Here we are two years away from the next Seattle city election, and already it appears that Mayor Greg Nickels is raising money and building up his inevitability. Neighbors for Nickels reports a relatively modest $72,493 in its account (as of a Nov. 17 filing with the city). The Mayor Greg Nickels Web site doesn't play coy, touting, "Re-elect Greg Nickels Seattle Mayor 2009."
An Oct. 25 event tapped some of the major leaders in local arts organizations, such as the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, One Reel, and the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), raising $4,500. An upcoming Jan. 28 "community event and fundraiser to support Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels" has some strong environmental and political names on the hosting committee: Denis Hayes, the noted environmentalist who is key to Nickels' global climate change initiatives; Frank Greer, who ran Gov. Chris Gregoire's 2004 campaign; developer Gregory Smith; Jabe Blumenthal, a technology leader; sustainability guru K.C. Golden; green donor Maryanne Tagney-Jones; Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound; Doug Walker of the Parks Foundation; and others.
The peculiar new timetable for American politics is that you start raising money for the next election just a few weeks after getting elected. The real campaign takes place right about now in a four year cycle – 18 to 24 months before the actual election. Raise enough money now and line up enough early big names, and by the time a serious opponent gets organized, it's too late.
It's not for sure that Nickels will seek re-election, since a new Democratic president might have a tempting job for the mayor, whose national profile is quite positive. But that's no reason not to start now to squeeze out any strong challengers, just in case. Nickels has honed his message for the coming years, citing three priorities of congestion, schools, and affordable housing. (He's done well only on schools, helping off-stage to engineer the vastly improved School Board.) His trusty fundraiser, Colby Underwood, is already helping raise money. One possible opponent, retiring City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, has only $16,253 in his Friends of Peter Steinbrueck account, by the way.
The most vivid illustration of this crush-'em-early approach is the King County Council, where Nickels once served. The early war chest is so common that now virtually every council member runs unopposed. On the City Council in the past year, only Tom Rasmussen was able to score the complete victory of no opponent at all.
It's bad news for competitive elections, of course. It takes a long time for a serious opponent to a powerful incumbent to screw up the courage and find the media attention to mount a serious challenge. Most will be reluctant and procrastinate, forcing supporters to lay the groundwork. That timing is fatal if the incumbent has already mobilized a juggernaut (denying that he or she has decided on running yet). Meanwhile, people who contribute early are caught in a bind when a more attractive candidate appears later in the rigged game.
As a journalist, I don't contribute to races anymore. But as a citizen, I'd deploy the following rule, when the phone starts ringing: Don't take this personally, but on principle I never contribute to incumbents' campaigns until the last (six, nine, 12) months. Happy to talk then. Bye!
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