Earlier this summer, Seattleites worried whether or not there were any qualified candidates to take on a vulnerable Greg Nickels. Tim Burgess, Peter Steinbrueck, Richard Conlin, Greg Smith, and others passed on the challenge this time around, leaving the campaign so bereft that sex columnist Dan Savage threatened the city with electoral extortion: If no one else better qualified runs against Nickels, I will.
Staring into that abyss, the dynamic of the race changed when Jan Drago jumped in. She might be Nickels-in-a-skirt from a policy standpoint, but she was credible and willing to make the challenge. Nickels had coasted to his first re-election four years ago by scaring out the talent. This time around, the retiring-from-the-City-Council Drago had nothing to lose by taking on Boss Hoss' machine (and Tim Ceis' glare).
This mayor's race has been a case of the people being way ahead of the politicians: Nickels has been unpopular for a long while, and the citizens are restless. As the field shaped up with Drago, Mike McGinn, and Joe Mallahan, the question wasn't superstar status, but could any of these candidates offer a credible alternative to the status quo? Drago ran a poor campaign and faded, though she may have shaved off some votes that otherwise might have gone to Nickels. Mallahan and McGinn became not the perfect candidates, but the good-enough candidates.
Few expected Nickels to be "Schelled" in the top-two primary, an ignominious fate reserved for the likes of WTO mayor Paul Schell and Mt. St. Helens governor Dixy Lee Ray. But it looks like that's what's happened, if Nickels late numbers don't unexpectedly surge in a new direction. So far, his opponents are solidifying their positions in the top slots.
So the city is shifting from having one experienced, though disliked, mayor, to the possibility of choosing between two better liked, but very much unknown quantities who are the products of the voters' own disenchantment. It's not just new over the old, it's the very much unknown over the known. A case of the devils we don't know being better than the one we do.
The mayorship may be a poisoned chalice, looking a bit more like the King County Executive office which presides over a rapidly collapsing bureaucratic empire. The city is faced with a massive budget hole &mdash: the newest number is $72.5 million. Terrible news for the city, sobering news for the growth-at-any-cost crowd, and a figure that will help frame the debate over the downtown bored-tunnel project. Can we really afford the damn thing after all? Is it an over-priced boondoggle that resulted from too many compromises and too much stakeholder appeasing? Could it be the tunnel version of the Green Line monorail, a fancy flub dub with a very high price-tag? McGinn based his campaign on being the tunnel monkey-wrencher, bringing together an odd coalition of urban greens and fiscal conservatives. There's something almost Charlie Chongish about that coalition.
McGinn is a big thinker himself, a guy who talks about making Seattle a "great city," which I hear as "watch out for this guy." Greatness is not what we need; how about the basics, please? Yet he's more in tune with the immediate times, an adjustment of the Nickels era sense that Seattle's pockets are bottomless, that every almost project can get the nod (trollies, rail, roads, Mercer, tunnel...). One thing old-school environmentalists and sustainability advocates used to be about was conservation of resources and doing more with less. The Great Recession may force us to scale back our appetites, especially since there's so much expensive stuff in the pipelines already (the next phase of Sound Transit, the 520 Bridge replacement).
I read the bag tax defeat as an indication that the people want to slow down the flow of cash from their pockets these days. It's easy to blame the big bad chemical industry, but the bag tax from the very beginning was opposed by a majority who felt it was all stick and no carrot, both trivial and painful, like a bee sting. Proponents will argue that eventually, from a policy standpoint, fees like the bag tax make sense because they make transparent and charge the user the true cost of dealing with the bags in the waste stream. Interesting policy theory, but an irritating, even alienating, way to make a point.
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