Jan Drago firms up her challenge to Mayor Nickels

Saying her decision to challenge Mayor Greg Nickels is “very well made,” City Council member Jan Drago is now all-but-declared. She has formed an exploratory committee, part of the elaborate choreography of the pre-announcement meant to draw out media attention and to keep a door slightly ajar for a last-minute eject. The Nickels team expects her to run, according to inside sources.

Some key members of the Drago campaign team are close to firming up their deals. Blair Butterworth, who ran campaigns that elected Mayor Paul Schell and Gov. Gary Locke, is the likely strategic adviser and head of the steering committee. Linda Mitchell, chair of the Northwest Women’s Caucus, is slated to head up fundraising, according to Drago. Kathy Nyland, a public relations consultant and Georgetown neighborhood activist, may also work on the campaign.

All systems point to go, but the almost-declared Drago will also be using the next week or so to see if she can line up enough last-minute support — a kind of challenge to those who have been talking about the need to replace Nickels. These next weeks will be critical. Drago will hope to get some business and other supporters to “double-down,” meaning give her money even while they also honor earlier pledges to fund Nickels. Team Nickels will have to decide whether to apply tough pressure to these “hedge-fund donors,” threatening serious punishment (as I expect they will), or to be more statesmanlike.

The labor issue is tricky, at the moment, with Nickels standing firmly behind the municipal employees in refusing to lop off heads in the aftermath of the snow-removal mess ups. That’s a bad signal to the public, which is unhappy that private sector employees are being laid off while public-sector unions collect their political chits. But Nickels’ bureaucracy-loyal stance sends a reassuring signal to labor. And it was the unions who came through for Nickels in his close race in 2001 against Mark Sidran, whom unions distrusted for the way he treated his employees at the City Attorney’s office. Meanwhile, Drago is hardly a foe to unions or even to much of the status quo at City Hall, where she has been an effective inside player for her 16 years on the council.

One obvious strategy for the Mayor is to thank Drago for all her many votes supporting his positions, taking away her reasons for running. Drago does have some differences, however. She alone opposed the grocery bag tax which now, awkwardly, will be on the August 18 primary ballot. (Old folks, who vote heavily in primaries, are said to loathe the bag tax.) She opposed the Mayor’s industrial zoning plan, which locked up a lot of real estate in SoDo and other areas, hoping to save these areas for industrial use and to fend off the new economy and offices. That’s a big issue for business interests, but another one that will rally blue-collar unions to Nickels. She pushed for hiring 150 new cops while the Mayor hesitated, and she opposed breaking up the gang unit, which the Mayor has now re-instated.

Drago’s main appeal will be to women voters, as well as to those who want a Mayor who gets along better with other elected officials, thus promising more progress and funding for the city. She will also woo the neighborhoods, inviting them back to the decision table after eight years in the wilderness. Two things to watch: is there a role in the campaign and administration for Jim Diers, whom Nickels fired from head of the Department of Neighborhoods? And will Peter Steinbrueck, also revered in the neighborhoods, get on board the Drago Express?

Nickels shows signs of having it too easy these past years, politically. He used to be a master at getting credit for his programs, but now he’s just been getting grief. His expensive hire of Robert Mak as media strategist has done nothing to improve his popularity. Nickels can get stubborn, particularly when he’s in a fight (as he now is with The Seattle Times over his streets department and his solve-it-with-consultants strategy). That stubbornness displays a less attractive, Boss Greg side. Instead, he needs to reset the civic discussion, talking about the recession, jobs, schools, and basic services — showing his obvious command of the job while suggesting that Drago might be a risky CEO for these risky times.

Observers joke that any Nickels-Drago debate will set a record for the number of scowls. If Nickels gets peevish and defensive, Drago can get dismissive and disoriented when goaded. Still, Drago probably has the upper hand in likability, a critical dimension that Nickels has tended to ignore. If he now starts attacking Drago harshly, he’ll upset primary voters, who generally are high-minded, older voters who hate negative politics. But if he lets Drago do well, and even win the low-turnout, August-doldrums primary, his carefully assembled political coalition (unions, greens, developers) could start calculating that Drago might win and they better open peace talks and wallets.

The Drago-Nickels showdown won’t really be over issues (we’re all pro-government Democrats in this town, aren’t we?). But it will be a real contest. Drago may have doomed her chances by taking so long in deciding to jump in. But Nickels may have harmed himself more by taking so long, and getting so isolated, before realizing he’s in political trouble.

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