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The Mayor's race: not making it easy for us undecideds

Someone who almost ran for mayor ponders the field, and the oddly meek campaigns so far.
Greg Nickels and Jan Drago, lookalike political allies

Greg Nickels and Jan Drago, lookalike political allies Sue Frause

I've been interviewing the four major challengers to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. The exercise has done little to dislodge me from the gaggle of undecided voters. And it has led to the sobering conclusion Nickels is loping to re-election owing to the narrow focus of the campaigns of the challengers, none of whom has broken from the pack.

Michael McGinn, Joe Mallahan, James Donaldson, and Jan Drago all appear to be trying to slip through the primary on a single strength instead of working their butts off to demonstrate the multiple qualities needed to win against Nickels in the general election. I wonder how much momentum the un-Nickels will really have the day after the August 18 primary.

The most remarkable thing about the race so far is its complete absence of energy. The prevailing sound from the campaign trail is... crickets. I suspect this only helps Nickels get reelected. Absent other issues, Nickels has been relentlessly appearing to get things done on the surface. I've never seen so many freshly painted lines on streets as those that have appeared this summer. City crews were recently observed feverishly installing bright, white new crosswalk markings in Mt. Baker. On a Sunday.

Each of the four major challengers has a singular, quite different, strength. The problem is that in order to win against Nickels each will need to broaden campaign competencies in several ways. A successful challenger needs four things: First is to hold positions that attract classic Seattle voters, those regular voters who predominate in primaries. Second is to demonstrate that they can run something as big as the city by running their own campaign (or having run something) really, really well. Third is to show the public that they have the interpersonal skills, natural demeanor, and temperament that gathers people round them. Finally, they need to make a convincing case that they could get the sausage made in the City Hall governance factory rife with City Council members, fleets of staffers, and layers of Nickels' famous "Strategic Advisors."

The number of days that a challenger has to execute such a compelling campaign are dwindling. Now that the mail-in voting is taking place, media are paying more attention, so there is opportunity to grab the public by bullhorn every single day. Candidates need to get louder. And busier. On the whole, however, the campaigns are mild and shy. By playing it meek now, all four of them reveal weakness for the bruising kneecapping-with-a-smile fest that will be needed to beat Nickels in the general election. It is time to see which candidate can truly get their Chicago on — in some smart Seattle way — to assess who has what it will take after August 18th.

Michael McGinn is a true believer — about loathing the deep-bore tunnel. It is the deep-core of his platform; he'll do everything to stop it. Polling in the context of the tunnel puts him in a strong position, but most voters don't actually cast votes in the context of just one issue. They strike a balance among things they care about and then go with their gut instinct. McGinn's politics are Seattle-voter-friendly and he is arguably the greenest guy in the race. His challenge is how to transcend his rumpled, grizzled, slightly hot-headed aura and convince us he has skills enough (managerial talent, ability to listen to opposing views and actually work the levers of City Hall) to actually run a 10,000-person organization. It's a crapshoot as to whether he would be effective or quickly alienate those he disagrees with. To the question, "How should we reorganize Seattle's Department of Transportation?" his response was "Great question. Let me win first and then we will do something about that."

McGinn is working the grass roots hard, as he must since he doesn't have much money. He has volunteers running nightly phone banks and conducting "push polls" to get feedback and sell his point about the tunnel, which he thinks is too risky financially and too car-friendly. Working politics at street-level will carry him for awhile. At some point either a major advertising wave will be needed to scale up or, lacking resources for that, some robust onslaught of earned media attention. His problems: not much money, a late start, relatively low name familiarity, and a message and style that don't appeal to the matrons of Ballard who view him as too brash, or to the multicultural corners of Seattle where he may be perceived as an environmental purist at a time of economic panic.

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Posted Thu, Jul 23, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's some of McGinn's recent earned media attention for your enjoyment:

Posted Thu, Jul 23, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I talk about the importance of "Trust + Accountability" as the ingredients for great leadership and collaboration. The ability to relate with people at the functional level in an organization while also being at ease with directors at the top of the hierarchy.

And when I lecture on this topic, Mike McGinn is the prototypical person who displays these traits. I have seen him able to demonstrate to diverse participants how everyone comes out a winner -- even on thorny political terrain.

Mike has a gregariousness demeanor and a warm smile--he's just plain likable.


Posted Thu, Jul 23, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

What ever happened to Mr. McGinn's proposal that the city should take over the school district? Isn't leadership (Obama style) about having good ideas and moving them to fruition?

Posted Thu, Jul 23, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

I see in McGinn the rare combination of a manager who is confident enough to lay out the strategy and let his people do their jobs, while at the same time using every nimble organizational tool available. You should see the internal planning tools and communication tools. Very slick and effective.

Many people talk about managing change, but few actually achieve it. McGinn understands that to be truly scalable, you have to empower your people and create a culture of accountability, performance and energy that is founded on trust. I haven't ever disappointed him yet, or messed up, but it is inevitable that there's mis-steps along the way. I am confident that there'll be no "blamestorming" sessions, just a clear directive from him to figure out what went wrong and get training or structure in place to prevent it from happening again.

He had me as his champion the moment he said to me: "When you empower people to succeed, you also empower them to fail."

McGinn isn't some hair-on-fire radical, he's an attorney who is calm and intentional. His authenticity shines through, along with a rock solid set of values. He listens and everyone feels completely comfortable piping up - no recriminations - just nimble and fast-moving progress.

We shouldn't ever confuse collaboration with consensus, though. But, true collaboration is hard to come-by. Even when I lose an argument with this guy, I still feel heard and somehow he never leaves me hard feelings. No buyers remorse, if you will. How refreshing is that in the political world?


Posted Thu, Jul 23, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

What is it about election time that causes people to reset their memories to zero and adopt this odd comparative analysis template to reinvent the candidates? For years we've watched our present leadership do pretty much the same things over and over and over. We know exactly who is in the tank for special interests and just what can be expected from them. Our current leadership on the Council and at City Hall is best described as exceptionally weak elected officials serving exceptionally powerful special interests. The losers are the majority of their constituents who must struggle through these hard times while spending deficits are created because of administrative favors, tax breaks and special access and attention given to some of the wealthiest people in the world. It may all be legal, but it's not leadership and it's not right.

This is a threshold moment. You don't need a scorecard. We've been told since grade school that if you don't like the way the system works just "vote the bums out."

This is your chance.


Posted Thu, Jul 23, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

I have to say that at this point, I'm voting for Nickels again.

I'm not unhappy with how he's run the city for the last 8 years.
City core, vibrant, light rail etc. I don't really care that much about the green city thing but a lot of people do and McGinn is no Nickels when it comes to meaningful action on the environment. He does come across as a hair on fire activist.
Oh, I also am very glad about the tunnel!

Between this article and the one in the Seattle Weekly-
Drago was never meant to go beyond the city council and the other collection of candidates would be wise to start by running for that or another office before trying for Mayor of Seattle which they don't seem to be ready to mount a credible campaign for or actually do the job.

Posted Thu, Jul 23, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

I have a hard time thinking or reading about these challengers without busting a rib laughing. Come on, Jan! Really? You think you can be Mayor of Seattle? As they would say in the South, "Bless your heart!" But on a serious note, why is she doing this? She is doing no one any good, especially to herself, by doing this. She's been on the Council since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and she would have retired from the Council with a decent history. Whatever, it is a free country, and she's welcome to waste her time as she pleases.

Mallahan and McGinn just totally puzzle me. Mallahan goes around touting his involvement with the Obama campaign, but really, who WASN'T involved with the Obama campaign if they were even just a little bit interested in politics? If he was such an anchor for the Obama campaign, why doesn't he have pictures or videos of himself burning the midnight oil with the President strategizing and campaigning? That's because he was about as involved as all of us other volunteers were- stuffed envelopes, knocked on a few doors, made phones calls, nothing that is too extraordinary for anyone with an inkling of political interest. Although I hear that he did schlep around some bootleg Obama t-shirts that were totally unauthorized by the Obama campaign and sold them to make a profit. Non-union, of course, because T-Mobile wont let him within 30 feet of a union print shop, company policy.


Posted Thu, Jul 23, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate


Mallahan apparently did print 3,000 Obama shirts.


Did he really sell them for a profit? And non-union? Got a source?


Posted Fri, Jul 24, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Matt should have attended the debate last night before he wrote this article. I was among the undecided crowd so I went to the debate. "Likable" personality aside, James Donaldson was the hands down winner!

Nickels and Drago are part of the same "team" of old school Democrats that have run this city for too long. Their campaign rhetoric is nauseating! Blah, Blah, Blah. Not even the Democratic Party is endorsing them!

Forget that McGinn is rumpled. I don't care how someone looks as long as he's got the ideas and the ability. Unfortunately has has neither. No
tunnel and no elevated viaduct. His option will STRANGLE Seattle streets.
The reality is that there are 100,000 drivers daily and not all of them can take mass transit and Seattle running Seatte schools? LOL! They can't even run a utilities dept., a transportation dept., etc!

Mallahan? Who? He has to try and buy is way into the office because he knows his ideas are lacking any substance whatsoever. His answers were vague at best. He's not even a community activist. Where does that leave our communities?

Donalson focused on his commitment to small business, properly funding schools, listening to surrounding communities, cutting out waste and as an added bonus, getting the Sonics back! He draws a private sector paycheck, so he "gets it"! He gets what's needed for all of Seattle, not just special interests and Paul Allen!

Wow, I guess I really am a convert. Maybe I should see if he needs more voluteers!

Posted Mon, Jul 27, 5:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm disheartened that Nickels doesn't have stronger competition than Jan Drago; I like a lot of the ideas from McGinn and even some of the others, but without any TV media presence to speak of, these other candidates are dooming themselves to failure in the top-two primary. McGinn's campaign in particular has been very disappointing and amateurish. In the general, it'll be a race between Drago and Nickels in the end--ho hum. Much as I'm down on Nickels, I don't see Drago as much of an alternative.

I may end up writing in or skipping that race as a protest vote against Nickels, who will win handily.


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