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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