for governor in 1976. With a J.D. from Creighton University School of Law in his pocket and the Bar exam complete, he had a backup when Spellman lost to Dixy Lee Ray. He went to work at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. It was the beginning of a pattern of alternating between public- and private-sector law.
It was also the beginning of a long, close friendship with Norm Maleng, King County’s prosecuting attorney for 28 years. McKay would work on Maleng’s 1988 and 1996 primary bids for governor—Maleng lost to more conservative Republicans—and a hard-fought race against Christine Gregoire for attorney general in 1992.
“My biggest disappointment is we never got Norm elected to a statewide office,” McKay says. Maleng died of heart failure in May of 2007. “We were not able to convince the people of the state how truly wonderful he was. And now, of course, after his passing, so many people—on both sides of the aisle, by the way—come in and say he really was a unique, gifted individual.”
During his five years at the prosecutor’s office, McKay worked civil, criminal and fraud cases. A highlight of his tenure was representing the Kingdome in the first major litigation with the Seattle Mariners. Among several allegations, the Mariners claimed that field dimensions had been misrepresented and that, had they known the actual dimensions, they would have picked different ballplayers in the expansion draft, won more games and sold more tickets—to the tune of $8 million. The case was settled for something closer to a quarter-million dollars. McKay still seems thrilled about meeting Hank Aaron and Gene Autry while working on the case, and taking the second deposition of his career from actor Danny Kaye, a Mariners owner at the time.
He also prosecuted profit-makers in a high-profile teen prostitution case that made headlines. Kathleen McKay came to watch her first-born in action. “We brought our sainted Irish mother into the courtroom,” John McKay says, “just as the defense attorney was cross-examining Mike’s witness, who was actually one of the prostitutes, asking her to describe certain sex acts. Mike took one look at us and was just stricken.”
In 1981, McKay opened a small private firm with fellow government lawyer José Gaitán. Specializing in “whatever came in the door,” over eight years, they grew from two to 21 lawyers, adding an additional partner, Mark Sidran, who went on to become Seattle city attorney in the 1990s. They cut their teeth on the notorious Washington Public Power Supply System litigation, the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history, and asbestos product-liability cases.
After serving as state co-chair for George H.W. Bush’s successful run for the presidency in 1988, McKay was appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington. The office, under his leadership, focused on drugs, environmental crime and bank fraud.
His office handled a Sudafed-tampering murder case, cross burning and flag burning, and defense contractor fraud involving Boeing. But environmental crime was McKay’s personal crusade. “I wanted to raise the visibility of prosecution of those people who intentionally hurt our environment to improve their bottom line,” McKay says.
They pressed an investigation against a Weyerhaeuser lumber mill that had been contaminating a waterway near Grays Harbor for years. There was plenty of reason to believe that the manager of the company knew about the contamination and decided to ignore it, says Robert Chadwell, McKay’s law partner, who was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle at the time. Unfortunately, the Justice Department was not blessing the investigation.
“We couldn’t understand why we were having difficulty making our point, because it was so clear and so blatant what had gone on,” Chadwell remembers. McKay flew to D.C. to explain, but he saw a Weyerhaeuser principal preparing to meet with the same people. “Even though this person was a close friend of the president, Mike went in and said, ‘This is not going to happen. You are not going to have a meeting on a case in my district and leave me out of it.’ That took a lot of fortitude and courage.” Ultimately, the company was prosecuted and found responsible.
In 2006, McKay’s estimation of the Justice Department was tested again, when brother John McKay, who had been appointed U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush, was fired. John McKay was one of seven federal attorneys whose controversial dismissals appeared to be political. There was speculation that John McKay was fired for refusing to convene a federal grand jury to investigate allegations of voter fraud in Democratic Gov. Gregoire’s razor-thin 2004 victory over Republican challenger Dino Rossi.
“Mike was my closest adviser,” John McKay says of the very public and difficult firing. “I think all of my important decisions I discussed with him first and got his advice. I don’t always take his advice, but I was really grateful for his help. He has the rare quality of getting calmer when everyone else is upset or excited.”
Mike McKay has claimed no credit for walking his brother through this minefield, and he held his tongue in public while it happened. “John didn’t need me. I thought he did a fine job defending himself,” Mike McKay says. Once Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation, the older brother did go on the record to say that departure was a long time coming.
Mike McKay left the U.S. Attorney’s Office with President Bill Clinton’s election, and after two years in the commercial litigation department of Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, started his own firm with Chadwell in 1995. “He likes being one of the guys in charge, rather than one of the many,” says Chadwell, who is also the oldest in his family.
He describes his partner as a hardworking straight-shooter and a rock of stability.
“When someone needs help, they turn to Mike,” Chadwell says. “And to my knowledge, as long as I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him turn anyone down.”
Together they use their substantial knowledge of government to represent corporations and corporate officers who get into civil, regulatory and criminal trouble with the government, which means they won’t even whisper about the folks they keep out of court.
But one new client is no secret. In February, the Port of Seattle Commission hired McKay to lead an internal investigation after the state auditor issued a scathing report, citing Port management for wasting taxpayer money and illegally circumventing public bidding requirements.
In January, the feds launched their own criminal investigation. “Instead of waiting for the Department of Justice to act,” McKay says, “they have hired me to see if there’s anything else going on that maybe the state auditor missed or, because of state statute, couldn’t look into.”
McKay’s reputation for probity also landed him at the center of another sensitive city issue. The Seattle Police Department was shaken by scandal in 1999, when as many as eight officers failed to report a homicide detective who stole $10,000 from a dead man. To restore public confidence in the department, Mayor Paul Schell created a six-member independent review panel, which included McKay, to shine the first public light on the department in 15 years. One result of their work was the creation of a citizen review panel. When Mayor Greg Nickels convened a new panel to review the status of police oversight last year, McKay was again on the committee.
He has also served on several federal judicial-selection committees, where his ability to think outside the partisan box has helped Western Washington to seat a nationally recognized bench. These appointments were once notoriously mired in partisan squabbling. Since 1997, bipartisan committees have vetted candidates and whittled the choices down to three strong recommendations.
“There’s not another jurisdiction in the country that has been as successful at getting judges on the bench during this time of political gridlock,” says Jenny Durkan, former executive counsel to Gregoire. She served on or co-chaired several judicial-selection committees with McKay, and says he has been key to the success of this effort.
Through it all, McKay has been a loyal and active Republican, working on more than a dozen campaigns in key spots, including serving as state co-chair for Bush-Cheney 2000 and state vice chair for the Bush-Cheney re-election in 2004.
“Any campaign, you want Michael to be involved in,” says Della Newman, former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, who fought hard alongside McKay for years, going back to Bush Sr.’s 1980 primary against Ronald Reagan. “Or anything outside politics where you want a person who is gentle, fair and very, very loving.” In fact, Newman says, his success in working with Democrats comes from their shared “love ’em to death” strategy.
Back this year as chairman of the state steering committee for McCain, McKay is philosophical about his party’s mixed reception for his candidate. “There are certain factions of our party that aren’t happy with Sen. McCain on certain issues,” he says. “Even the revered President Reagan was chewed on by some of these folks.”
Durkan says McKay knows what it is to be a minority in his party. Not harshly partisan, and sensitive to issues such as legal services for the poor and the environment, he is often called a Dan Evans Republican. But she thinks the moniker doesn’t capture him.
“He’s more sophisticated than that. I don’t mean that as a slight against Dan Evans,” Durkan says. “I think that there has been a trend in politics to think that if you disagree on issues you also have to be disagreeable. And that’s not Mike McKay.”
The question remains: When will he be on a ticket? He’s got the connections, a built-in campaign army in his family, and crossover appeal as a moderate Republican. As a surrogate speaker going all the way back to Spellman, he knows his way around a podium. And he’s interested in running for office.
He intended to fill the King County prosecutor spot when it looked like Maleng would beat Gregoire in the race for state attorney general. He also seriously considered a run for Maleng’s spot after his friend’s untimely death. But a family matter kept McKay out of that race.
“If he has been interested in the past, other priorities have made their way in front of his running for office,” Tricia McKay says. His ties to family and loyalty to clients helped put him in a position in which he could probably win office, but they are precisely the obligations that so far have kept him from running.
As to his own prospects, he hedges: “Never say never; there’s always that possibility. But
tempus is fugiting, as my father used to say.”